Food For Thought

Vigor, Brain Power And Other Health Claims From Coke's Advertising Past

Coca-Cola is taking a lot of flak for its new television ad campaign addressing America's obesity epidemic – an epidemic in which sugary sodas are widely fingered as a key culprit.

Launched last week, the ads discuss the beverage giant's efforts to combat obesity, while also insisting that Coke products can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Those claims have been met with widespread skepticism and ridicule from public health advocates and the advertising world alike, with words like "shameless" and "chutzpah" bandied about. As one satirical parody video of one of the new ads put it bluntly: "Don't drink Coke – it's killing you, and your family."

All this debate over the truthiness of Coca-Cola's new anti-obesity message reminded us that, more than a century ago, the company actually branded itself a maker of "medicinal tonic." Let's go back in time for a moment, shall we?

Circa 1907 i i
(1907) Courtesy of Mark Pendergrast
Circa 1907
(1907) Courtesy of Mark Pendergrast

This 1907 magazine ad states that Coke "relieves fatigue without undue stimulation [and] aids digestion. Its use after exercise is especially healthful."

... And during exercise, too, apparently. (Golf, anyone?)

Circa 1906 i i
(1906) Courtesy of Tom Bates
Circa 1906
(1906) Courtesy of Tom Bates

Other ads promised Coca-Cola would have the power to revitalize both the mind and body.

Studying? Shopping? Sight-seeing? Coke offered to "revive and refresh" and relieve your fatigue.

Circa 1905-06
(1905, 1905, 1906) Courtesy of Tom Bates

But perhaps the most disturbing claim, at least to our modern minds, comes from this vintage ad not for Coca-Cola but its forebear, Vin Mariani – a Bordeaux wine containing six milligrams of cocaine per fluid ounce. (That's one way to get a baby to sleep through the night.)

Vin Mariani i i
Courtesy of Mark Pendergrast
Vin Mariani
Courtesy of Mark Pendergrast

In his unauthorized history of the company, For God, Country and Coca-Cola, author Mark Pendergrast recounts that Coca-Cola inventor John Pemberton released his famous drink in 1886 as a nonalcoholic beverage inspired by this coca wine.

In comparison to these old ads, the health claims in Coca-Cola's new anti-obesity ad campaign seem almost harmless. (OK, plenty of food advocates would beg to differ.)

One of the new advertisements focuses on outlining the ways in which Coca-Cola is helping people consume in moderation, including creating "portion control"-sized cans and adding easy-to-find calorie labels.

But Coca-Cola advertising hasn't completely lost its sense of the ridiculous, as evidenced in this second new ad, which presents viewers with fun, easy ways to burn off the 140 "happy" calories in a can of Coke. Among the suggestions? Laugh out loud! Do a victory dance!

I did the math, and by my calculations, you'd have to laugh for about two hours to burn off one can of Coke. So better get chuckling! Excuse me while I go cue up that Scottie pinwheel video.

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