You can learn a lot about copywriting from orange juice.
In 1769, Spanish missionaries planted the first California orange trees in San Diego.
Then, about a century later, the population in this region swelled when 300,000 gold-probing immigrants set their sights on finding some shiny rocks.
Most didn’t, but around 10,000 did contract scurvy. The miners called it ‘sailor’s disease’ and, reasoning that the ailment was cured by land, buried themselves in the sand up to their necks to treat it. It didn’t work.
Of course, one effective cure for scurvy, oranges, which are rich in Vitamin C, was already growing nearby.
But it wasn’t until the tail end of the California gold rush that commercial citrus production took root in its hospitable climate. Thereafter, the groves prospered and, in a matter of decades, they grew a lot of oranges – like, way too many.
The crop had become worthless. (Unless you had scurvy.)
So, in 1907, the California Fruit Growers Exchange hired a marketer called Albert Lasker to create a campaign to sell more oranges.
At the time, the average person only ate half an orange per-serving. Since it takes a few of the fruit to provide enough juice to fill a glass, Lasker’s idea of selling the juice instead of the fruit was genius. (Before Larkin, orange juice did technically exist, but it was boiled, canned and utterly tasteless.)
But his true brilliance, I think, was his tagline: ‘Drink an orange.’
This language appeared beside the first juice extractors, which sold along a bundle of oranges for just 10 cents. And, in a dazzling display of semiotic smarts, Lasker also changed the name California Fruit Growers Exchange to ‘Sunkist.’
Consumption of California oranges jumped by 400%.
The ads that followed managed to convince Americans that beginning their day with a big shock of sugar water was both healthy and natural.
In an essay called American Advertising Explained as Popular Art, Leo Spitzer praises one ad in particular, which depicts a scenic slice of southern California: ...on a high mountain range, covered with snow that glistens in the bright sunshine, furrowed by vertical gullies, towering over a white village with its neat, straight rows of orange trees, there rests a huge orange-colored sun, inscribed with the word ‘Sunkist.’
As Spitzer points out, this ad allows the consumer to feel like he or she is “drinking nectar at the source,” imbibing juice imbued by the warm nourishment of the sun.
Lasker’s line – Drink an orange – launched a product and a daily habit.
And while there have since been many promotional iterations shilling orange juice, they all essentially rely on his same premise.
We still sell the stuff the same way.
Case in point, in 2009, The New York Times ran a story about the outrage that ensued after Tropicana updated its logo, losing the iconic straw-in-an-orange image. (It’s difficult to imagine a visual representation of drinking an orange clearer than this.)
The new packages instead depicted a glass of orange juice.
Customers complained that the new packaging was “stupid” and “ugly” and so Pepsico decided to revert back to the old design.
The main thrust of the article, which ran more than a decade ago, was that new technology had empowered consumers with the ability to rapidly relay their opinions.
They didn’t want a glass of orange juice; they wanted to drink an orange.
As Chuck Klosterman points out in his book Eating The Dinosaur, this sentiment suggests that the complaining consumers were not buying the product itself, but rather the way the product was presented.
They were buying the image on the carton as much – if not more – than the actual juice.
Today, however, most of the orange juice we drink is far from freshly squeezed.
Most often, ‘not-from-concentrate’ means the beverage has essentially been perfumed. The juice sits on the shelf for up to a year before it’s injected with chemically engineered oils and flavours to simulate the taste of freshness.
Yet most of us don’t care, so long as we can still see a picture that reminds us of drinking an orange and sucking up some salubrious sunshine.
So what’s the takeaway here?
It’s one thing to invent a new product.
It’s quite another to create such an enduring idea.
‘Drink an orange.’ It’s a good line.