7-Up Art, Pepsi Art, and Sunkist Art: the Presentation of Brand Symbols in Art

Susan Spiggle, The University of Connecticut
ABSTRACT - This paper argues that the appropriation of brand symbols by artists in various art worlds is an importance area of inquiry for consumer researchers. A discussion of the features of brand symbols and images which render them unique symbols for conveying meaning by artists is followed by the presentation of data on the use of brand symbols from a content analysis of underground comix. Various explanations of the type of products and brands which appear are explored.
[ to cite ]:
Susan Spiggle (1985) ,"7-Up Art, Pepsi Art, and Sunkist Art: the Presentation of Brand Symbols in Art", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 11-16.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 11-16


Susan Spiggle, The University of Connecticut


This paper argues that the appropriation of brand symbols by artists in various art worlds is an importance area of inquiry for consumer researchers. A discussion of the features of brand symbols and images which render them unique symbols for conveying meaning by artists is followed by the presentation of data on the use of brand symbols from a content analysis of underground comix. Various explanations of the type of products and brands which appear are explored.


Brand symbols and their associated images beckon us from TV, radio, magazines, billboards, newspapers, scores, and our own cupboards. We learn to recognize them as commercial messages and discount, ignore, or embrace them according to our interests, attitudes, and involvement. We also confront brand symbols in a different context. Artists of all types incorporate brand symbols in their art work.

In the 1920s Stuart Davis incorporated Lucky Strike symbols in his paintings. In the 1950s and 1960s Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Claus Oldenburg, Tom Wesselman, and Robert Ruaschenberg used the symbols of Ballantine Beer, Pall Malls, Budweiser, Campbells, Coke, Underwood, and Brillo along with comic characters and other symbols of mid 20th century everyday life in paintings. Corn Chex, Die Hard, Colombo, Dannon, Coke, Chef Burger, 9 Lives, Moosehead Beer, Pepsodent, STP, Viccor Records, Post, Crest, Uncle Ben's, Salem, Winston, and Raleigh are displayed as garbage on the set of the current Boston production of Cats. In a 1984 touring production of Pascual Olivera and Angela del Moral: A Celebration of Spain in Dance and Music, the performers make reference to Sears, Max Factor, Clairol, and Kentucky Fried Chicken in joking with the audience. The rock band, Duran Duran, performs in front of a huge red curtain with the white Coca-Cola wave across it. The films, E.T., The Big Chill, and Gorky Park, conspicuously display such brands as Reeces Pieces, Blaupunkt, Olivetti, and Kelloggs. Street artists have painted a street car in New York City to resemble a Campbells soup can. The syndicated newspaper comic strips, Bloom County and Shoe incorporate the symbols for Lean Cuisine, Bell Telephone, Atari, and K-Mart among others. Underground comix characters are surrounded by such real and fictitious brands as Canada Dry, the Wall Street Journal, Toad Beer, Toxic Shock Tampons, and Pepperidge Farm. A mural painted by children in the dining hall of the 4-H Camp at Abington, Connecticut portrays a suburban landscape out of whose center rises the golden arches of McDonalds.

What is the significance of performers, professional fine artists, comic artists, street artists, and children incorporating brand symbols in their art work? What are consumer researchers to understand about the existence of this phenomenon and which product categories and brands are chosen? This paper speculates about the meaning and potential impact of brand symbols in arc. As a first attempt to shed some empirical light on this subject, data from a content analysis of underground comix is presented.


Artists working in visual, written, or performance art forms use symbols to convey meaning, whether the intended audience is mass or specialized. Through the choice of symbols and their juxtapositions, artists critique, mock, reflect, idealize, praise, and create new visions of reality. The ability of an artist to accomplish one or more of these objectives is partially a function of which symbols are chosen and the type of meanings they convey to particular audiences.

Brand symbols have particular features which render them unique for incorporation into various art forms. Through the medium of commercial art brand symbols are created with aesthetic guidelines and chosen for their communicative effectiveness. Advertisers have access to immense resources for the production and distribution of their images. High quality artwork a reproductive techniques create ads of considerable artistic merit in which other valued symbols appear along with compelling imagery. Market research and copy testing help to insure that the message delivered will be relevant to the intended audience.

