It’s the Reel Thing! Coca-Cola’s love affair with the movie industry

It may just be a fizzy beverage, but the cultural giant that is Coca-Cola has stamped itself on the film world almost for as long as the movie industry has existed. Melissa Cogavin explores the impact the drinks giant has had — and continues to have — throughout our movie theatres.


Danny Boyle’s new film ‘Yesterday’ imagines a world without the Beatles. Impossible… it is almost as impossible to imagine a world without Coca-Cola. In 2019, our pop culture is defined as much by movies as music and Coca-Cola is synonymous with the movies. Unpicking the reasons and circumstances for this means going back almost a century. From its origins as an “invigorating medicinal antidote to ill humour” in an Atlanta pharmacy in 1886 to a gigantic monolith of a company supplying 200 countries, a sterile blurb on its website detailing the shift into cinemas makes it sound as if it was part of a well-planned global initiative. The reality is one of happy accidents, good timing and successful partnerships — and of a company with an uncanny ability to identify zeitgeists and position itself as a champion of social progression, often very courageously.

Oliver Delaney, European channel director for cinema at Coca-Cola in London explained that the alignment with the movie industry was “part of a marketing strategy that we wanted our brand to be associated with cinema-going. Brand teams in the 1920s saw cinema as something people loved, and they wanted the brand associated with it. It wasn’t about selling drinks in cinemas, it was about Coke in films and around movies, being associated with that.”

Outgunning Koca Nola

At this point there were several copycat colas on the market; Koca Nola was most notable, but My Coca Co and even Celery Cola did well for a while. Coca-Cola was placing its product in and around movies and movie theatres from the early silent pictures onwards; nobody else attempted that. Ground-breaking initiatives include a Charlie Chaplin 3D silent movie for which guests were provided with Coca-Cola-branded cardboard 3D glasses upon entry.

We have the benefit of the long view to make sense of the rise of the brand’s association with the movies; we can see now that the increasingly loud noise of the Temperance movement was in its third wave by 1893 in the US. The cinema was an antidote to all that awful drinking, rooted in all sorts of dark motivations to suppress minorities (ironic that we are now falling over ourselves to equip cinemas with alcohol licences).  As Prohibition was sworn into law in the US in 1920, the movie industry was entering its well-documented Golden Age. Coca-Cola benefitted massively from a perfect storm. Justine Fletcher, director of heritage communications at the World of Coca-Cola museum in

Atlanta, Georgia, agreed it was a case of fortuitous timing; prohibition of alcohol and a booming film industry helped the synergy between Coke and the movies considerably.

Coca-Cola’s presence in cinemas at that stage was limited to point of sale in the lobbies, Delaney explained, and a clear strategy about product placement came much later. “We didn’t start from that perspective; it started from seeing cinema as a way to work and build our brand and associate ourselves with an amazing evening out,” he added. “Our relationship didn’t start with selling Coke, it was about brand partnership celebrating cinema-going.”

From fans to film-maker

Coca-Cola took its partnership with movies so seriously it actually bought a major studio, Columbia Pictures, in 1982. Incredibly, Diet Coke was just weeks from being released onto the market. There are few companies that would consider branching out into two completely new areas simultaneously, but the decision-maker behind the move was unfazed. Fearless and ambitious, the newly elected chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta (a Cuban refugee who arrived in the US 22 years previously with $40 in his pocket and $100 worth of Coca-Cola shares) stunned his board at the time, saying: “We’re going to take risks. What always has been will not necessarily always be forever.’’ He added, ‘’Nothing energises an organisation like speed.”

Recognising its limitations in an unbelievably unpredictable and high-stakes environment, Coke took a step back at the time when it shrewdly assembled a dream team of CBS, HBO and Columbia Pictures and created Columbia Tri-Star. Their combined expertise over the following seven years produced a remarkable stable of box office hits: “Ghostbusters”, “Stripes”, “The Karate Kid”, “Tootsie” and “Stand By Me”, culminating in a Best Picture Oscar for the seminal, groundbreaking bio-pic “Ghandi” in 1982. Their TV work is less critically acclaimed but it certainly paid the bills: “Diff’rent Strokes”, “Wheel of Fortune”, “The Young & The Restless”, “Days of Our Lives” and “Jeopardy!” were all household names syndicated worldwide.

By 1989 Goizueta concluded that a ‘back to basics’ approach was appropriate and a refocus on what the company knew — the drinks industry — was required. Columbia was sold to Sony, netting a tidy $500m profit for Coca-Cola; with hindsight, the company’s ownership on balance was a massive success considering its maverick approach and total inexperience as a movie-maker.

Putting Coke in the picture

Surely the temptation to plant Coca-Cola logos in the background of the movies it produced was overwhelming at this time? Delaney wasn’t so sure. “We probably consciously didn’t because they knew people wouldn’t appreciate it. It’s all about: what’s the right film? Does the placement fit with our brand? Does it fit with their film? Is it done in a way that is natural and inobtrusive?”

There’s product placement — a can of Coke on a desk in front of Molly Ringwald in “The Breakfast Club” for example — and the dream next level in which the product itself becomes integral to the narrative. Get it right and, from a marketing perspective, it can be an amazing part of the film. Sometimes it even becomes a part of film history and an instantly recogniseable scene. Think of Superman getting smashed into the Coke sign. ET opening a can of Coke. The scene in which Will Ferrell’s Buddy chugs a two-litre Coke bottle in “Elf”. Justine Fletcher smiles. “Coca-Cola is part of Americana. It’s a cultural leader.”

