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Shaun Clayton’s compilation of coffee ads
Boing Boing has posted a scarcely believable collection of 1950s and 1960s coffee ads. But images of coffee-drinking always signal deeper trends

It seems that in the 1950s and 1960s, coffee was more than a breakfast beverage in this series of ads posted by Boing Boing. It was a liquid tool of male power in the home, a kind of vehicle for husbands to display some passive aggressive bullying (and sometimes not so passive) towards their wives who have been turned into neurotics by hubby’s charmless put-downs.


By the 1970s and 1980s coffee no longer featured on the domestic agenda and according to Anthropologist Krystal D’Costa, there was a whole genration who preferred soft drinks to coffee.  The solution was to appeal to the basic values of the ‘me’ generation and citing a study by anthropologist William Roseberry, the answer was in customizing coffee: “Kenneth Roman, Jr., the president of Ogilvy and Mather, one of the PR firms that supported Maxwell House, made a suggestion: emphasize quality, value, and image by creating segmented products to increase appeal.”


And not only segmented products for different people but products for different situations. In the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s, long before Buffy made Anthony Head a prime time star he was already a bit of a heartthrob in the UK for his coffee ads with Sharon Maughan for Gold Blend. A long-running series of ads-as-soap-opera teases the viewer with a story about two high-flying yuppies and their relationship with instant, freeze-dried coffee. Coffee was a sign of ‘taste’ (which it was back in the 1950s too), ‘worldliness’, and ‘conversation’.


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By the mid 1990s Friends made coffee the sign of zesty, playful 20-something relationships, a drink for every occasion, an occasion for emotionally ‘sharing’. The marketing whizzes of Ogilvy could not have conceived of a better campaign, and a million miles away from the brutal domestic arrangement of the 1950s. And with coffee shop owners offering everything from newspapers to music to free wi-fi, the coffee shared, or alone is a sign of ‘keeping up’ with what’s happening.


Lately, coffee has moved to the other end of the emotional spectrum from the 1950s, from guilting wives into buying coffee to sending out George Clooney into the frontline. Buyers of the Nespresso machine receive a magazine to make them feel they are part of a club, and while still small in the US, it grew globally by 22% in 2009 and the Financial Times reports that sales hit $3.6 billion last year. And this is in belt-tightening times. The reason? Jeffrey Young, managing director of retail coffee experts Allegra Strategies told the BBC that what’s behind the growth is “the world’s largest coffee company, and a huge, huge marketing spend centred on George Clooney.” Unlike the egocentric husbands of the 1950s these spots use Clooney’s self-deprecating character to have some fun at the expense of the vanity male ego.


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So what does the image of coffee  signal now? As the language and lifestyle of health increasingly dominates the culture,  tea has surpassed coffee a sign of cultural kudos, not least because tea with its roots in eastern culture has a vague philosophy around its image. It’s a sign of inner and physical well-being. Like George Clooney, coffee is now a sign of both the flirty and the reflective furrowed brow, drinking coffee has the veneer of the secret pleasure.


Image Source/Steve Prezant








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