In addition to the wealth of resources which allows the compelling communication of brand symbols, advertising budgets permit their frequent and ubiquitous presence. Most Americans probably encounter Coca-Cola symbols more frequently than symbols of the major religious, governmental, and cultural institutions in society. Not only are they frequently encountered, but they have become part of everyday reality, embedded with and surrounded by noncommercial stimuli. Well funded ad campaigns result in the ability of brand symbols to evoke similar images, emotions, and associations to a nation with access to mass media. As such, brand symbols have come to perform an important integrative function in a still heterogeneous society (Cf. Lohof (1960) on Marlboro cigarettes and Hall (1978) on McDonalds).

Brand symbols and images are pervasive, compelling and widely recognized. Consequently, they provide unique symbols for a variety of artistic purposes. A central question which the marketer of a brand may ask is what implications the use of the brand in art may have in both shaping and reflecting public perceptions of it.

Hirschman (1980) has raised the question of the locus of the source of control over brand symbols and produce definitions. She argues that consumers as well as producers may exercise control over product definitions. A third potential source of control over the social definition of products and brands is artists, particularly those who reach large audiences.

Marketers jealously guard the symbols, images, and trade names of their products through registered trademarking and litigation against infringers. Such legal actions are generally directed against market competitors who attempt to trade on consumer awareness and loyalty to a brand built up by the defending firm. Good brand management involves, among other important managerial actions, boundary maintenance actions over the brand's name, symbols, slogans, and images. Artists employing brand symbols in their art are. However, not competitors appropriating the economic value of a consumer franchise. 1 Rather, they are interlopers who attempt to appropriate the emblematic value of brand symbols to convey their own meaning and purposes.

The impact upon the brand definition may be positive, negative, or neutral depending upon the artist's intent, execution, and audience. Wesselman's 1962 "White for Purity", a sculpture of a white Christian cross with a white Coca-Cola bottle embedded in each arm, may or may not serve the company's purposes. One can easily imagine satiric or pornographic treatments of brands, or brand symbols, combined with unfavorable associations as detrimental to the brand image. Regardless of the impact, the marketer of the brand loses some control over the brand definition.

A more important issue to the brand manager than the potential for losing some control over the brand definition may be the how the use of brand symbols in art reflects upon existing definitions of brands. Do certain brands and product types appear more frequently in different art forms? Are different types of products and brands found in mass versus specialized art? Which are likely to be satirically disguised or presented in a negative manner? Are high share brands, long lived brands, heavily advertised ones, or those with special symbolic or social significance portrayed differently than other ones?


The research presented below analyzes the types of products and brands which appear in underground comix. The first underground comic was privately printed and hawked in San Francisco in 1968. Other artists, whose careers were started by drawing for college humor magazines and the rock poster industry, were joined by comic-fan, amateur artists in creating the fledgling industry which boomed from 1970 to 1972. Economic and cultural factors produced a slump in 1973 followed by a restructuring in 1974, after which comix subject matter became more diverse and the industry more fragmented. Comix are distributed through specialized stores, direct mail by publishers, and by specialized mail distributors. The audience is, thus, limited to those with knowledge of and access to these channels (See Kennedy 1982, Sanders 1975, Brockman 1971).

Underground comix are an interesting art form for the study of brand symbolism in art for several reasons. The audience is small and very specialized. The typical print run is 10,000 to 15,000 as opposed to 200,000 for above ground comics (Kennedy, 1982), or the estimated U.S. audience size of 100 million for Sunday comics (Kassarjian, 1983). In spite of its small absolute size, the audience is part of a larger segment of the population of considerable social significance--individuals with varying degrees of experience with the counterculture. The sheer size and stage of life cycle of this group render them a population segment with significant economic power and political clout.

Underground comic art embraces satire, critique, reflection, praise, and new visions of reality, embodying the values and modes of expression of its culturally specialized audience. Brand symbols appear in undergrounds as the focus of character's attentions, as objects of consumption, and as prominent and hidden background features of the comic panels. Brands are found as identifiable objects lending an air of reality to a scene (a character is reading The DailY Flash), as well as objects of satire (a truck with a Drugs R Us sign), and critical attack (the golden arches of McDonalds over a death camp into which earthlings with Gucci bags are being herded underneath which a sign reads "over 100 million seared"). Underground comic artists utilize brand symbols in different ways, providing a basis for looking at how different types of brands are presented.

