Culture  /  Art History

Uncola: Seven-Up, Counterculture and the Making of an American Brand

Advertisements for the soft drink presented it as a soda revolution.

It was 1967, and people weren’t drinking Seven-Up. Well, a few were: consumers mostly thought of the bubbly beverage as a mixer or a tonic to calm an upset stomach. But executives at the St. Louis-based Seven-Up Company were anxious to tap into a wider market. The company wanted to rebrand its product as a common soft-drink like the more well-known cola beverages, Pepsi or Coca-Cola. It enlisted a marketing team from the Chicago office of the J. Walter Thompson ad agency to help them. Out of this collaboration came one of the most famous advertising campaigns of the 20th century.

The late 1960s were a difficult time in America. The Vietnam War and the fight for civil rights divided the country.  Disillusioned young people were building a robust oppositional counter-culture that rejected war, racial segregation, and violence. The summer of 1967 became known as the “Summer of Love,” a period when hippies gathered in San Francisco and cities around the country in the hopes of igniting “a renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love, and the revelation of unity for all mankind.”

Seizing on this oppositional energy, the JWT team designed a campaign that framed 7-Up as the ultimate oppositional drink: the “Uncola.” Rather than trying to play up the similarities the soda shared with its competitors, the new ads focused on its differences. In the company newsletter, the team explained “Seven-Up advertising tells people that, of the three top-selling soft drink brands, 7-Up, the Uncola, is the only one with distinctly different qualities.”

The “Uncola” struck a chord with the younger generation as the first ads appeared in 1968. They focused on puns based around “un” part of the new slogan. By portraying Coke and Pepsi as “the Establishment,” JWT effectively situated 7-Up as an alternative brand for alternative people.

The following year JWT created a contest inviting artists to submit wildly imaginative designs for 7-Up ads. The submissions were presented to the client, who chose the final images. The winner received a $2000 reward and the opportunity to work with JWT to make final versions. From this contest, JWT and the Seven-Up company built a campaign of colorful road-side billboards with psychedelic graphics. Art by young graphic designers including Pat Dypold, Ed Georges, and Milton Glaser dotted highways across the country in 1969.

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