Experiential Advertising: The World of Coca-Cola
Cynthia B. Meyers / College of Mount Saint Vincent

Inside the World of Coca-Cola.

The World of Coca-Cola, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a museum/indoor theme park that includes a gift shop and a tasting room, and is a prime example of effective experiential advertising. In exchange for their ticket purchase and their attention, visitors are educated in all things Coca-Cola: its history, icons, philosophy, and products. In March 2016, I joined other visitors, paying $16 for the privilege of standing in a series of lines: first to watch an introductory film showing happy people of all kinds consuming Coke everywhere; then to have a photo taken with an actor costumed as the advertising icon polar bear; then to enter “The Vault,” where the secret formula is supposed to be safely stored, away from competitors; and finally to taste Coca-Cola products from all over the world. Following the paths and the lines, visitors are ultimately funneled through a store where they can buy more Coca-Cola advertising to take home with them: toys, games, clothing, dishes, and mementoes.

usually differs from “content” in that content is what the audience wants to see, while advertising is what the advertiser wants the audience to see, so
much so that advertisers pay media companies to expose audiences to it. Magazine
ads appear next to magazine articles, television commercials interrupt
narrative programs, and it is easy to tell which is content and which advertising.
The media companies finance and create the content to attract audience segments
advertisers target; the advertisers (“brands”) and their agencies create the interstitial
advertising and pay for its placement. This distinction between is harder to
parse in the World of Coca-Cola. Most
people claim they strive to avoid advertising, but visitors to the World of Coca-Cola pay money for it. Perhaps
not many brands can get away with this. In light of the decline of linear
television, however, which developed as the single most powerful brand-image
building medium ever by forcibly exposing mass audiences to interstitial
commercials, such experiential advertising strategies may be a sign of things
to come.

Audience members at the World of Coca-Cola wear 3-D glasses while watching a video.
“Coca-Cola Theater” audience.

The visit begins in the “Coca-Cola Theater” with a viewing of a “celebration of life’s Moments of Happiness,” actually an extended large-screen commercial featuring much togetherness, bonding, and joy. Coke’s advertising, like that of its competitors, uses such themes not only to create positive associations with its brands, but also to inculcate in its consumers a sense of virtuousness. We’re not drinking a sugary liquid-—we’re bonding with our loved ones and affirming our shared humanity! To emphasize Coca-Cola’s cross-cultural appeal, much of the film features performers from all over the world bound together by their common love of Coke. The audience is encouraged to imagine that they are not just sitting in a theater seat in Atlanta but traveling on a “Journey around the world in a thrilling 4-D movie experience.” This sets the emotional temperature for the rest of the visit: joyful, colorful, and loving.

Visitors wait in line to take a photo with a polar bear mascot.
Line to take a photo with the Coke polar bear.

Next, most visitors wait in line to “meet our most beloved character”: somebody in a polar bear costume. The white fur fits well with Coke’s red and white iconography; the cuddly furry advertising icon poses with arms around visitors, suggesting a combination of emotional warmth with refreshing soft-drink coolness. Back in the 1920s, another soft drink brand, Clicquot Club ginger ale, likewise employed iconography of the arctic to associate its product with cool refreshment; its radio show featured a band called the Clicquot Club Eskimos and included the sound of sled dogs barking in musical time. The Coke polar bears, as seen in the commercials featured in a small screening room called the “Perfect Pauses Theater,” are depicted as cuddly couch potatoes watching the colorful northern lights while sipping soda—just like us.

Commercial of Coca-Cola’s polar bears.

yourself in the rich heritage of Coca-Cola,” suggests the promotional video.
Coca-Cola is not merely a sugary drink but an icon of our shared cultural past.
“Rich heritage” are buzzwords implying “wealth,” something most of us would
like to have more of. “Heritage” sounds less boring and dry than “history”
while avoiding the risks of actual historical inquiry, which could expose who
knows what examples of dishonesty and exploitation.

Old Coca-Cola ads and memorabilia on display behind a glass case.
Old ads with slogans including “Entertain your thirst.”

its exhibit of its past advertising, visitors are encouraged to “Take a walk
through the fascinating story of Coca-Cola.” Glass cases filled with old ads
and memorabilia document Coca-Cola’s advertising strategies: Americana,
friendship, family, and celebrity.

