The art behind Coca-Cola’s vintage advertising changed a brand and a nation

petretti's vintage coca-cola collecting guideThis exclusive excerpt is from “Petretti’s Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide” (Krause Publications, 2009). For a special, limited-time offer to purchase this book directly from the publisher visit Shop.Collect.com.





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1938, oil-on-canvas, original painting signed by artist Hayden Hayden (also known as Howard Crosby Renwick). 1939, calendar girl $25,000 On the right, 1939, calendar print. No signature appears on finished calendar.
vintage coke sign art cardboard
Lobby displays like those in theaters today were used in the 1930s by The Coca-Cola Company, not to attract people to the next film, but to encourage them to buy a five-cent glass of Coke.
Photo courtesy Krause Publications

What is Art, Anyway? Is it true that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder? In other words, is beauty really only a subjective concept that can’t be evaluated according to any established criteria? I am amazed at what some people consider art! Perhaps “art” is anything that has been created, including a big red circle painted on canvas or a giant lump of clay with one eye and one leg. My personal view — and I know many others agree — is that there are some definite characteristics of “good” art. For example, in my opinion, good art must be composed with skill and show craftsmanship, color and design. But, I guess that’s what makes the world go around. Everyone has a different opinion of just what makes good art.

Another challenge in evaluating art is that is difficult to compare different forms. Can bridges and buildings be considered art? No one would deny a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is an art form, but can it be compared to an illustration by Norman Rockwell? They are two completely different types of art. Both have all the qualities of art but are light years apart in purpose and design. Both, however, leave a lasting impression on those who see them, regardless of what they consider art. Maybe that is exactly what art is — something that leaves us with a memory or an idea of beauty, or lack thereof, of what we have just viewed.

Advertising: From Simple Beginnings to Sophisticated Art

From the very beginning of our organized society, advertising was used, from a simple sign that said “Food” to a hanging object like a giant shoe, or a pair of scissors. But no one considered these signs art forms. They were just utilitarian ways of attracting business. But as competition grew, entrepreneurs began to realize the importance of luring customers away from others, and advertising became more sophisticated. Crude advertising signs eventually gave way to more attention-grabbing ones with design and color. The better the advertising was, the better the particular product or service sold.

The Rise of Superstar Artists in Advertising

Yet even with the innovative design and style of the 1920s and ’30s, advertising wasn’t yet considered “art.” When advertisers and ad agencies held awards for billboards or illuminated signage, it was mostly for self-promotion. The art world certainly never acknowledged advertising as “real art.” However, the trend of using major artists and illustrators to create advertising did begin in the 1920s and ’30s. Some of the best artists either started as ad agency artists or used the venue to finance their personal artistic pursuits.

Many well-known artists produced advertising with no desire for acknowledgment. It was simply a job to them, creating a piece of work to present a product in the best light to the buying public. The artist’s identity was an inconsequential element—so much so, in fact, that many advertising paintings by major artists were either discarded or given away. But as competition grew for important illustrators like Sundblom and Rockwell, the artists’ signatures became a status symbol and an important factor in selling products. Suddenly, advertising took a step toward “legitimate art.” Now Norman Rockwell’s signature was sought on ads for Coca-Cola, Orange Crush and Sylvania light bulbs.

Ads painted by famous artists became prestigious. But the art world still refused to recognize advertising as “true art.” Many, if not most, of the well-known illustrators of the time used advertising art merely as a source of income to pay bills and preferred “true” art to the art required by ad agencies. Deadlines and strict specifications intruded on their creativity and were foreign to them. The restrictions just did not fit their lifestyles, and most didn’t take it seriously.


Original Coca-Cola Art

Placing value on original art is very difficult, but it can be classified into general value categories by type. The first type would be a recognized image signed by a well-known artist. An original signed Rockwell or Sundblom painting used by Coca-Cola for a tray or calendar, for example, can easily bring $250,000 to $500,000.

The next type is an unrecognized image, which is a piece of artwork that can’t be identified as being used by The Coca-Cola Company but is signed by a well-known artist. Unsigned recognized paintings are valued based on the quality of the particular image. A girl in a bathing suit holding a Coke, for example, could sell for $5,000 to $10,000. An unsigned recognizable image that can be attributed to a famous artist like Sundblom — such as the Charlie McCarthy painting above — could easily be valued at $25,000 to $40,000.