In addition, the art form combines mass media and individual artistic elements. Underground comix artists produce their art in a relatively simple and inexpensive production and distribution network which gives them a great deal of freedom of artistic expression. In contrast, abovegrounds are produced in a complex an expensive means of production requiring the artists' integration into a large-scale, structured division of labor. Their work is constrained by editorial policy and the necessity to conform to the Comics Code (Kennedy 1982). The similarities and differences between aboveground and underground comic forms and their audiences allow for the possibility of valuable comparisons in the study of brand symbolism in comic art.


The following data is from a broader study comparing the Content of underground comix to Sunday comics. The broader study includes an analysis of the presentation of the roles, goals, and means of characters (following Kassarjian's 1983 work) and of consumer products, retail establishments, and corporations. The data presented here is drawn from a systematic content analysis of a Sample of underground comix from two periods, 1971-72 and 1981-82.


The Sample

the universe from which the sample was drawn is a private comix collection owned by Clinton Sanders. The collection contains all titles from the major publishers of undergrounds from 1968 to the present. A comparison of titles from The Illustrated Checklist to Underground Comix (Wiener 1979) shows the collection to be 79% complete (154 out of 194) for the years 1971-72. The collection contains 74% (154 out of 208) of the titles for 4971-72 listed in The Official Underground and New Wave Comix Price Guide (1983) and 36% (26 out of 73) of the titles for the 1981-82 period. The latter guide includes & more diverse set of titles, especially for the later years when the comix world became more diffused and distribution more fragmented. The sampled universe does not contain every possible title, but is representative of the phenomenon of interest here. In fact, the sampled universe by virtue of its delimited boundaries, is more representative of the phenomenon being investigated than most art worlds and other communications media which researchers content analyze.

The periods 1971-72 and 1981-82 were chosen because they represent different stages in the product life cycle of underground comix. Comix have been published for only fifteen years. The 81-82 period was chosen because it was the most recent two year period for which the collection was complete at the time the data was gathered. The 71-72 period was chosen because it represents the growth stage or boom years of undergrounds and because it provides a decade interval between periods. It further represents the height of the countercultural years.

Every strip was enumerated in each underground comix book and assigned a number from 1 to the number of strips in each period. There were 1542 strips in the 71-72 books and 296 strips in the 81-82 books. Fifty-five strips were then sampled from each period. They were chosen by fandom numbers generated by a computer program.

Content Categories and Coding

The content analysis categories were constructed to provide answers to the following questions.

1. What brands are shown?

2. Are they real, fictitious, satirically disguised, or generic?

3. Are they shown as the focus of attention of characters, being consumed, or as prominent or hidden background items?

4. Do characters display positive, negative or neutral attitudes toward them?

5. What product types are found?

6. Is the product a durable, nondurable, or a service?

7. What state in the cycle of production, distribution, consumption, and disposal is the product found?

8. Is the product presented by the artist in a positive, negative or neutral manner?

Besides these categories, each scrip was defined by period (71-72) or ( 81-82) and artist's intent. The latter classification was based on a modification of Kassarjian's coding scheme (1983) for Sunday comics. He categorized strips in Sunday comics on the basis of whether the intent was laughter or adventure. Because of the different content of underground comix, two additional categories were used, humorous critique and embittered critique The former represents strips which poke fun at or satirize establishment definitions in a humorous manner. The latter was used with strips which provide humorless and biting critiques of establishment definitions.

The content analysis was conducted by the author and Clinton Sanders. We each independently read and coded every strip. The strips were analyzed for their content on commercial symbols at the same time as their content on several strip-as-a-whole variables and for the roles, goals, means, and other variables of characters. The strip-as-a whole and character coding schemes were developed from Kassarjian's (1983) coding scheme and modified where necessary. The brand symbol coding scheme was developed and pretested on strips not included in the sample. The scheme was discussed and modified until both coders reached a 90% level of agreement in their coding assignments.

