One day in 1992, Ken Stewart was brainstorming ideas for what he hoped would become the next great Coca-Cola commercial when four-legged inspiration came barreling into his Los Angeles office. His trusty Labrador Retriever, Morgan, gave him the creative spark he’d been looking for.

“The brain quickly started to kick in,” Stewart recalled. “I always thought Morgan looked like a polar bear... I used to call him the polar bear puppy or the baby polar bear. And so I thought, “Wow, polar bear. Coke… cold, refreshing. Great! I have to tie polar bears into this somehow.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The “Always Coca-Cola” ad known as “Northern Lights” debuted in February 1993 during the Academy Awards telecast and was an instant hit with fans around the world, who gravitated to the spot’s simple, authentic storyline and ahead-of-its-time computer animation that brought the beloved bears to life.

We visited Stewart at his Beverly Hills home to learn more about how the Coca-Cola polar bears came to be, and why “Northern Lights” is widely considered to be one of the top Coke ads of all time.

Here’s an edited version of our conversation, with additional commentary from Coca-Cola Archivist Ted Ryan.

Ken Stewart: Peter Sealey had been the head of marketing and distribution for Columbia Pictures, where I was senior vice president and director of creative advertising. He left Columbia when Coca-Cola sold it, returning to Coke to work in marketing. He wanted to try something different and asked if I’d be interested in coming up with some ideas. And I thought, “Wow, what an incredible opportunity.”

I asked Peter for a reel of Coca-Cola TV ads from the prior 15 or 20 years. I went through them, looking for what my mission might wind up being. The one that always stood out for me, like for a lot of people, was the ‘Mean Joe Greene’ commercial. It had such heart and warmth, and such a simple but powerful storyline. I wanted to get that emotion back into Coke advertising, which had like many things in the ‘80s, become very MTV-esque with a lot of quick cuts. I thought Coke needed to get back to the emotional side. 

Stewart would affectionately call his yellow lab, Morgan, a 'polar bear puppy'.

So I tried to figure out how to do that in a new way. And believe me, I didn't come up with it overnight! After hours of watching commercials and scribbling down stuff, Morgan finally provided the inspiration I needed. I have to give him credit. I looked at him and said to myself, “If I could just get the feeling I have for that dog into this commercial, that would be a new ‘Mean Joe Greene’.” 

In the first ad, polar bears look up at the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) and enjoy ice-cold Coca-Cola.

Then I thought, what would the bears do in the ad? When I drink a Coca-Cola, I'm usually watching a movie in a theater. So what would polar bears do that would be like that experience? I thought, “Oh yeah, they’d hang out in a group in the Arctic watching the Northern Lights and having a Coke.” And that's pretty much it.

I had gotten into my head that this needed to be something really revolutionary. And it came down to animation... but not cartoon animation. That's why I went with the digital animation company Rhythm & Hues, who had great history doing so. They said something magical to me. They said, "We can do fur." And I went, "You can do fur? That's great. You can make it look like the wind is blowing through their fur… and not cartoonish, but real fur?" And they said, "Yeah, we can do that."

polar bear sketch 604 b

Using storyboards created by illustrator Eugene Yelchin, Stewart and Creative Artists Agency (CAA), Rhythm & Hues created pencil sketches of the bears. A sculptor then created a 3D clay model of the bear's head, which was digitized and stored in advanced computer graphics software.

They hired a sculptor, and we did a clay model of a polar bear head based on Morgan. I brought him and this photo (holding it up) to the studio. They did laser pinpoint ingestion of those points so that they could animate it.

polar bear sketch 604

Creator Ken Stewart enlisted the help of Rhythm & Hues to animate the ads using what was considered at the time to be state-of-the-art computer graphics.

I didn't want to give the bears too much definition, which is why there is no dialogue in the spot. That would have put a voice in people's heads. It wouldn't be their own imagination at work… it would be somebody providing it for them. This was a journey into a mystical world. For me, Coke was a feeling more than a product. Coca-Cola had a certain mythology attached to it. I wanted to continue a narrative that supported that mythical, magical sense of what Coke is.

