Fifty years of television advertising by an iconic consumer brand is being donated to the Library of Congress.
At a presentation scheduled tonight at the library in Washington, the Coca-Cola Company will formally donate five decades' worth of TV commercials and related production materials - ranging from outtakes to experimental color spots shot in 1964 - to the library's archives of films and television programs. The donation is part of an effort called the Bicentennial Gifts to the Nation program in observance of the library's 200th anniversary.
The donation, which is to be completed in the next three to five years, includes more than 20,000 commercials for the company's brands, produced by agencies like the longtime mainstays D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and McCann-Erickson. The donation of the spots, which have run in this country and around the world, is to be made by Douglas N. Daft, chairman and chief executive at Coca-Cola, to James H. Billington, the librarian of congress.
The gift is being called the largest of its kind to the library.
"These campaigns that live through time, whether it's `the real thing' or `the pause that refreshes,' are an important part of the Coke story," said Stephen C. Jones, chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola in Atlanta, referring to two slogans for the company's flagship brand.
"A lot of ads that today look like memorabilia were, in their time, leading-edge ways to communicate," he added.
The donation is indicative of the increasing attention being paid to the heritage of advertising and marketing as those businesses become more a part of American, and global, corporate and popular culture.
It also speaks to the growing interest in Madison Avenue's past, as so many ads feature nostalgic themes. Brands mining old pitches for new purposes include Life cereal, Timex watches, Hawaiian Punch juice drinks, Jordache jeans - and Coca- Cola, which centered a campaign carrying the theme "Always" on familiar images like the green contoured bottle and red disk logo.
"This is an opportunity to redress an oversight in an area where there's little collection and preservation," said Patrick Loughney, head of the moving image section of the library, which oversees the film and TV archives.
"Our goals are to get it, stabilize it and make it available to the research community," he said.
Coca-Cola has long been keenly interested in its heritage as part of a long-term strategy to tend its own image. For example, the company was one of the first to hire its own corporate archivist.
"Depending on how you count, our archived items number in the tens of thousands," said Phil Mooney, the archivist for Coca-Cola.
"This is a way to share our advertising heritage in a way we haven't previously," he added.
Coca-Cola plans to make the gift continuous, that is, to keep donating commercials and related material as they are produced from now on. The terms of the donation call for the company to catalog the spots, convert them to digital formats and give the library the originals and a set of cataloged digital tapes; Coca-Cola will retain a set of tapes. Discussions are under way about also donating radio commercials and print advertisements.
"We have to be leery of being a dumping ground for unwanted material," Mr. Loughney said, "but Coca-Cola has always had a reputation in my field for setting a standard, for having one of the great archival collections."
The Coca-Cola gift is particularly welcome, he added, because "other collections we've acquired have been selective, such as political advertising," or they were "not systematically identified" the way this donation is.
Coca-Cola observed its 50th anniversary as a television advertiser last week.
"We ran our very first TV commercial 50 years ago this Thanksgiving," Mr. Jones said, during "a holiday special on CBS with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, who we'd sponsored on the radio."
"But it's not so much about nostalgia," he added, "as it is timeless, classic storytelling that brand Coke has had, based on optimism, pleasure, being alive, relaxed, connected to people."
Other highlights of the Coca-Cola TV collection include commercials featuring performers, athletes and other endorsers, like the singer Eddie Fisher and the football star "Mean" Joe Greene; the "Hilltop" spot from 1971, in which a chorus sang about its desire to "buy the world a Coke"; and the first commercial featuring the animated Coke polar bear.
Mr. Jones, who is supervising a shift in Coca-Cola marketing strategy to a local focus rather than a global one, is careful to describe the company as just as focused on its future as on its past.
"Understanding local culture around the world is the key to success," Mr. Jones said. "We want to take advantage of the Internet, wireless and other new technologies, in addition to TV."
"We're considering a technology in Latin America next year that will let consumers at home choose endings to a commercial," he added.
The estimated value of the donation is $10 million to $15 million, though much of the material would undoubtedly be considered priceless by "historians, sociologists, cultural historians and people in business school and advertising," as Mr. Mooney put it.
As for whether Coca-Cola will take a tax deduction for the donation, Mr. Jones said, "it would be pretty insignificant if we did," adding: "It's more about the spirit of the donation than the financial consideration. It's a great gift to the country and a great addition to the library."
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. November 29, 2000
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