The scheme was then used to analyze brand symbols in the 110 sampled strips. All objects or references to objects which were identified by a decipherable symbol (verbal or non-verbal) that represented a brand or labeled consumer product were coded as products. We identified 210 products and made 1680 separate judgements on chem. We disagreed on 133 judgements resulting in a intercoder reliability race of 92%. The disagreements were spread approximately equally across coding categories. Coding differences were resolved by both coders agreement after we discussed the reasons for the original coding assignments.


Of the 110 strips 44% were classified as laughter, 5% as adventure, 30% as humorous critique, 14% as embittered critique, and 7% were unclassifiable. An increase of embittered critique occurred in the 81-82 period. In 71-72 5% were embittered critique, but 22% were in 81-82. The adventure and other categories dropped from 20% to 5%, while laughter and humorous critique remained stable.

Of the 110 strips 57% had at least one consumer brand with an average of 1.7 brands per strip. Comparison data has not yet been analyzed for brands in Sunday comics. However, readers familiar with Sunday comics will recognize that a considerably higher proportion of undergrounds contain branded products.

Of the 210 products coded only four real brands appeared twice--Cadillac, Old Crow, Twinkies, and TV Guide (once satirically disguised as TV Guts). McDonalds appeared once on a bag from which the character Mickey the Rat wa having lunch and once as advertising in the newspaper for help in the classified section. Other real, nationally recognized brands included Brillo, Coke (as Cokesi), Drano, Colgate (as Godgate), Jello, Kelloggs, Pampers, Wonderbread, Zenith, Cheer (as Queer), Sunkist, and Wesson. Actual brands were more common than others as Table 1 demonstrates.



Between the 71-72 and 81-82 periods there was a marked decline in fictitious brands accompanied by an increase in actual, generic, and satirically disguised brands.

This trend is consistent with the findings by McNeal, McDaniel, and Smart (1983) in their replication of Bogart and Lehman's (1973) study of the number and types of brands which female consumers could produce through unaided recall. Pointing to increases in the number of nationally advertised brands and generic products between the periods, they correctly hypothesized that respondents would be able to produce a significantly greater average number of brands and a larger proportion of private and generic brands. The fact that the changes between the two time periods in the proportion of brand types in underground comix paralleled those of consumer recall suggests that both reflect trends in the marketing environment. The distribution of products by type and trends over time, however, did not parallel those in the brand repertoires of the unaided brand recall studies. As Table 2 demonstrates the distribution of product types in comix is substantially different from that of unaided recall by female consumers. Food products were of substantially smaller proportions in undergrounds than in the unaided brand repertoires. More striking is the preponderance of information and leisure products which included many books, records, and newspapers in underground comix, while this category was not enumerated in the above studies. Further, alcoholic beverages, the third largest category in underground comix, was minimal in their studies. Likewise, personal and home care products received considerably higher proportions of mentions in the unaided brand repertoire studies than in underground comix. In both brand recall studies and in comix tobacco products were negligible, and automobiles, clothing, and appliances comprised between 3% and 9% of products.



Neither the trends over time, nor the general proportions of most product types in comix paralleled those in the unaided brand repertoires. The parallels in brand types and lack of parallels in product types between comix and unaided brand repertoires suggest that for artists and consumers, brand type consciousness may be a function of the brand marketing environment, whereas product type consciousness may be more a function of individual experience and lifestyle. The preoccupation with information and leisure products, food, and alcohol may say more about comix artist's (who are overwhelmingly male) consumption patterns than about those of the larger society. The failure of female consumers to recall information and leisure product brands also likely results from the fact that the typical consumer is more likely to think of brands in product categories whose marketing utilizes consumer package goods techniques than other types.

The presentation of products by the artist and the character orientation toward products remained stable over the two periods. Characters were negative toward 8% of the products, positive toward 13% (as indicated by some behavior other then mere purchase or consumption), neutral toward 49%, and had no relationship to 30%. Artists portrayed 81% of the products in a neutral manner, 2% positively, and 17% negatively. Artist's intent was not related to the manner in which produces were presented or characters' orientation toward them. Strips defined as embittered critique and as humorous critique were not more likely to have negative product definitions than those defined as laughter, adventure, or other. Nor were characters more likely to be negative toward products in those types of strips. However, the types of products, whether they were real brands and whether they were the focus of character action or background features, did vary under differing artist's intent.

