Shakespeare the salesman: Advertising Coca Cola, iPhones, and chewing tobacco

Shakespeare is a familiar sight in the theater and on the movie screen, but he’s permeated many other areas of American life. Advertisers have picked up on the ubiquity of Shakespeare for more than two centuries.

Shakespeare and his characters have been used to sell everything from chewing tobacco to iPhones. This advertisement from 1874 refers to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Chewing tobacco ad
James Moran & Co.’s Romeo fine-cut chewing tobacco. St. Louis, Missouri, 1874. Lithograph. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The first printing of Shakespeare’s image in America appeared not in a collection of his plays or poems, but rather in an ad for a stationery business, in 1787.

Shakespeare advertisements
James Trenchard, Books & Stationary . . . sold at the store of Thos. Sedden. Philadelphia, 1787. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Marketers are repeatedly capitalizing on Shakespeare’s association with high culture and sophistication to elevate their products, as we see in this ca. 1950 magazine advertisement for Coca Cola where the complete works of Shakespeare appear alongside opera glasses and a picture of Thomas Jefferson’s estate.

“Thirst, too, seeks quality”. Magazine advertisement for Coca Cola. American, ca. 1950.

We also see Shakespeare’s image and words in promotional products, such as this 1890 booklet of “boiled down” Shakespeare (plot summaries of his plays) presented by the New Home Sewing Machine Co. and this 1917 Marcus Ward calendar, illustrated with a scene from As You Like It.

The Folger collection has advertisements that use Shakespeare to sell bicycles, cars, and even mustard. What ads have you seen recently that incorporate Shakespeare or references to his plays?

Some of the advertisements shown here were part of America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, an exhibition at the Los Angeles Public Library about Shakespeare’s enduring role in American culture.


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