Adding the Pop to Pop Culture: A History of Soda in Marketing, TV, & More

5 min read

Adding the Pop to Pop Culture: A History of Soda in Marketing, TV, & More

Posted Nov 16, 2023 Updated Apr 15, 2024

Since the Industrial Revolution and the advent of mass production and branding, few products have popped quite like soda. Its history is as diverse and varied as the countless flavors it comes in, painting a vibrant portrait of cultural shifts, marketing ingenuity, and societal cravings. Let’s discuss the unique impact of soda, exploring its evolution from a simple refreshment to a cultural obsession.

A Brief History of Soda

You can trace the origins of soda to the natural mineral springs of ancient civilizations where bubbling water was believed to possess medicinal properties. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that soda, as we know it today, made its debut. In 1767, Joseph Priestley, an English scientist, discovered a method to infuse water with carbon dioxide, creating the first artificially carbonated water. This marked the birth of soda water and set the stage for a revolution in the world of beverages.

A century later, soda evolved into “cola”, thanks to the pioneering efforts of John S. Pemberton, a pharmacist from Atlanta, Georgia. In 1886, Pemberton created a unique syrup by blending coca leaf extract with kola nut, intending it as a tonic to relieve headaches and exhaustion. Little did he know that his creation would evolve into one of the most iconic beverages in the world.

Pemberton's syrup was combined with carbonated water, birthing the first cola soda. The result, known as Coca-Cola, quickly gained popularity for its refreshing taste and invigorating qualities. The cola craze had begun, and it wasn't long before other entrepreneurs entered the fray, each adding their twist to the cola formula.

In 1898, Caleb Bradham, a pharmacist from North Carolina, formulated Brad's Drink, later rebranded as Pepsi-Cola, to rival Coca-Cola with its unique flavor profile. The cola wars had officially commenced, leading to fierce competition and innovative marketing strategies that would shape the future of the soda industry.

(Head to our blog for a more complete analysis of the history of soda!)

The Role of Soda in Popular Culture

Soda quickly transcended its medicinal beginnings, becoming a symbol of indulgence, joy, and leisure. In the mid-20th century, soda fountains became social hubs, where people gathered to enjoy fizzy concoctions while engaging in lively conversations. The iconic soda jerk, with his white uniform and adept soda-making skills, became a pop culture hero, embodying the charm of an era defined by soda parlors and jukeboxes. In the following decades, the ubiquity of soda only multiplied, as mass media, advertising, and product placement made the can of soda one of the most recognizable shapes in the world. 

Soda in Marketing

Chart the evolution of the marketing of sodas through this brief chronological history of commercial advertisements featuring soda:

Soda in the TVs and Movies

Television and movies have also played a pivotal role in soda’s cultural ascendancy. From the classic image of Marilyn Monroe seductively sipping a Coke, to Stranger Things’ nostalgic references to '80s-era branding, soda has been a silent but influential character in countless bits of television and motion pictures. 

The ubiquity of soda as product placement in films reached its zenith in the 80s and 90s with the Coca-Cola brand acquiring Columbia Pictures, and blockbuster movies like Jurassic Park featuring big brands in bunches. Inevitably, product placement on television reached a point of over-saturation. Audiences grew tired of blatant advertising taking precedence over culture. As American culture began to resist and satirize relentless product placement (like in this classic scene in Wayne’s World) brands had to evolve and become smarter about the way they presented themselves to consumers.

Soda in Mixed Drinks & Cocktails

At the same time that soda was hitting the mainstream in the 1920s in the United States, prohibition had driven cocktail culture underground. In hidden speakeasies, bartenders got creative with the limited supply of bootlegged alcohol. Soda water played a crucial role during this time, not only in diluting strong spirits but also in masking their often harsh taste. The highball, a simple yet classic cocktail consisting of whiskey and soda, gained popularity during this period, becoming a symbol of the speakeasy era. Later, cocktail names reflected the soda that the spirit of choice was paired with, like the classic Rum & Coke. 

Soda in Diet Culture

Diet soda has also had a huge influence on culture… diet culture to be specific. The first diet soda, Diet Rite Cola, launched in 1958 as an option for diabetics and other consumers who needed to limit their sugar intake. The invention of aspartame in the 1960s paved the way for the first diet sodas, like Diet Coke. Despite its wide popularity, Diet Coke has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as research suggests it may not be as healthy as we might think. Since the invention of diet sodas, the industry has constantly pushed this idea of “healthy” by limiting sugar and calories. 

Soda in the Consumer Health & Wellness Revolution

Speaking of healthy… As our society becomes increasingly health-conscious, the soda industry realized it needed to evolve or die. Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency. As a result, there’s a recent surge in the production of natural and organic sodas made with real fruit extracts and cane sugar. This rise of craft sodas and artisanal blends mirrors the craft beer movement, appealing to connoisseurs seeking unique and authentic flavors. 

In this era of health and wellness, soda is transforming yet again, adapting to meet the demands of a more health-aware consumer base. OLIPOP is right at the center of this “beverages with benefits” transformation with a new genre of soda: prebiotic soda. We’re further redefining the soda industry by using all-natural ingredients, only small amounts of sugar, and gut-supporting prebiotics to aid your gut health. 

Soda for Gatherings & Social Events

But what we love most about the culture around soda is that soda has an uncanny ability to bring people together. Whether it’s sharing a soda float on a first date, popping open a can at a drive-thru, or enjoying a family movie night with a shared bowl of popcorn and soda, this bubbly drink has a knack for fostering connections. It’s a social lubricant, breaking down barriers and creating moments of camaraderie and laughter. 

At OLIPOP we know that soda is more than just carbonation. That’s why we launched Real Love Makes Us, our campaign in partnership with brand ambassador Camilla Cabello. Real Love Makes Us is a celebration of soda as a generational connector and a symbol of good times with good people. Only through connection can we help drive positive change that leads us all toward a brighter future… one healthy sip of OLIPOP soda at a time!

The Role of Soda in Popular Culture: The Takeaway

In the grand tapestry of popular culture, television, and marketing, soda has woven itself into the very fabric of society. Soda’s journey reflects the evolving tastes and desires of generations — from its humble beginnings as a medicinal elixir to its later status as a beloved indulgence to its current ongoing evolution into a healthier product. With every fizzy sip, it continues to captivate our senses, reminding us that in the ever-changing landscape of culture, few things remain as delightful and effervescent as a freshly opened soda.

Cheat Sheet
  • Soda began as a beverage believed to have medicinal properties before evolving into a sugary indulgence.
  • As mass media continued to evolve over the 20th century, so too did the marketing and increasing ubiquity of soda brands.
  • As popular culture has adapted to become more mindful of health and wellness, soda brands have been forced to change their recipes and philosophies.
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