The distribution of product types across artist's intent can be largely explained by the setting and roles of the characters. In adventure stories one would not expect characters to be using or surrounded by leisure or information products, and one would expect them to be in settings where alcohol was available. Since one would expect appliances to be found in domestic settings, the disproportionate percentage of them in adventures stories is surprising. Although, the small number of products in adventure strips suggests that this may not be important.



A column in Table 3 whose distribution is not readily explained by character roles is food. When artists are drawing humorous and embittered critique comix they show disproportionately more food. Food products are also more likely to be satirically disguised (28%) than other types of products. This satirical treatment of food probably results from comix artists' poking fun at widely recognized and frequently used brands. One might also expect personal care products which share these characteristics with food to be more prevalent in the strips and to also be objects of satire. The different treatment of food may result from special significance attached to products which are literally consumed, or incorporated into the self, as opposed to those that are merely used.

Comix artists communicate their intent in employing brand symbols in how they identify the brand and whether it is employed as a background feature or the object of a character's actions.



Comix artists providing embittered critiques are likely to use real brands in their work. However, they do not disguise them as might be expected. Rather, satirically disguised brands tend to appear in comix strips which employ humor. Adventure strips tend to employ fictitious brands.

As Table 5 suggests artists drawing strips communicating embittered critique are less like y to show brands as background features of the panel. Characters are consuming products or focusing attention on them. While not shown in the table, characters are about as equally likely to consume or use (21%) as to focus attention on brands (28%) in humorous strips. In adventure and other strips characters are more than twice as likely to consume brands (37%) as to attend to them (16%). But, in bitterly critical strips they are more than twice as likely to focus attention on brands (54¦b) and not consume them.



Apart from the type of comix produced, artists use different types of brand identifications for different product categories and incorporate them in different ways in comix strips. Because 80% of the products in the strips were in the categories of food, alcohol, and information and leisure, other product types have been deleted in the remaining tables. Food and information and leisure products were more than twice as likely to represent actual brands, through real symbols or as satirically disguised, than alcohol which is much more likely to be a fictitious brand. Likewise, information and leisure products were only half as likely to be presented as generic.



The differential portrayal of the brand identification of these different product types may be partly a function of the marketing practices of the product industries. Food brands are widely known through the marketing techniques of consumer package goods. In spite of the wide recognition of beer brands of the two major brewers, comix artists draw a high proportion of cans with just "beer" on them and fictitious brands such as "Toad Beer". A high proportion of the information and leisure products were newspapers which when labeled were almost always given the names of actual papers or satirically disguised ones such as "Los Angeles Fishtrapper Herald". Other frequently appearing information and leisure products were record albums and TV shows which also tended to be actual--Talking Heads--or satirically disguised- "As the World Grinds to a Halt".

Comix artists also incorporate these product types differently in their strips. Characters are more likely to direct their attention to food than to consume it, but are more likely to consume information and leisure products. Alcohol is disproportionately used as a background item in strips with which characters have no relationship. The disproportionate use of alcohol as a background item and food as background or object of attention may be explained by the setting and roles of characters. As in Sunday comics underground comix characters are typically shown involved in various activities and socializing, recreating, or visiting. Consumption of food and alcohol is sometimes part of these activities, but they are more typically reading the newspaper or listening to record albums.



Summary of Findings

The data presented here suggests that comix artists use brands in subtle ways to communicate their purposes to readers. Characters are not typically shown praising or impugning brands. Nor do artists typically attack brands in an overt manner. Instead, underground comix artists draw humorously named fictitious brands and satirically disguised brands as background features of panels. They show characters in settings with real brands as background features or as objects of characters' attentions to ground their strips in everyday reality. They also employ real brands when their intention is to provide a critique of the establishment.

