Cold and Fuzzy: Coca-Cola’s First Polar Bear6 September 2022
by Ivana Dizdar
This year marks the centennial of the polar bear’s first appearance in a Coca-Cola advertisement. In a French print ad from 1922, a polar bear shares a bottle of Coca-Cola with the sun. Sitting upright on an iceberg, the polar bear smiles as he extends the bottle’s mouth toward the mouth of his companion. Sweating in its own scorching heat, the sun eagerly quenches its thirst, its expression one of pure pleasure. Beneath the product’s logo, the ad reads “Délicieuse. Rafraîchissante.” Delicious and refreshing it certainly is—so much so that the sun has ventured outside its proper place in the solar system to approach the earth for a taste of soda, irresistibly sweet and cool.
Polar bears have been a subject of visual representation for at least two millennia. In prehistoric artifacts by Dorset makers across Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, the polar bear is the most common non-human motif. Dorset carvings—miniatures made of materials like bone, ivory, and soapstone—depict polar bears frozen mid-hunt as though stalking, swimming toward, and pouncing on their prey. From Renaissance maps to engravings, paintings, and panoramas in the modern period, polar bears appear as symbols of majesty and mystique, of strength and survival, of danger and death. They were a point of fascination for European artists, some of whom traveled to the Arctic alongside explorers and scientists or observed them in captivity at zoological gardens, while others drew from existing textual and visual documents and their own polar fantasies.
The French Coca-Cola print ad came as polar bear imagery was thriving in fine art, popular culture, and entertainment. French artist François Pompon was producing a series of polar bear sculptures, the first of which—a life-sized plaster rendition—was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1922 (1). Meanwhile, neighboring Germany was swept by a polar bear craze. On the streets, on the beach, and in the snow, children, families, and soldiers were posing for photographs with actors in polar bear costumes. The furry and friendly bears hug and hold hands with their human counterparts in these surreal snapshots. Bizarre and amusing, the pictures are also haunting—entangled with the social and cultural life of interwar Germany.
The polar bear’s popularity made it an excellent candidate for a Coca-Cola ad. Appealing to consumers’ emotions, the company represented the anthropomorphic bear as a friendly, generous, and compassionate figure: after all, he is sweet—just like the drink he is sharing. But what made the polar bear an especially effective marketing tool was its status as an animal that lives and thrives in the cold. Not coincidentally, the ad was released as electric fridges went into mass production, enabling individual consumers to store and enjoy cold commodities at home (2). Notably, Ivan Pavlov’s theory of conditioning, introduced at the turn of the century, was gaining traction. Embracing this scientific breakthrough, Coca-Cola formed a powerful constellation of stimuli: the coldness of the polar north, the cuteness of the polar bear, and the sweetness of Coke itself. Coca-Cola wasn’t the only company to play on this kind of relationship: in an ad that came a few years later, a polar bear lies feet-up on a glossy sheet of ice, grasping a Campari bottle with all four paws as he pours its bittersweet contents into his mouth (3). Nothing, the ad conveys, is better than Campari on ice.
Coca-Cola’s first polar bear was a precursor for what would become the company’s visual icon and among the most recognizable brand mascots of our time (4). In 1993, Coca-Cola would revive and animate the polar bear, making it a longstanding protagonist in the company’s commercials and digital ads. Concurrently, as debates about global warming began to surge, the polar bear became the foremost symbol of climate change and a poster child for a number of environmental campaigns. The polar bear imagery that thrived—and continues to thrive—in Coca-Cola advertising became an unwitting nod to the deep entanglements of capitalism, consumerism, and climate change (5). Looking back, the original polar bear ad seems to foreshadow—inadvertently—a future of extreme ecological change. Coca-Cola has drawn the sun closer to the earth, warming the Arctic and melting a glacier in the distance. We can imagine the ice the polar bear is sitting on will melt too, leaving him with nowhere to sit, hunt, or live.
(1) Another life-sized iteration, produced between 1923 and 1933, is on view at the musée d’Orsay in Paris. The sculpture is so striking and so popular, the Museum has made it into a secondary logo: it appears as a graphic outline on exhibition labels and reincarnated in gift-shop items from keychains to snow globes.
(2) Thanks to Quora user John Turner for bringing this to my attention.
(3) In order to emphasize its product, Campari made the bottle disproportionately big, unwittingly making the polar bear look like a cub.
(4) The polar bear appeared in Coca-Cola ads only sporadically between its first appearance and its revival in 1993, with a three-decade hiatus beginning in the 1960s.
(5) As climate change becomes increasingly drastic, and its effects increasingly palpable, the polar bear’s use by a corporation with a major carbon footprint becomes more ironic, more awkward. In 2011, Coca-Cola announced a pledge of two-million dollars to the World Wildlife Fund over the course of five years. Meanwhile, from 2011 to 2013, the company spent almost ten billion on advertising and earned an astonishing profit of almost nine billion. See Mya Frazier’s “Should the Polar Bear Still Sell Coca-Cola?” in The New Yorker, November 6, 2014.
Ivana Dizdar is a historian of art and design, a doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, and a Visiting Student Research Collaborator in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. Her research focuses on representations of the Arctic in nineteenth-century visual culture. As she was writing this post, she tried Coca-Cola for the first time.
Arctic Relations publishes scholarship and stories from the circumpolar North.