The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An old mug holds memories of coffee industry’s push for young minds

Dave Prevar of Annapolis, Md., holds a promotional coffee mug he received in 1969. The mugs were produced by the International Coffee Organization as part of an effort to market coffee to young people as the Think Drink. (Dave Prevar) (Dave Prevar)

In 1969, Dave Prevar fell under the sway of an international cartel whose wealthy members had tasked underlings with figuring out ways to influence young minds such as his. Dave put 75 cents in an envelope and mailed it to a post office box in New York City.

Soon, a package arrived at his door. Inside was an oddly shaped ceramic vessel designed to administer a dose of the cartel’s signature product, a dark, greasy liquid known on the streets as “joe,” “mud” and “java.”

It was a mug, a coffee mug, a Think Drink coffee mug.

Dave pulled that mug out of storage the other day, reminded of its existence by my recent column on the clear, globe-shaped coffee mugs Nescafé sold in the 1970s. The Nescafé mugs were from one coffee company. Dave’s mug was from coffee itself.

And what a mug it is. To my eye, it’s the stuff of nightmares, like something from Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery.” It’s white and shaped like a man’s face, if the face had been sculpted by Pablo Picasso during that artist’s cubist phase. The handle of the mug is a right hand, which rests against the face in that universal symbol of contemplation.

The design suggests that raising the mug to the lips will enable the drinker to consume thoughts themselves. The mug is truly a mind chalice.

Or maybe the mug was just a cheap promotion designed to sell coffee at a time when coffee producers were looking for a new market.

Well, it certainly was that.

In 1966, the London-based International Coffee Organization hired the U.S. ad agency McCann-Erickson to persuade 17-to-20-year-olds in North America to buy their product.

“We feel that the younger people are not drinking all the coffee they should,” Ulises Valdés, executive secretary of the World Coffee Promotion Committee, told the New York Times that year.

This was a multipronged effort. The trade group upped the frequency of a one-minute coffee commercial it was airing on such shows as “The Time Tunnel,” “The Avengers” and “The Wide World of Sports.”

Meanwhile, the PR firm Harshe-Rotman & Druck was tasked with urging communities to create unique spaces where coffee could be consumed: coffeehouses. It established a coffeehouse council and distributed a booklet on how to open a coffeehouse.

A half-hour film, “Coffee House Rendezvous,” featured scenes of youth coffeehouses from Glendale, Calif., to Racine, Wis., where fresh-faced folkie teenagers strummed guitars in front of coffee-quaffing audiences.

A coffeehouse, one parent said, “helps keep teenagers off the street, gives them something to do, gives them an outlet for their energies.”

PR honcho Kalman B. Druck told the Times: “In a coffee house, coffee is no longer just a beverage. It becomes a social catalyst.”

Druck claimed his agency’s effort had brought about a coffeehouse boom, raising the number of coffeehouses from 200 to 1,200. There was, he said, a “very strong and growing trend” toward nonprofit coffeehouses.

The film featured a titular theme song sung by the Niteliters. Another piece of jazzy, lightly caffeinated music — the instrumental “Music to Think By” — was released on vinyl, credited to Mr. T & The Coffeehouse 5.

And there was that mug, which was featured in ads placed in college newspapers nationwide. The ads featured headlines describing different unsettling college scenarios — “Your last check from home just bounced?,” “Your Psychology professor lives with his mother?,” “Your roommate can’t sleep in the dark?” — followed by the same tag line: “Think it over, over coffee. The Think Drink.”

The implication, author Mark Pendergrast wrote in his 2010 book “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World,” was that “Whenever a young adult had a difficult decision to make or serious studying to do, coffee would lubricate the brain cells.”

Alas, Pendergrast wrote, “The campaign’s appeal to rationality was directed to a generation in open revolt against logic and reason. These young rebels looked for spontaneous enlightenment through LSD or marijuana. A Think Drink did not appeal. A Thrill Pill did.”

During the presidential campaigns of 1968, the National Coffee Association handed out 68,000 pamphlets titled “Twelve Ways Coffee Can Help You Win Elections.”

That was the year Chicago police cracked the heads of antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention, suggesting that, as a thinking tool, even coffee had its limits.

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