The distribution of product types in underground products with its overwhelming emphasis on information and leisure products, food and alcohol may represent comix artists' special preoccupations and lifestyles. A comparison with the distribution of product types in Sunday comics may suggest the extent to which underground comix artists and their audience embrace distinct or mainstream consumer lifestyles. If the distribution is similar in Sunday comics, we may speculate that such product types have special significance for American consumption patterns. If the distribution is dissimilar, we may speculate that the product categories of branded products in comic art reflect consumption patterns and values of groups with distinct lifestyles.

One hundred and twelve actual brands appeared in the sampled strips as real or satirically disguised, but only four brands appeared more than once. Twinkies, Cadillac and TV Guide have special significance as brands for different reasons. Twinkies represents the archtypical, widely consumed, and long lived junk Food. Cadillac represents the symbolic epitome of establishment success. TV Guide is one of the most widely circulated publications in the U.S. These three brands, then, have symbolic value and/or large market shares. Old Crow also appeared twice, but has no obvious characteristics that account for its double appearance.

No single characteristic typifies all the 108 actual brands which appeared once. However, a majority were widely known brands currently on the market. Some brands such as Victor Records and Halo shampoo were better known from the past. Many of the brands are market leaders, such as Coke, while others have moderate market shares, such as Canada Dry. Some were brands of childhood, such as Koolaid, while others represent adult concerns, such as Drano, Schiltz, and Vogue. Finally, some brands are widely consumed, such as Wonderbread, while other are elite products, such as Dior.


The title of this paper is taken from a quote by the pop artist, Claus Oldenburg, who said, "I am for 7-Up Art, Pepsi Art, and Sunkist Art..-" (Lippard 1966). The mid century pop artists pushed the boundaries of art to unacceptable limits for many critics and laymen by incorporating brand symbols and symbols of other everyday, mundane objects, including comic characters in their art. Comic artists also use brand symbols in comic art. However, since comic art is generally not considered a fine art, their use hardly offends comic audiences. In fact, most comix and comic readers probably pay little attention to brands in strips. In both fine art and comic art, brand symbols serve as familiar objects. They may, however, shock the viewer by their unexpected connection to valued symbols from other domains, or be overlooked by their routine incorporation in a normalized setting.

Some brands, such as Coke and McDonalds are found in a wide variety of different art forms, including both underground and Sunday comics. Such brands appear to have special symbolic significance, apart from market share and brand longevity. As brand symbols proliferate in our vistas, it is quite reasonable to expect that artists or all types will employ them to reach us. The systematic content analysis of brands in various art worlds may provide us with insights about brand images and brand definitions. It may also aid us as an unobtrusive measure in understanding consumption values and their variations over time and across groups in society.


Bogart, Leo and Charles Lehman (1973), What Makes a Brand Name Familiar?," Journal of Marketing Research, 8 (February), 17-22.

Brockman, Jacob. (1971), "International Comix Conspiracy" The Youth Culture. New York: The Playboy Press.

Hall, Gregory. (1978), "The Psychology of Fast Food Happiness," Journal of PoPular Culture 2, 398-402.

Hirschman, Elizabeth. (1980), "Comprehending Symbolic Consumption: Three Theoretical Issues," in Elizabeth Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, eds. Symbolic Consumer Behavior Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research.

Kassarjian, Harold H. (1983), "Social Values and The Sunday Comics: A Content Analysis," in Richard P Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, eds. Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. X, Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research: 434-38.

Kennedy, Jay. (1982), The Official Underground and New Wave Comix Price Guide Cambridge, Mass.: Boatner Norton Press.

Lippard, Lucy. (1966), Pop Art New York: Praeger, p.106.

Lohof, Bruce A. (1969), "The Higher Meaning of Marlboro Cigarettes," Journal of Popular Culture, 3: 441-450.

McNeal, James U., Stephen W. McDaniel, and Denise T. Smart (1983), "The Brand Repertoire: Its Content and Organization," in Patrick Murphy and Eugene Laczniak, eds. A Educators' Conference Proceedings, Series 149, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 92-96.

Sanders, Clinton R. (1975), "Icons of the Alternate Culture: The Themes and Functions of Underground Comix," Journal of Popular Culture 8: 836-51.

Weiner, Robert K. (1979), Illustrated Checklist for Underground Comix Cambridge, Mass.: Comix Archival Press.