A variety of old Coca-Cola ads that say
Ads with the slogan “Drive refreshed.”

Purged of any potentially offensive images, these representations of the past seem ideally suited to illustrate Michael Schudson’s notion that American advertising is a form of “capitalist realism.” Unlike the placards at actual museums, the wall signs here simply replicate much of the advertising copy: “No matter what the era, Coca-Cola imagery captures the lifestyles of the day while reminding us that Coke is a natural companion to good times.”

The Supremes Swing the Jingle Coca-Cola record.
Coca-Cola promotional material by The Supremes.

In a
room featuring images of many of the celebrities, performers, and music artists
Coca-Cola has sponsored and hired to promote Coke, the wall placard reminds us
that the “display of these materials in this museum is for historical and
educational purposes only and is not intended to imply endorsement by any
person or organization of The Coca-Cola Company or its brands today.”

Line of visitors waiting to enter through a doorway marked
Line to the “Vault of the Secret Formula.”

learn more about the history of the company, however, visitors must stand in another
line, which leads at last to the “Vault of the Secret Formula,” marked off with
a forbidding “Access Restricted” sign. Making the room more exclusive and
requiring patrons to wait in line are ways to stimulate interest—like any
nightclub, it looks more desirable if other people are standing in line to get
in. Interspersed with a variety of interactive devices and games are placards
describing the development of the soda industry.

An employee stands in front of a metal vault door.
Guard stands in front of a vault door.

Coke’s “magic formula” became the “most sought after—and closely guarded—trade
secret in American history,” the exhibit heightens the drama by including
security theater tactics, such as a bank of putative security video monitors
and security guards standing in front of giant steel bank safe doors. Visitors
may stand in line and pay for the privilege of having their photograph taken in
front of this impressive steel vault.  

A girl sits at a computer screen designing a blue and purple bottle of Coca-Cola.
A girl at an interactive exhibit.

It wouldn’t be a modern museum experience without interactivity: in an area labeled “Pop Art,” visitors may use interactive devices to create their own imagery and to write “My Coke Story.” As a placard explains, “Each moment of every day, someone in the world makes a special connection with Coca-Cola.” To encourage visitors to handwrite or type out a personal story about consuming Coke, they are told, “If chosen, your story might end up on display here at the World of Coca-Cola or on our website.” Free user-generated advertising for Coca-Cola is redefined as an exciting opportunity for the consumer. We can see some of the winners of this contest, such as a visitor named Romero, who wrote, “I like to share a Coke with my family at the beach in Puerto Rico.” This bears the same relation to public history initiatives, such as local oral history projects, as does the World of Coca-Cola to a traditional museum.  

A boy reaches up to dispense a beverage called
A boy at a soda fountain sampling a flavor.

The penultimate experience is a room filled with machines dispensing Coca-Cola products from around the world. After immersion in movies, ads, and memorabilia, visitors are probably thirsty, or, at the least, in need of a sugar boost. Emphasizing Coca-Cola’s global reach and cross-cultural significance, signs invite visitors to “Sample 100+ flavors from around the world.” Various beverages are labeled by the country where they are marketed (the Beverly, for example, is sold in Italy). And visitors are encouraged to provide yet more free advertising for Coca-Cola. A placard instructs: “Taste it, snap it, post it” on social media.

An image from the Coca-Cola store including merchandising like sweatshirts, t-shirts, pajamas, bottles of soda, and chapstick.
The store is the final World of Coca-Cola experience.

final experience is of course the store where you can “take the excitement of
your visit home with you.” It’s not possible to get out without passing through
the store. To ensure excitement, there are turnstiles to enter and long lines
at the cash registers. Visitors who buy the toy polar bears, basketballs, footballs,
mugs, dishes, t-shirts, sweatpants, pajamas, or other memorabilia ensure that
Coke’s logo, message, and brand image are distributed more widely—and at the
consumer’s cost, not Coca-Cola’s.

is one of the rare long-lived brands that have succeeded in creating an
iconography that is nearly synonymous with American culture. Far more effective
than a standard television commercial, the World
of Coca-Cola
’s immersive and experiential advertising fully exploits the
brand’s role in American popular culture and consumers’ emotional lives. By the
time its visitors leave, they will presumably be sated by soda, cheered by
polar bears, and feel well bonded with family members and the whole human race.
And they didn’t have to sit through a single interruption of their favorite
television program.

