From Exotic Berry to Social Network: A Brief History of Coffee Adverts

Since the 17th Century,


coffee has been promoted as the foremost social lubricant available. This pamphlet from England waxes lyrical about the benefits of this new, exotic berry, which 'groweth upon little trees' and 'quickens the spirits'.

The language and style have changed greatly since then, but the idea that coffee is some magical brew that will bring you friends, lovers and improve your life has remained constant. From 1950s black and white promises of catching that girl, to totally up-to-date YouTube videos designed to 'go viral' by painting coffee as the ultimate social network, you've always been told just how great coffee can be for your social life, your health and your happiness.

Advertising Wars


Coffee began the 20th Century with a fight on its hands. A company called Postum ran a $1.5 million smear campaign against coffee, citing health risks. Postum promoted its own product, a coffee substitute based on grain. However, in a real-life case of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em", Postum eventually jumped on the coffee bandwagon, buying Maxwell House. Postum went on to become General Foods Corp.

Having survived the propaganda attack, coffee had another boost in 1919. Prohibition meant no alcohol, and with no bars to hang out in, all of a sudden, the coffee house was on the rise. Advertising followed suit, with companies like Maxwell House running huge campaigns. Their slogan was 'Good to the Last Drop', and they controversially claimed these were the words of President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Healthy Cup

Back in the 17th century, coffee was supposed to be good for your digestion. By 1942, racing driver Wilbur Shaw was telling America that 'Coffee wins races for me,' and actress Dorothy Lamour claimed that 'Coffee keeps me glamorous.' Of course, such claims are hard to make in advertising today, so it's no wonder modern marketing focuses on the social and happiness aspects, rather than health claims which could potentially be debunked.

The Coffee Break

In 1952, a Madison Avenue ad agency by the name of Federal Advertising Agency coined the phrase "Coffee Break" for the Pan American Coffee Bureau, launching a radio, newspaper, and magazine campaign. According to one source, "The bureau gave a name and official sanction to a practice that had begun during the war in defense plants, when time off for coffee gave workers a needed moment of relaxation along with a caffeine jolt." It was so well publicized that it became a part of our daily language. 

The Beverage of Love

So many advertising campaigns for coffee are based on relationships, marriage, and even enduring love affairs. In the UK, the Nescafe Gold Blend TV adverts in the 1980s depicted a blossoming relationship between a couple, which lasted for 12 'episodes', or 45 second installments. The ads were so popular that each new installment garnered immediate media attention, and catapulted the stars, Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan to fame. The campaign was adjusted for the American audience, and the slightly different brand name of 'Taster's Choice', and was just as popular.

Our love affair with coffee began way before this though. Look at this ad from the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, the company that apparently first coined the phrase 'coffee break'. Without being too overt, the ad heavily implies that you can win a girl over by inviting her for a coffee break.

A more risqué addition to the coffee ad archives is this saucy exhibit from Chase & Sanborn. While this might have been acceptable in the 1950s, you can imagine that this would not go down well with today's audiences.

A Modern Social Network

Today's marketing world is a far cry from the wordy pamphlet of the past. Lavazza have taken the promises of coffee to new levels with a viral advertising campaign that combines a reworking of a much-loved song, with the idea that coffee is the real social network. Ironically, the coffee giant is using those much-maligned social networks to get its message across; make of that what you will. With the slogan 'Born Social in 1895', this campaign sums up the history of coffee advertising succinctly.

Coffee was first promoted as a social lubricant with health benefits, then fast became the ultimate pick-me-up, and is now an irreplaceable part of Western recreational and social culture. Where will coffee advertising go from here?