Coca-Cola saluted Black History Month by spotlighting Shirley Hasley, a social and advertising pioneer.
Meet Shirley Hasley: The Accidental Coke Model Who Helped Make History
By Elliott Smith
By the time Shirley Hasley became an advertising pioneer, she’d already made history in her day job.
In 1965, Hasley was hired as the first African-American teacher in Mill Valley, Calif., a predominately white and affluent suburb of San Francisco. A recent graduate of San Francisco State, what should have been an exciting time for a young professional was instead fraught with the regressive racial politics of the day.
“It was not a welcome time for me,” Hasley recalled. “The parents really didn’t want me, and they were going to protest. That wasn’t the kind of welcome I wanted.”
But with the support of the superintendent and a strong reliance on her faith, Hasley stayed in her teaching position.
Then, in early-1966, a random encounter brought Coca-Cola into her life in an unexpected way.
“I was crossing the street going to my car, and a PR person for Coke said to me, ‘We are embarking on a new ad campaign that I thought you might be interested in,’” Hasley recalled. “He took a Polaroid and said he was sending it to headquarters, and if they liked me they would pursue the next step.”
Indeed, Coke was working on a new campaign that featured African-American professionals, including doctors, lawyers and, yes, teachers for a series of ads that asked readers “Do Things Go Better With Coke?”
Many of Coke’s early ads featuring African-Americans were centered around sports heroes and entertainment figures before shifting to people in “everyday life”. Mary Alexander made history when she was selected as the first female African-American Coke model in 1955.
“The intent was pretty obvious,” said Coca-Cola Archivist Ted Ryan. “Coke had been doing African-American focused ads since 1950, and this series was Coke’s way of normalizing race in America.”
Much to her surprise, Hasley got the call to be in an ad the following Monday, and initially deferred due to her impending wedding. But Coke persuaded the young teacher to fly to New York in December 1966 as part of a “honeymoon” trip for the photo shoot.
“I was really excited because I got to stay at the Plaza Hotel, which was quite ritzy,” Hasley remembers. “It’s exciting just to think back on it. It was quite an eye-opener for me. I was interested in horses, and we got to do part of the shoot in Central Park with horses. There were takes and takes and takes. It’s hard work!”
Another aspect Hasley said made the shoot special was that noted photographer Richard Avedon was taking the pictures. She shot at a local school, the Plaza and Central Park as part of the triptych in the advertisement. When the ads appeared in magazines like Ebony and Jet in the fall of 1967, it sent shockwaves through Halsey’s community.
“When I came back from the shoot, everyone was very excited,” she said. “That’s how I kind of became accepted in the community. It didn’t solve all the problems, but it was a way to be a part of the community.”
After the Coca-Cola ad, Hasley modeled in a few other pieces, but came to realize that her true calling was in the classroom.
“It challenged me to really look at what was important. If I had continued doing commercials, I would not have had my teaching career,” she said. “I’m glad I decided to continue with teaching.”
Hasley taught elementary school for 38 years before retiring to work on charitable causes in her community. She recently remarried, and as part of her honeymoon, took a trip to Atlanta, where she visited the World of Coca-Cola. To her surprise, she was recognized by employees and given a tour of the attraction.
Hasley took it as a sign that, after all these years, she and Coke are still connected.
“Back then, I didn’t really think about what the ad meant,” Hasley said. “I wasn’t thinking about making inroads. But now that it’s a proud memory, I’m pleased to be a part of the early (African-American) models. I’m glad that it is a part of my memory and has been a focal point of my life for all these years.”