In The Red Barrell, Coca-Cola’s in-house magazine published from the 1920s to the 1950s, the company regularly engaged in a bit of self-analysis in its pages of advice for sales and promotions staff. In the May 1946 edition, an article praised the recent success of the brand’s poster art at various design awards and suggested the reasons as to why the work was so good. No secret formula, apparently, just four considerations to ensure a great Coke poster: Speed, Clean Wholesome People, Ideas and Fine Painting.
“To be good, a poster must be quick,” ran the copy. “It must be interesting. It must have an idea – product identification and reminder value are not enough. It must be well laid out. And it must be well executed.” Two months later, almost as if in reply to this dictum, Haddon Sundblom’s ‘Yes Girl’ poster hit billboards across the country, beautifully and commandingly fulfilling all four principles, but infused with an additional fifth element: sexuality.
By this time ‘Sunny’ Sundblom had already produced some of the most recognisable advertising in the world and, since the 1920s, had become a key influence on a new generation of illustrators, many of whom passed through his studio on their way to becoming established ‘pin-up’ artists. But his Yes Girl brought something else to the commercial landscape of America. Unlike the paintings he had produced for staple US brands such as Colgate, Palmolive and Quaker Oats, or his images of peppy kids and perennial Santa Clauses for Coca-Cola, his poster of July 1946 captured a moment and a cultural attitude perfectly.
The image fused his understanding of the appeal of wholesome values with the flirtatious aesthetic of the pin-up, and was able to assert that Coke, too, was an integral part of the new found optimism in post-war American life. But there was something else. “Well, if you want to get Freudian, what is our Yes Girl being offered?” posits design critic and author, Steven Heller, in a brief email exchange. “And look at that expression. Flirting with pleasure. Right? This is the perfect example of American-made soft-core soft-drink porn.” Compounded with the loaded symbolism of the angled, open bottle in a disembodied male hand, what exactly was the Yes Girl saying ‘yes’ to?
Sundblom was commissioned to paint the picture by art director Paul Smith of the D’Arcy Agency in St Louis, Coca-Cola’s agency from 1907 to 1956. At the time, the Coke account was in the hands of executive, Archie Lee. “He was responsible for the shift in the 1920s to what we call ‘lifestyle advertising’, for which Coke is so well known,” says Ted Ryan, manager of the archives collection at Coca-Cola. “Simple scenes of everyday life, where the subject and the product are shown in a positive way, is a philosophy we used for decades. Sundblom was a master at capturing those moments.”
If optimism was Sundblom’s stock in trade, it came from years of hard work, perhaps, even, from a first hand understanding of the possibilities of the American Dream. After dropping out of school, Sundblom worked on construction sites from the age of 14, using the money he made to attend art classes at the Chicago Art Institute in the evenings. After studying at the city’s American Adacemy of Art, Sundblom eventually gained an apprenticeship at Charles Everett Johnson’s commercial art studio, where he was able to watch many of the leading illustrators of the day at work. In 1925 he and two colleagues formed their own studio, Stevens, Sundblom and Henry, and began working for the likes of Packard, Lincoln and Ford, though their most famous commissions would be the Quaker Oats Man and Aunt Jemima characters.
But the early 1930s saw the start of Sundblom’s longest and most celebrated relationship with Coca-Cola, and the birth of a new character who would become the brand’s most famous ambassador. Santa Claus had appeared in Coke advertising in his red and white guise since 1921 (it was Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast who first drew Santa in a red coat), but it was only when Sundblom reinterpreted him that he acquired the more familiar jovial traits of a plump and playful old man, modelled partly on Lou Prentice, a salesman friend of Sundblom’s, and on lines from Clement Clark Moore’s poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, from 1822.
Under Lee’s direction the decision to paint Santa Claus this way was, existential questions aside, driven by a move towards realism. That Santa was real, not merely a regular guy dressed up in a costume, was something Lee and Sundblom were keen to convey as Coke continued to attempt to turn its popular summertime drink into an appealing choice for the colder months. The straplines included “thirst knows no season” and “the pause that refreshes” and Sundblom’s Santa soon became fixed as an American archetype.
This pursuit of believability had also been brought out in Sundblom’s paintings of women. The pin-up art that followed in his wake, typically fantasist by its very nature, often placed women in ridiculous, high camp situations and descended into kitsch. Art Frahm’s 1950s calendar series, Panties Falling Down, for example, doesn’t need much by way of explanation, and Sundblom himself only ever painted around a dozen pin-ups during his career. But in 1946, he channelled his own art of realism into creating his most distinctive and provocative poster, and simultaneously managed to convey America’s new mood of positivity and possibility.
“It’s interesting to note that Coke used artists like Sundblom, Fred Mizen and Gil Elvgren far more often than that famous chronicler of American life, Norman Rockwell,” says Ryan. “We only hired him six times through the years and even have one of his proposed paintings in the archives that was rejected for use. While it’s only an opinion, I think that it’s because while Rockwell’s scenes are representative of ‘lifestyle advertising’, his actual art was not real. His figures were almost too stylised whereas with Sundblom’s, they look like real people.”
Catherine Flood, curator of prints at the V&A Museum’s Word and Image department believes that the Yes Girl is perhaps representative of wider societal shifts. “There’s a long tradition of ‘bathing beauty’ posters and quite sexual ‘healthy-body’ images of women in advertising,” she says. “But I’m inclined to think about the Yes Girl poster in terms of society’s concern that women should return to traditional roles after working in the armed forces and factories. American WW2 posters recruiting women for the war effort are often quite glamorous; even the muscle-bound Rosie the Riveter, who featured in J Howard Miller’s We Can Do It! poster of 1942, had a full face of make-up.
“These posters maintained some stylistic continuity with familiar commercial images of women,” Flood continues, “reassuring people that women would not lose their femininity by putting on a uniform, and reinforcing the government’s stance that wartime occupations were temporary and would not fundamentally change women’s roles.” Flood suggests that while the passive and compliant aspect of the Yes Girl is also telling, “the sexual message in the poster is particularly prominent, partly because of the way it is spelled out. Limiting the text to a single word, other than the logo, is an unusual approach to poster design, and the linear arrangement of elements encourages the viewer to ‘read’ the images.” For Ryan, while Sundblom’s image certainly has sexual undertones, he believes that his approach wasn’t actually that unusual for the brand. “Coke advertising wasn’t always as conservative as you might have expected, it never has been,” he says. “The term ‘Coca-Cola Girl’ was well known from the 1910s onwards; we had always used pretty girls and artists who could paint them. And even though there is the hint of sexuality [in the Yes Girl], the image is still wholesome. That’s the true essence of an image that is used for Coke.”
The twist to the Sundblom story is starkly revealed in the cover he painted for Playboy in 1972. As his last commission before his death four years later, and one of only a handful of fully painted covers the magazine ever ran, Sundblom’s ‘Naughty Santa’ plays on both of the things he excelled at and became most famous for – the wholesome pin-up, and the Coca-Cola embodiment of Christmas.
But the nod to Coke is perhaps more than a racy, knowing tribute to the work that he’d painted for the brand since the 1930s. In the new dawn of television and photography, Sundblom had been dropped from McCann Erickson’s roster in 1964. According to his wife, Betty, he was heartbroken. As timely and as daring as his Yes Girl had seemed, and indeed seems now, a very different era had been ushered in and Sundblom’s art was no longer a part of it.