History of advertising: No 170: Joan Crawford's Pepsi sign

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie. A world-famous actress out for revenge on her late husband's arch business rival. A tale of bitterness among New York's super-rich.

Playing the lead was the Oscar-winning Joan Crawford, a glamorous ambassador for Pepsi-Cola, then run by her fourth husband, Alfred Steele.

"I hate to use my wife to help me sell," Steele confessed. "But, let’s face it, she does."

The story goes that Crawford took her Pepsi zeal to the extreme when she applied to become a resident of River House, one of the world’s most exclusive apartment buildings, in Manhattan. However, the River House board was infamous for turning down would-be residents, whatever their status. 

Gloria Vanderbilt, Richard Nixon and Diane Keaton were among those blackballed. So was Crawford. And to make matters worse, the head of the board was Robert Woodruff, Coca-Cola’s former president. 

Legend has it that Crawford, who had taken Steele’s place on Pepsi’s board after his death, retaliated by ordering the erection of a Pepsi sign on the bank of the East River directly opposite River House as a constant reminder to the residents of her humiliation.

It’s a great tale. But, as in any war, the first casualty of the Cola War was truth. The fact is that the sign was in place well before Crawford’s ap-plication. Indeed, it is there to this day, although it was dismantled and moved slightly to the north in 2009.

What is true, though, is that Crawford remained a staunch advocate of Pepsi for the rest of her life. "Every time you drink a Pepsi, I want you to think of Joan Crawford," she said. "If you drink Coke, you can think of those polar bears."

Things you need to know

  • Crawford, who appeared in print and TV ads for Pepsi, pressed for Pepsi trucks, bottles and signs to appear in her films. She travelled more than 100,000 miles on Pepsi’s behalf.
  • Steele, a one-time Coke vice-president and former boss of D’Arcy, died of a heart attack aged 57 in 1959 after a nationwide tour with his wife urging bottlers to help underwrite Pepsi’s latest ad campaign.
  • Crawford was forcibly retired from Pepsi’s board in 1973, four years before her death.