Coca-Cola’s initial foray into the cinema industry in
the 1920s led to an ongoing and remarkable series of campaigns over many decades with the soft drinks giant aligning itself to various social causes. Fletcher told me, “The drink isn’t as important as the message. It’s about bringing people together.” Utimately this was, of course, intended to shift soda, but the campaigns were so sensitively produced and the tone exactly right that, while Coca-Cola has attracted criticism at times, it is vastly disproportionate to the goodwill the brand has attracted.

On the right side of history

During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Coca-Cola was seen on the right side of history time and again, with ads featuring happy black and white people sitting side-by-side on segregation benches nursing a Coke, for example. In the 1970s, as the Vietnam war raged, one iconic campaign stood out. Spoken of in reverent tones in the Coke building as ‘Hilltops’, you will know it better by the lyrics: “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke.” Fletcher explained: “It’s about bringing people together. That is the message of Coke.”

Delaney warms to this. “We’ve taken some bold moves and sometimes that is criticised; you’re not going to please everyone, but being progressive means you need to have a viewpoint on the world.” Doing it right therefore, as with Hilltops, means your brand becomes part of our culture, which must be the ultimate ambition for a marketeer. Understatedly, Delaney added, “Sometimes it can backfire.”

In 2017 a big budget, big name ad produced by rival Pepsi attempted to capitalise on political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic. It centered around a clumsy reference to a globally identifiable recent photograph of an African American woman standing up to police. So dramatically did the resulting ad backfire it caused Pepsi to apologise publicly and remove it altogether. It’s still on YouTube, though, littered with thousands of thumbs down and ironic comments — a stark reminder of how not to do it. In summary, Kendal Jenner in designer jeans leads a protest march. Her route barred by a police blockade, she reaches for a Pepsi from an ice bucket, hands a can to a handsome cop preventing her progress. The officer snaps open the can, takes a slurp. Smiles erupt, Kendal is a hero, the officer lets her pass. All’s right with the world. You can imagine the online reaction. Bernice A. King, daughter of Martin Luther King and an activist herself, summed it up in a post retweeted thousands of times: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.” It’s a thin line between supporting progressive change and virtue signalling. 

Coca-Cola doesn’t always hit the right note either. A recent change in Saudi law giving women the right to drive saw the company criticised for launching a hammy ad in the kingdom that features a father and daughter cooped up in a hot car on a deserted road, the daughter crunching gears, the father gritting his teeth. They bond over a Coke and the tension melts away. It’s a fine line indeed.

Forty years ago bringing people together was enough; these days social media is an incredible leveller and brands must be accountable at all points or risk boycotting, loss of credibility and ultimately revenue. Now you need to have an ethos and shout about carrying this out. Not too loudly though, for fear of being accused of virtue signalling. Delaney was frank. “You still need to be kind of the fun, sexy brand you’ve always been but you’ve also got to be a brand where, if people really dug into every part of your business, they would still feel comfortable buying you.”

Single-use plastics = ecological lunacy

Coca-Cola’s current focus is on sustainability. The company learned lessons in response to customer calls to remove plastic straws last year, which seemingly took the entire drinks industry by surprise. Delaney explained this led to a doubling down internally at Coca-Cola to commit to its pledge for a ‘World Without Waste’, promising by 2030 to reclaim one bottle for every one Coke sells. “That we will essentially reclaim everything is great, but given how many drinks we sell this is a huge task.” He added, “It’s important to maintain trust particularly among young consumers who are motivated by the environment. If you don’t take action on it you’ll be doomed.”

Capturing the past and the future

Though civil rights may be on the back-burner for now; another big initiative from Coca-Cola is back in cinemas now. The Coca-Cola Freestyle machine again captures the zeitgeist sweeping the US — personalisation of food. Harking back to the glory days of the soda fountain, but with a modern twist, the concept offers consumers 165 Coca-Cola products as well as custom flavours. Packaged in a Pininfarina-styled machine with 1950s retro touches, the system is decidedly modern at its core. The press release tells us it “transmits supply and demand data to both Coca-Cola and the owner including brands sold and the times of day of sales.” Customers drinking from Freestyle machines are in control of what they drink, and their tastes are driving the future of the brand. Coke has harnessed this technology in a contemporary take on branding those 3D glasses for Chaplin’s movie, offering branded specialist drinks as a movie promotion, such as specially designed drinks as part of a “Captain Marvel” tie-in. More are due for “Dark Phoenix” and “Star Wars”. 

Tapping into the eSports arena

Coca-Cola also continues to promote event cinema in its support of eSports. Further to a three-year association with League of Legends, Coca-Cola recently signed a deal with Blizzard, whose Overwatch game earned Blizzard $1bn in its first year of release. Delaney is convinced. “The cinema industry is multifaceted, so it’s not just retail. eSports has been an area that is still untapped for cinema.” But with 40m players online last year, isn’t cinema an irrelevance for the players and more widely, the gaming industry?

“What we’ve seen through the events we’ve done is that there is a real group of consumers out there willing to sit in a cinema for five, six, seven hours at a time. They will eat and drink the whole time they’re there. There is a huge opportunity with eSports.” Brandon Snow, chief revenue officer of Blizzard agrees. “The union between Coca-Cola and Overwatch is a perfect pairing between two businesses that share common values.” He also agrees that, in cinema, there is “an even more global and diverse group of fans.”

Coca-Cola is doing a credible job sustaining both the planet and itself in the 21st Century, that is clear. For a company this large, with a 133-year history, the brand remains surprisingly relevant, innovative, scandal-free and is tackling pressing issues important to the young with commitment and passion. With a foot in the future and a keen eye on its own heritage in cinema, it seems to do what it promises on its Twitter feed: “Spreading optimism, one bottle at a time, or maybe two bottles to share”.
So long as they’re recycled.