In 1993, the world watched as a group of furry polar bears gathered together to watch the Northern Lights. Enthralled by the stunning skies, the bears each took a sip from the glass Coca-Cola bottles clutched in their paws. As it turned out, the world was watching a new Coca-Cola commercial. Their stars were CGI animated polar bears, created by Ken Stewart, for the “Always Coca-Cola” advertising campaign.
2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the commercial debut of the Coca-Cola polar bears. Let’s go back to the year 1992 for a moment. Stewart was then-the Senior Vice President, Creative and Advertising, at Columbia Pictures (formerly owned by Coca-Cola). He was approached by Peter Sealey, the Head of Marketing at Columbia Pictures, to assist in creating a new look for Coca-Cola.
Stewart wanted to do it, so he asked Sealey to send him all of the Coca-Cola reels from the ‘Mean’ Joe Greene era onward. In 1992, many commercials were byproducts of the MTV craze. They were well edited and produced, but composed of mostly images. The imagery lacked a message and emotion.
Getting Back To Emotion
“Coca-Cola is not just soda in a can. It has people’s emotions in it.” Stewart says, “I wanted to duplicate the emotional feeling from ‘Mean’ Joe Greene and connect with the audience on an emotional level.”
It was the kind of assignment that was easier said than done. Stewart went through 15 years of TV spots, and started pounding out short scripts at his work desk at home. He struggled to find the right idea until one afternoon, when his dog Morgan walked in the room.
Morgan was a yellow Labrador. “I used to call him a polar bear puppy because he looked like a polar bear to me.” Stewart recalls. Just looking at Morgan filled Stewart with an infinite amount of pure love and happiness. “I thought to myself that if I could get that feeling about this dog into the commercial I was writing, that would be great.”
Lightbulb Moment: Polar Bears!
Suddenly, an idea hit Stewart. What about polar bears? It wasn’t the first time Coca-Cola had used bears in their advertising. The first polar bear featured in a Coca-Cola advertisement can be traced back to 1922 in France. However, it would be the first time for the 1990s.
Stewart got to work creating the bears and their environment. He began envisioning how they would look, all warm and fuzzy. What they would be doing with Coca-Cola? Human beings go to the theaters all the time. They watch movies, eat popcorn, and drink Coke. The polar bears were going to their own version of the movies — the Northern Lights — and drinking Coca-Cola.
Digital animation company Rhythm & Hues worked alongside Stewart to bring the polar bears to life. The work was still animated, but not in a cartoonish manner. Clay models of the polar bears were created with the help of a sculptor and CG animated by the studio. Rhythm & Hues also took the bears the next step forward with real fur. Now, they looked just as warm and fuzzy as Stewart had envisioned.
Coca-Cola’s Greatest Risk? Silence
What made the “Northern Lights” spot stand out, apart from the remarkable CGI, was its silence.
“I wanted it to be magical. I had no voices in the commercial.” Stewart says, “My intuition said that as soon as I put words in that bear’s mouth it wouldn’t be magical anymore.”
In lieu of dialogue, Stewart focused on sound effects that would work. The bear grunted from its mouth — a sound effect provided by Stewart himself. Snow crunched on the ground. A shooting star made a sound referred to as a “glist.” The final noises came from the Coca-Cola bottle. The bottle lid popped off, the soda fizzed, and the glass clinked as the bottle was raised in the air.
Silence was a huge risk Coca-Cola took with the new campaign. Every other brand’s commercials were full of music, dialogue, and hero shots at the time. Stewart admits that initially, there was pushback on the spot to add in Christmas music. He resisted because he wanted to keep this world alive. “As a creative, you have some clout but not enough. The commercial stood out because of its silence in the beginning. It transports you into another world.”
Stewart did the first six spots of the “Always Coca-Cola” campaign. His final work was with a seal and polar bear learning how to share a ball — and a bottle of Coke — together.
The Coca-Cola Polar Bears At 25
Looking back at the 25 years of Coca-Cola’s polar bears, Stewart finds the stories of the original spots still resonate with him.
“Creativity, and writing, takes time.” Stewart says, “You must recognize that what you are writing has the power to be honest and true. The core and essence of the story can’t be manipulative. It has to be a clean, beautiful feeling.”
He also thinks it’s highly likely that the polar bears, at 25, resonate with most individuals as well.
“It’s a positive, magical message that hasn’t been diluted.” Stewart thoughtfully notes, “The polar bears were accessible to every age. Children loved it, and it touched adults. These bears still make people smile and feel good because they appeal to the innocence we all have in each one of us. When you get the ability and opportunity to be authentic with the material you create, it’s such a rare moment that it really makes it stand out and stand the test of time.”