Coca-Cola Goes to the Opera: Lillian Nordica’s Celebrity Endorsements

By: Kristen M. Turner (North Carolina State University) //

In 2013, Taylor Swift debuted a commercial for Diet Coke. The ad is a collage of shots that alternate between Swift composing her hit, “22,” and different fans in a series of mundane locations singing the tune. We hear Swift’s music, not as it appears on the radio, but as a union of her image and creativity, and the voices of regular Americans. A can of Diet Coke is always by Swift’s side, and the commercial ends with her walking on stage to perform the song. The message of the ad is clear—Diet Coke is hip, young, and inspires its users (like Swift) but is still perfect for regular folks who can only dream of a life similar to that led by the beautiful and youthful pop star.

2013 advertisement for Diet Coke starring Taylor Swift

This pairing in advertisements of celebrity singers and products that seemingly have nothing to do with music is a very old strategy. It dates back in the United States to at least the Civil War, when modern advertising tactics began to develop. Before then, manufacturers named their products after famous musicians but did not necessarily pay for the privilege. (For instance, it is doubtful that superstar Swedish soprano Jenny Lind was compensated for the many products that bore her name as a result of her much-publicized trip to the United States between 1850 and 1852.)

At first, advertisers tapped famous musicians to endorse pianos and later phonograph machines and recordings. It made sense—a skilled musician would surely know which brand of piano is the best, or which phonograph generates the most beautiful sound. But by the end of the nineteenth century, musicians were endorsing products that seemed to have little to do with them or their musicianship such as nerve tonics, bicycles, hand lotions, and even vacuum cleaners. Most commonly, advertisers turned to famous female opera singers when they wanted to use a celebrity endorsement. But why would marketing executives think that an opera singer could persuade anyone to buy a bicycle or a vacuum? The answer to that question lies less in who the celebrity was and more in what they represented. An advertisement is not just a document designed to convince someone to part with their money; it is also an artifact that can tell us about the value and social status people assign to artists, art forms, products, and the people who might buy those products.

During much of the nineteenth century, Americans thought opera was popular entertainment that everyone could enjoy—similar to movies or TV shows today. Audiences adored the romantic love stories, the exciting murder and mayhem, the beautiful music, and the prima donnas who sang the music. The celebrity of the prima donnas often eclipsed the works they sang on stage. Newspapers followed famous singers’ every move, gossiping about their love affairs and private lives, their careers, what they liked to wear, and how they decorated their homesOpera singers, like opera itself, became symbols for high-class culture and the good life.

Since opera singers were famous throughout the country, their endorsements were prized by marketers who wanted to sell products to Americans who aspired to a life similar to that symbolized by opera as an art form. Many of these ads ran in general-interest “ladies” magazines such as The Ladies’ Home Journal, Munsey’s Magazine, and McClure’s Magazine and were aimed at women because they typically controlled their families’ discretionary spending. The magazine cover from the May 1893 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal pictured below illustrates the kind of woman the Journal’s readers admired. The white woman in the image, clearly corseted and wearing a lovely ball gown, is pictured walking down a set of carpeted stairs, perhaps on her way to a party (or even the opera). We can imagine that she supervises a household but may not actually do the bulk of the housework herself. Although many of the readers of The Ladies’ Home Journal did not have such glamorous lives, it was the sort of life many hoped they would achieve someday.

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Cover of the May 1893 Issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal

These magazines published many pages of advertisements for the kinds of products that urban, white, middle-class women might need or want, either to fill their homes or help them cope with their lives. For example, many ads were for items such as canned food to feed their families or furniture to decorate their parlors. Nerve tonics were promoted to soothe these women’s worries, while the ad copy for merchandise such as hair treatments and corsets assured women these products would help them look beautiful.

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Despite the name of the hair tonic advertised above, Burnett’s Cococaine did not contain cocaine but coconut oil. The full hair of the white woman in the simple black-and-white drawing suggests the results a reader could expect after using the product.