A Rhythm & Hues animator plotted points on the body of the bear model until a schematic appeared on screen. Once the image was refined and loaded to memory, the bear could move. 

It took four months of 16 people working pretty much full time to create one 30-second spot. It was a lot like a moonshot in the beginning. Everybody believed we could get to the moon. But there were a lot of crashes on the launch pad before we got there. 

Ryan: Take yourself back to 1993…the Internet is not even fully functioning yet. You don't have all the tools you do today where anybody can make a movie on their home computer. Rhythm & Hues were doing groundbreaking work to bring these bears to life.

Stewart: I thought, and still do think, that less is more. The spot wasn’t cluttered. Viewers didn’t feel like they were being manipulated. They felt like they had a genuine, human experience they associated with Coke. If I were to do it again, I would do it exactly the same way.

Coca-Cola Polar Bears

The animated polar bears debuted in 1993 as part of the 'Always Coca-Cola' campaign.

I elected not to have human voices, just sound effects. In '93, that's not something you were used to with commercials. Ads were wall-to-wall sound, with hero shots in the beginning, middle and end. This was not that. This was trying to break through the clutter. And we did so, interestingly enough, with a minimal amount of sound. 

You first hear the bear grunt and the crunch of snow, but you don't know what those sounds are. The sound has to walk into the frame to be identified. And then when it's identified, it's a polar bear. So you’re grounded in natural sounds off-camera, then led right into this mystical world.

'I thought, and still do think, that less is more,' Stewart said of his approach to the polar bears. 'If I were to do it again, I would do it exactly the same way.'

I am the voice of the original bears. That came about by accident. We’d looked for bear growls and grunts, but none of them matched the inflections of the bears in the spot. So I recorded a temp track as a way of saying, “This is what we need.” The sounds are me thinking like a polar bear and making sounds... emotional, guttural grunts that tried to convey the emotion attached to the movement. In the end, everybody seemed to say, "That works, so let's just leave it."

Ryan: The response to the initial polar bear ad was instant and enthusiastic. At the press briefing in New York, the media actually applauded. So Coke knew it had a hit on their hands. And the public perception was exactly the same.

Stewart: Peter Sealey called me, it must've been 6:30 in the morning my time in L.A. He was thoroughly excited and said, "Ken, do you get the New York Times?  And I said, "Yeah, I do." And he said, "Well, go out and get today’s paper and turn to the business section." There on the front page of the section was a shot of the polar bears. He was giggling and laughing. He was so happy for me.

Stewart: Coke came back and said, "We want three more commercials by December '93.” I got to expand the world of polar bears, which was great. We actually married for the first time a live Santa into the animation. And we did one with twin cubs pushing a Christmas tree up a hill.

Ryan: They had to go back and remake magic. And how do you remake magic when you struck gold the first time? But they did. Ken Stewart and Rhythm & Hues made a series of ads, including one for the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics where the bear goes down the luge. 

polar bear slideshow: polar bear and seal

A Coca-Cola polar bear cub shares a ball with a seal cub in this 1996 campaign.

Stewart: Now remember, it took us four months and 16 people to get one 30-second spot, so yikes. But we did it. We did three more that year... I eventually added a seal as a character because polar bears and seals are natural enemies. Polar bears hunt seals. So I thought, “Here's maybe another emotional point that can be achieved where two normally occurring enemies become friends over a Coke.”

Ryan: In each one of these ads, the bear family enlarges, but it's still that same essence of fun, togetherness, enjoyment and frivolity. The bear universe is happy and one you want to belong in.

Fast Facts About the Coca-Cola Polar Bears

The polar bear is an icon just like ‘Mean Joe Greene’ and ‘Hilltop’, because those are ads that communicate to everyone. They tell a simple story and they tell it well. You understand the bear walking across the snow to be with his friends and watch the Northern Lights. With ‘Mean Joe Greene’, you understand the humanity of throwing the jersey to a kid and creating a hero. And with ‘Hilltop’, you understand the unity and the message of love. In this case, the animation and the bears bring a simple storyline of togetherness. You can watch it today and still understand the ethos.

Stewart: The thing I'm most proud of is its emotional authenticity. When you can hit that mark and you do it on an emotional level, it lasts forever.