In 1969, 7Up was in trouble. The fizzy lemon-lime beverage was getting its ass handed to it by Coke and Pepsi and was on the verge of going bankrupt and disappearing from store shelves entirely. But the J. Walter Thompson Company (JWT), a savvy Chicago ad firm, had a bold strategy for revitalizing the brand. 7Up would bill itself as “the UnCola” and make a play for the anti-establishment youth market, then inflamed by drugs, rock music, and antiwar protests. The gambit worked, and from 1969 to 1975, the soft drink’s ads were dominated by swirling colors, psychedelic butterflies, girls with kaleidoscope eyes, and other trippy images. Major influences on the campaign included The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, the underground comics of R. Crumb, and the work of contemporary artists like Peter Max, even though Max’s own 7Up ad designs were all rejected.
Advertising is meant to be fleeting and ephemeral, but a man named Bob Treat has been collecting 7Up promotional items from this era. He talks with Lisa Hix of Collectors Weekly for an evocative article called “An Un-Conventional Thirst: Collecting 7Up’s Most Beautiful, Hallucinatory Billboards.”
Though 7UP’s motivations were completely mercenary—they just wanted to sell soda to hippies—the ads created for this campaign were genuine works of art. The article frequently describes JWT as a real-life equivalent of Mad Men (artist Milton Glaser, who worked on the “UnCola” campaign, also designed a poster for the seventh season of the AMC series). Though Treat’s collection is far-ranging, he does concentrate on collecting some of the enormous, 10-foot-tall billboards that 7Up released between 1969 and 1975. These outdoor ads were not made to last, but some were given away to college students in the hopes that the billboards would be plastered on dorm walls or some such. That’s how Treat wound up with them.
But what does a collector even do with these gigantic ads? They’re too big to display permanently, so Treat carefully unrolls them, photographs them, and shares the pictures on his incredible Flickr account before putting them into storage. His ultimate plan is for a museum exhibit, complete with quotes from the artists themselves. Meanwhile, internet users can enjoy these relics from a time when 7Up pandered to the counterculture in order to stay afloat. It was a weird time in America.