I have always been amused by a statement made by Norman Rockwell while he was working on an ad campaign for Orange Crush. It seems he became bored with the whole project and quickly ran out of ideas. According to “The Advertising World of Norman Rockwell” by Donald Stoltz, Rockwell wrote in his autobiography, “By the time I got to the 11th and 12th picture, I was dreaming about bottles of Orange Crush Soda Pop. I would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, ‘Orange Crush, Orange Crush.’” Rockwell regretted signing that contract and vowed never to sign another. For those unfamiliar with the Orange Crush ads, they have become classic illustrations, and originals of those paintings, as well as any original advertising produced by Rockwell are today valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. Now, that is serious art by anyone’s standards.

Advertising Artists Finally Receive the Recognition They Deserve
But do mere dollars separate advertising from advertising art? I don’t think so! Of course Norman Rockwell’s work is the pinnacle of advertising art. It stands to reason that any of his original art, regardless of what it was used for, will garner top dollar in the art world. But what about other artists, from recognizable names such as Haddon Sundblom, Gill Elvgren, N.C. Wyeth and Frederic Stanley, to almost forgotten ones like Hananiah Harari and the thousands of others whom I call the unsigned, unsung heroes of the world of advertising art? I’m happy to report that the work they produced is gradually gaining respect, not just in the advertising world, but also in the art world. Today, original works of art by Sundblom, Elvgren, Wyeth and Stanley and others command from tens of thousands of dollars up to as much as a million dollars.

Of course, as with any art, the signature is most important, and, as with most advertising art, those signatures are mostly nonexistent. But even art attributed to a particular artist is featured in prominent galleries and auctions all over the country. This is long overdue! For the most part, an original work of art, whether an oil on canvas, an illustration, a sketch or even rough art, is a dream piece for any Coca-Cola collector. So much so, in fact, that it has become a step above almost anything else that is collectible. Original art is absent in most collections, including the very advanced ones. They are one-of-a-kind pieces and, consequently, are nearly impossible to evaluate. Only a few examples are shown in this book, primarily to help readers understand how truly rare original art is.

The art used by The Coca-Cola Company is not relegated to just illustrations and painted images. The Coca-Cola Company has taken advertising to a whole new level of art. Its iconic bottle is a perfect example. Not only is it a visual art form, but physical as well. Virtually everyone would know they were holding one in a dark closet. How many people would have considered a can of Campbell’s soup or a line of Coke bottles art before Andy Warhol created crude interpretations of these everyday images that are now worth a fortune? Even signed copies of limited editions bring thousands of dollars.

The Coca-Cola Company: Ahead of its Time

The Coca-Cola Company and the advertising agencies that created these works were innovators, geniuses in presenting material that drew attention to the product. Window displays and life-size cutouts of movie stars were so far ahead of their time that they are studied today and copied as if they were a new form of advertising. The world of movie advertising is a perfect example. Lobby displays like those in theaters today were used in the 1930s by The Coca-Cola Company, not to attract people to the next film, but to encourage them to buy a five-cent glass of Coke. The Coca-Cola Company’s neon and illuminated signs, billboards and wall paintings that light up our main streets and roadways have become part of our history and everyday life.
Yes, advertising is an art form, as legitimate as any other form of true art, such as a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a sculpture on the side of a mountain, a bronze statue, a building, a billboard or even something as simple as a bottle. I have known this for years. It’s nice to know that Americans both inside and outside of the art world are now realizing how important this medium is, and has been, to the history of this country and the world.

Schmidt Museum to go under the gavel

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More Images:

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1946, 24 inches by 26 inches, original oil-on-canvas of "Willie Hoppe" for the 1947 "All-Time Sports Favorites" campaign, unsigned, $5,000.
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1947, "All Time Sports Favorites," Willie Hoppe cardboard sign and signed contract by Hoppe for the use of his image. Accompanying pieces like contracts, finished printed pieces, or anything that contributes to the provenance of the original piece of art will certainly increase its importance.
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The Coca-Cola Company and the agencies that created these advertisements were innovators -- geniuses in presenting material that drew attention to the product.
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"Girl With Spaniel," 30 inches by 50-1/2 inches, oil-on-canvas, signed Lawrence Wilbur.

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