Image Credits:

  1. “Coca-Cola Theater” audience. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Line to take a photo with the Coke polar bear. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Old ads with slogans including “Entertain your thirst”. (author’s personal collection)
  4. Ads with the slogan “Drive refreshed”. (author’s personal collection)
  5. Coca-Cola promotional material by The Supremes. (author’s personal collection)
  6. Line to the “Vault of the Secret Formula”. (author’s personal collection)
  7. Guard stands in front of a vault door. (author’s personal collection)
  8. A girl at an interactive exhibit. (author’s personal collection)
  9. A boy at a soda fountain sampling a flavor. (author’s personal collection)
  10. The store is the final World of Coca-Cola experience. (author’s personal collection)

Friction Points in Influencer Marketing
Cynthia Meyers / College of Mount Saint Vincent

Logan Paul Instagram Post Promoting Mercedes Benz

Recently the YouTube star Logan Paul’s vlog featured a dead body; in the resulting public outrage Paul (15 million YouTube followers) lost some lucrative advertising and production deals. Last year anti-Semitic jokes similarly affected YouTube star PewDiePie (59 million followers). Logan Paul and PewDiePie are two of the most successful “influencers,” social media stars who are paid to promote brands to their fans. Fearing that traditional celebrities who endorse products may be dismissed as “inherently inauthentic,” advertisers have turned to these influencers instead. Their seeming authenticity is, as Faris Yakob points out, “predicated on the idea that what they are saying is something they believe, an expression of who they are, because that’s what we want to imitate.” The public outrage they excite, which might seem to pose a risk to advertisers, is in fact a feature, not a bug: such outrage is more likely to cement these YouTubers’ bonds with young fans than to weaken them. This is one of many ways in which the new “influencer” system departs from traditional advertising. A few of the resulting issues or “friction points,” in industry jargon, are the subject of this article.

Influencers provide content that attracts audience attention, which they sell directly to advertisers, without involving the media companies such as networks that once mediated such transactions. To find and manage influencers, advertisers have turned instead to new agencies and platforms that are springing up for the purpose (Famebit, Niche, Collective Bias, Revfluence). Some allow would-be influencers to seek brand deals through automated platforms. The evolution of these new supply chains of audience attention is difficult to predict: many assume a shake-out looms, and though it seems likely that such matters as pay rates and content control decisions will become more standardized, it remains to be seen to what extent such standardization is possible or desirable in a system which invented itself in conscious opposition to the advertising conventions of the past.

Famebit Connects YouTubers with Brands

Traditionally, in most culture industries, a talented few at the top of the pyramid get almost all the money and fame. In the influencer industry, however, some advertisers have turned away from those with vast followings and are instead cultivating “microinfluencers” (with 10,000 to 100,000 followers) whom they believe more credible and relatable. The “friction point” for brands, however, is having to manage hundreds of “brand ambassadors” instead of one celebrity endorser or one ad agency. Many brands cycle through hundreds of microinfluencers, who must themselves must constantly contract with new brands for new deals (Juliette Borghesan, personal interview, Dec. 14, 2016). Is this churn a transitional phase in influencer marketing or a sign of structural precarity?

Media metrics for negotiating the price of media time and space, such as audience size and demographics, are not clearly settled for the influencer market. Brands, of course, want proof of “return on investment” (ROI). Initially brands evaluated the effectiveness of influencers by measuring numbers of followers, clicks, likes, shares, and other easily gathered data. But inflated metrics, fake influencers, and bots undermined the trustworthiness of such data. Furthermore, advertisers in this new market seek not just exposure but “engagement,” which is even harder to define or measure. Influencers, advertisers assume, can provide this engagement because of their intense parasocial bonds with their fans, who see them as peers speaking the truth about products. Some advertisers provide promotional codes to influencers so that when their fans purchase with the code, they can measure sales and calculate influencer commissions.

