Classic Coke

The main building of Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters is distinguished from any other corporate of fices only by the Coke-red paint on the walls and Coke soda fountains on each floor. An elevator de scends to the sub-basement, opening onto an equally nondescript, fluorescent-lit space that could well be the corporate library of an insurance company.

But with the press of a button, Phil Mooney, Coke’s chief archivist, parts 10-foot-high steel columns to expose shelves bursting with all manner of colorful bric-a-brac associated with earth’s most famous brand. The archives are home to more than 100,000 collectibles—enough to drive a casual visitor to distraction. Mooney estimates that the collection’s cumulative worth is in the tens of millions of dollars.

Touring the archive brings to mind the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which the villainous archaeologist taunts Indiana Jones: “Inside the ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. We are simply passing through history. This is history.”

Pity the wide-eyed memorabilia collector who might enter the 8,000-square-foot site knowing that original oil and watercolor ads by such artists as Norman Rockwell, Frederick Mizen, N.C. Wyeth and Haddon Sundblom, among others, will never be attainable.

But few ever actually gain access to the vast vaults. Mooney says that perhaps 50 people besides himself have ever seen the collection firsthand. Ad week is only the second media outlet (after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) to gain access.

He strolls down the “commemorative bottles” aisle, past a card board store display that carries the beverage’s first tagline, “Delicious and refreshing.” By 1908, Coke was proclaiming itself “Good to the last drop” several years before the line became identified with Maxwell House coffee.

Back in 1886, when Coke was born, it wasn’t even sold in bottles, Mooney explains. The syrup was dispensed as a “tonic” into individual glasses from a ceramic urn at drugstore counters; separately, five ounces of seltzer water were added. The archive contains at least two of everything, including these urns and about 15 iterations of Coca-Cola bottles made before the now-classic green-tinted one was patented in 1915.

If you want to know how Coke was advertised in Morocco in 1949 or what its promotional alliance with the Walt Disney Co. consisted of in 1987, take a stroll through the “ad catalogs” section. The information contained here is what usually brings Mooney the most satisfaction from his job.

“People will periodically make claims that they invented an advertising concept [for Coke],” Mooney says. In the 1990s, for example, there was a claim that Coke stole the idea of featuring polar bears in its advertising. “We can document that we have actually used polar bears in advertising as early as the 1920s, which pretty much blows that case right out of the water,” Mooney says. “We can get rid of a lot of false claims.”

Mooney has worked at the Atlan ta headquarters for 24 years. With five staffers, he has compiled, documented and categorized every conceivable piece of Coke-related in formation imaginable.

When people learn what he does for a living, they all have the same reaction. “They say, ‘What a fun job that would be.’ And it is a fun job,” Mooney says. “But the part that people don’t realize is that there’s a discipline to it. There’s a lot of work in volved in doing quality re search.”

One of Mooney’s responsibilities is to help new brand managers be come acquainted with Coke’s history, its core brand and later ones such as Sprite, Fanta, Fresca and Minute Maid, using documents and artifacts from the archives. To make a good part of Coke’s advertising legacy available to its employees worldwide, Mooney also de veloped an intra net site, which contains no fewer than 10,000 images.

Mooney, 56, has a dream that one day he will be standing in a lecture hall at some esteemed university before hundreds of students, rousing their passions with the long and illustrious history of Coca-Cola. He once suggested the scenario to a professor friend.

“What I said was that I could teach a course on American social history simply by using advertising that had been produced at Coca-Cola,” Mooney says. “If, for instance, you wanted to see what flappers looked like in the 1920s, all you have to do is look at advertising for Coca-Cola. If you wanted to understand the importance of baseball in the American fabric, we were doing advertisements featuring Major League Baseball players in the early 1900s and in the teens—Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson.

“People like that. Advertising [is] very reflective of what people [are] interested in at a given point in time.”

As pop music became an integral part of the culture in the 1960s, Coke had famous artists of the day sing ing, “Things go better with Coke,” a tag that ran until 1969. Says Mooney: “You got Roy Orbison, the Supremes, Aretha Frank lin, Jan and Dean, Jay and the Americans all doing the ‘Things go better with Coke’ jingle, all in their own style, which is really fabulous, fabulous stuff.”

In times of war, Coke tried to provide comfort and support, both at home and abroad, in its advertising images. During World War II, Coke advertising showed women in the work force taking the roles of men who were in the service. Other ads pictured GIs in foreign settings, making new friends and bonding with them over the soft drink.

Coca-Cola also sent 64 portable bottling plants abroad, distributing 5 million bottles of Coke to American troops through the course of the war as they went through Europe, the South Pacific and North Africa.

Later, when the U.S. was em broiled in the Vietnam conflict, Coke ads became more reflective, Mooney says, citing the famous “Hilltop” commercial, which broke in 1971.

“The Vietnam War was very much a focal point [of the nation],” Mooney says, adding that the jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” was probably a comfort to a society in turmoil. “That was a message that people needed to hear at that particular point in time. A very simple message that said, ‘Hey, we can all get along and we can all share things. Among the things we can share is a simple beverage like a Coke.

“Whether you’re talking about music or fashion or social mores,” Mooney says, “you see that all re flected in the advertising, whether it’s magazine, radio or television.”