“Thou'rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink… Coca-Cola?"
That's not quite how Sir Toby Belch ends his well-known line in Twelfth Night, but who's to say William Shakespeare wouldn't have written it that way had he stuck around a few more centuries?
At least that's what Coca-Cola marketing minds might suggest.
For the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, it's worth remembering how Coke tapped into the Bard's universal appeal in its marketing.
One example is currently on display in “America's Shakespeare," a free exhibition running through July 24 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The prize-winning ad features the caption "Thirst, too, seeks quality" beneath a beautiful painting by Hananiah Harari, a semi-abstract artist from Rochester, N.Y.
According to curator Georgianna Ziegler, the painting gives the sense that both Shakespeare and Coke belong to the same high-culture category. There are evening gloves, a rose, Thomas Jefferson's estate in Albemarle County, Va. — all cast underneath the shadow of an elegant woman enjoying a Coca-Cola.
The newspaper clipping behind the Shakespeare book of the 1949 All-American football team highlights another important message Coke is conveying: that it's a democratizing drink with no limitations as to where it can be enjoyed. It's as much at home at the opera as it is a ballpark.
"The ad suggests that Coke is a part of our history, that it's monumental," says Ziegler. "It's American—it's as American as football."
But of course, Shakespeare isn't American as football — which begs the question: Why would such an American company brand itself with help from an Englishman?
"Shakespeare was so much a part of American language and conversation by the early twentieth century," says Ziegler. His plays were being performed all over the country, she says, on both coasts, and in Chicago, and St. Louis. And whereas in the 19th century, schoolchildren only read passages and speeches, they were now reading his plays in their entirety.
It makes sense, then, that Coca-Cola, who was always on the forefront of marketing, would tap into America's growing fascination with the Bard.
In 1928, Coke ran a series of 10 ads in LIFE magazine and various college publications under the heading What Shakespeare says about Coca-Cola. The idea was to take a Shakespeare quote and whimsically reimagine it as having something to do with the beloved beverage. For example, in one ad, Brutus, from Julius Caesar, raises a glass of Coke, calling it "a dish fit for the gods."
In another, Hamlet's Ophelia raises her own glass of Coke, and is quoted from her famous Act III speech: "The glass of fashion and the mould of form… " The ad playfully states that even if the Bard wasn't fully aware of it, he must have had Coca-Cola in mind when writing those lines.
"Each one of the ads would pick up a little piece of a Shakespeare quote, then take them into vintage 1920s, and imagine a bunch of kids sitting around together at Princeton, talking about it," says Ted Ryan, Coca-Cola archivist.
Check out a few images from the 1928 series here.
The ads were created by the D'Arcy Advertising Company, which had been working with Coca-Cola since 1906. D'arcy's head of creative in 1928 was Archie Lee, says Ryan, who, one year later, crafted the famous slogan: "The Pause that Refreshes."
Ryan says the Shakespeare ads were carefully placed, intended to appeal to the "erudite readers of LIFE" and "college-aged philosophers" who read school publications. Indeed, a letter sent out from the advertising department announcing the series claimed the images "have a snap and humor particularly appealing to young people of college age."
There are notable differences, particularly in tone, between the 1949 painting by Harari and the magazine spread from two decades earlier. While the mid-century ad is subtle with its imagery, "the 1920s ads are kind of funny," says Ziegler. "They sort of hit you over the head. But that's kind of the spirit of the era: fast and loose. Those cartoons suggest that."
What the Coke ads from both decades have in common is that they all use Shakespeare as a kind of celebrity endorsement.
As Ziegler says, "Shakespeare gives cachet to whatever you're selling."
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