AaliyahJay’s “My Morning Routine” with Promo Code

Accountability, that is, who is responsible for the brand message in the content, is another major “friction point.” Ad agencies had always been accountable to clients for aligning advertising with the brand’s image. The first loyalty of influencers, however, is to their own content “brand” because that is what attracts their fans. They must be careful to integrate the product in an “organic” way within their own content—in, for example, their tips on cosmetics, fashion, healthy living, cooking, or athletic achievement. The amount of content control exercised by the brand depends on both the brand and the influencer. Certain brands, such as Coca-Cola, send specific instructions to influencers (Borghesan); others are entirely hands off. Some influencers, such as Casey Neistat, insist that they must have complete content control when integrating brands; others, especially microinfluencers, simply post what is sent them by the brand. On the one hand, advertisers want to control their brand image; on the other, influencers want to seem independent and authentic, and, in fact, must succeed in this if they are to sell products. The matter is further complicated by the blurring of the once-sharp line between content and ad. While both brands and influencers assume they have much to gain by such blurring, they also have much at risk—control on the one side, credibility on the other.

Both brands and influencers have a motive to hide their transactional relationship from consumers. In the 1920s the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on advertising “testimonials” for deceptiveness when an endorser did not actually use the product. Likewise, recently the FTC has been issuing guidelines that paid social media posts be tagged or labeled as ads. Yet brands employ influencers to circumvent audiences’ avoidance of traditional advertising; labeling an influencer’s content as “ad” may undermine that goal. Viewers who skip a Taco Bell commercial may happily watch Tyler Oakley vlogging about eating a Taco Bell product, so long as it’s not labeled a Taco Bell commercial. And yet many fans value the influencer precisely because she is earning revenue from brands. As one Jake Paul fan explained, “He makes a lot of money off YouTube!” For those fans, their influencers model an aspirational vision of a life of creativity, passion, and wealth, of which extensive product consumption is a necessary and desirable part.

Tyler Oakley: “My First Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco”

To reduce their dependence on advertisers, some influencers have developed their own “merch”: t-shirts, shoes, athletic wear, cosmetics, jewelry, nutritional supplements and other products made cheaply and sold for a high price resulting from artificial scarcity and exclusivity. The influencer’s pop-up shop or one-time online “drop” may be a fan’s only opportunity to buy this merch. Some influencers, then, are not only disintermediating the media business by being their own content producers, distributors, and media agencies, but are also exploiting direct-to-consumer retail strategies to distintermediate traditional retailers. If advertisers are driven off by daring, “authentic” content, these merch empires provide a good hedge for influencers.

Jake Paul Merch

Advertisers have always searched for ways to overcome consumer cynicism. In the 1920s and 1930s, they cultivated “sincerity” to convince cynical consumers that their ads were not like fraudulent patent medicine ads. In the 1960s, the Creative Revolution’s emotional appeals, humor, and irony grew up in contrast to the dubiously factual “hard sell” of which consumers had grown suspicious. Today, when audiences can avoid altogether the traditional ads they suspect, the simplest solution for advertisers seems to be integrating their brands into the most authentic-seeming content, content that looks user-generated. The YouTube aesthetics of shaky hand-held camera work, jump cuts, and bad shot compositions signal authenticity. If the definition of “content” is what audiences want to see and “advertising” is what brands want audiences to see, then influencer content seems to marry these categories. The marriage may not last. Audiences may become jaded by the constant pitching and promoting, and brands may come to doubt the efficacy of influencers. At present, however, it seems to be working beautifully. Audiences may be revising their definition of “content” so as to expect it to include advertising: as one observer notes, “entertainment for adolescents currently consists of unvarnished requests for money and devotion.” We may in fact be returning to the type of branded sponsored content common from the 1930s through the 1950s, when audiences eagerly tuned in to watch Arthur Godfrey sip and joke about Lipton Soup.

Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts Lipton Commercial

Image Credits:
1. Author’s screen grab
2. Author’s screen grab
3. Author’s screen grab
4. Tyler Oakley: “My First Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco”
5. Author’s screen grab
6. Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts Lipton Commercial

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