The Wild West was a land of adventure, open spaces, hardship and individual freedom whose mythos far surpassed its reality.
It also was a handy way to sell soft drinks.
The Dr Pepper Museum takes a look at the latter, with visual flavorings of cowboys, Western vistas and brand names, in its exhibit “Wild West,” which opens a nearly year-long run Saturday.
Associate director Joy Summar-Smith said the idea for the exhibit evolved from the museum’s collection of soft drink memorabilia and historical artifacts, many of which carried a Western motif.
The West didn’t have a beverage connection — at least a nonalcoholic one — but was more a state of mind that advertisers wanted to evoke.
“The idea of the Wild West was so very appealing to Americans since the colonial days. The West was always out there,” she said. “It’s a place where religion doesn’t matter. Race doesn’t matter. Male or female doesn’t matter. The West is a place we all can go.”
It didn’t hurt, either, that the West also was often dry, hot, dusty and in need of a refreshing drink.
The exhibit features promotional posters and placards, bottles, belt buckles and other memorabilia, and one of the crowd-pleasing pieces in the museum’s permanent collection, a life-size horse statue covered with Dr Pepper bottle caps and a mane and tail cut from Dr Pepper cans, created for Neiman Marcus.
There are interactive displays where children can pretend to cook from the back of a chuck wagon, tell stories around a faux campfire and design their own cattle brand.
And, yes, there was a Dr Pepper cattle brand.
The heyday of Dr Pepper’s Western-theme promotions came in the 1930s through 1950s, with a resurgence in the ’90s.
Cowgirl Penny Pepper, played by Martha Mears, hosted the soft drink company’s “10-2-4 Ranch” radio program with Dick Foran in the early ’40s, a musical variety show that featured the Sons of the Pioneers (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds”) as regulars.
A booted, hatted Cowgirl Penny sitting on a rail fence, with snow-capped mountains in the background, was an image from that ’40s campaign, even if, as Summar-Smith points out, the idea came from a New York advertising firm and the photo session was held on a Long Island dude ranch.
Some soft drink companies hoped a Western mystique on their bottles would persuade customers — there is a can of Doc Holliday soda, though the real Doc was known for drinking harder stuff — while others turned to the names of Western states such as Arizona (represented by a bottle of Arizona Tea’s “chocolate-covered cherry” flavor) or Indian tribes real and fictional. Sioux or Aspinook soda, anyone?
The predominance of Westerns in radio and the early years of television reinforced interest in the West, particularly among children, but the theme starts to fade from advertising in the 1960s and 1970s.
There is an occasional humorous use of an iconic Western image, such as “Giant’s” Jett Rink (James Dean) relaxing with a Dr Pepper (and, as the ad’s text suggests, enjoying its “Giant” taste) or a cowboy riding a bucking Dr Pepper can during the “Urban Cowboy” craze of the early 1980s.
The latter image is found in a Texas subset of the exhibit, one urged by exhibits manager Gabe Schooley, the native Texan on the museum staff, said the Tennessee-rooted Summar-Smith.
The West resurfaced, for Dr Pepper at least, in the 1990s with a variant on the “Be a Pepper” campaign, “Be a Western Pepper,” and in occasional tie-ins with rodeos.
But today’s soft drink advertising is more likely to employ country music to evoke a tone or mindset rather than Western locales or culture.
That’s not to say the West won’t rise again in future advertising, the museum’s associate director said. “It still sells,” she said. “It’s the myth.”