Although many opera singers endorsed at least one product, Lillian Nordica (1857–1914) frequently showed up in advertisements for a wide variety of merchandise including pianos, tonics, and even Coca-Cola. She was born Lillian Norton on December 12, 1857, in Farmington, Maine. When she was 18, she moved to Milan to study voice (a career choice common among ambitious singers at that time). She returned to New York City in 1891, with a more European-sounding name (Nordica) and a reputation as a great operatic soprano with the experience of several triumphant seasons at the Bayreuth and Covent Garden Opera Houses.

Newspapers and magazines followed Nordica’s career, her picture was always in the press, and the gossip sheets were filled with the latest news about her life. There was plenty to report, too. She was married three times (even disinheriting her third husband on her deathbed), and she was a suffragette. Regular women would probably have been ostracized for such a scandalous life and radical political views, but Nordica simply became more famous. Nordica’s most well-known endorsement was for a new beverage—Coca-Cola. Invented in 1886, Coke was initially marketed as a medicinal tonic. In the late 1890s, the company’s CEO Asa Griggs Carter began to position Coke as a beverage for the upwardly-mobile middle class. Nordica became the face of the company in 1904. An image of her, dressed in a lovely white gown, holding a fan made of peacock’s feathers with a glass of Coke by her elbow, was reproduced in variety of advertisements from commemorative tea trays to coupons for a free Coke. Nordica looks financially comfortable, respectable, and demure. Her reputation as an irrepressible, well-traveled opera star with a long and successful career gave her—and by extension Coca-Cola—an exotic appeal, respectability, and solidity that the relatively new product could not achieve on its own. On the back of many trade cards with Nordica’s picture, the advertising copy advises that the drink is indispensable for “business and professional” men and “weary, thirsty” ladies.

Nordica also endorsed a host of other products, all marketed to women who had enough leisure time and money to worry, lose weight, and buy labor-saving household devices. These women were probably the wives of successful businessmen, lawyers, and merchants who did not have the income to sustain the lavish lifestyle of the richest Americans, but who might be called middle- or upper-middle-class today. The vacuum cleaner was probably the most expensive product attached to Nordica’s reputation. Although economical models were available, Nordica’s name was evoked for an upscale vacuum made by the Duntley Company. In the advertisement below, the image is of a well-dressed woman watching her maid vacuum a staircase, indicating that a Duntley vacuum cleaner was an appropriate appliance for someone with enough money to have household help and a large multi-story home. The copy of the ad features a list of wealthy businessmen and politicians who use the vacuum in their homes. Nordica stands out in the list because she is not described as someone’s wife and she is the only artist. Yet, her symbolic connections to opera and a life of wealth and culture seemed to be what was important to the marketers when they added her to the sort of people that used vacuum cleaners.

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Advertisement for Duntley Pneumatic Cleaner, Saturday Evening Post, 1913

In the advertising campaign for her weight-loss powder, Nordica even published a pamphlet with weight-loss tips, as well as pictures of other famous opera singers. The pamphlet was designed to equate the beauty and glamour of opera and opera singers with being thin—which could be achieved simply by soaking the pounds away in a bath laced with Nordica’s powder.

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Advertisement for Madame Nordica’s Bath Powder from Life, 1913

Just as Taylor Swift and her enticing music were used to sell Diet Coke in 2013 (and the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan provided background music for a Coke ad and Michael Jackson’s music was used to sell Pepsi), Coca-Cola employed Nordica and opera’s cultural and social connotations to sell its beverage over one hundred years earlier. Celebrities are more than individuals; they are mirrors for our society. When a celebrity endorses a product, it becomes part of a network of cultural associations that encompasses our ideas about race, class, culture, and gender. When a woman bought Nordica’s weight-loss powder, she endorsed a way of life—one that aspired to culture, sophistication, and wealth—just as she might have imaged Nordica’s life to be already.

For Discussion

  1. Pick an advertisement that uses a musical figure as a celebrity endorser. What cultural associations do the endorser and the product share? Why do you think an advertiser chose to pair that person with that product?
  2. Google the famous opera singer, Renée Fleming. What sort of products does she endorse? Do you think an opera singer is an effective spokesperson for a product today? Why or why not?

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