The remote testing tool that keeps on giving: When Chalkmark met Coca-Cola

8 min read Optimal Workshop

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse …

— A Visit from St. Nicholas — Clement Clarke Moore, 1823

The shopping malls are jam-packed. Finding a space in the parking lot is next to impossible, the queues at the post office are epic and over here in my corner of the Southern Hemisphere, cherries are finally in season. Break out the mistletoe because it’s that time of the year again! Time to be extra merry at the office Christmas party and read articles about how the Internet is making it super tricky for parents to preserve their child’s belief in Santa. Speaking of Santa, have you ever wondered why he looks the way he does? Why does the concept of a rosy-cheeked fat man in a red suit flying all around the world in just one night delivering gifts seem so magical? The answer is Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola—or Coke—played a large role in bringing our modern interpretation of Santa to life and shaping his personality. It all started in 1931 when they commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create an image of Santa Claus for an advertisement. Sundblom found his inspiration in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, and the Santa we know today was born.

It has been 84 years this December since the first Sundblom Coca-Cola Santa ad ran and this holiday season I thought it would be fun to put ten of these ads to the test with Chalkmark. Pull up a chair, grab another mince pie, and wash it down with an extra egg nogg as I tell you what happened when Chalkmark met Coca-Cola.


Loading up the Sleigh: Setting up the study

Chalkmark is an incredibly versatile remote-testing tool that can be used for more than just first impressions of website designs. When you think about it, Chalkmark is simply made up of three key components: an image, a question, and a single click. Two of these are fully within your control and the third is the mystery you’re looking to solve. The possible applications are endless!

For the two components within my control, I decided to stick with the golden number of ten task-based questions and then move on to the challenge of determining what those tasks would actually be. I had 84 years’ worth of Coke ads to pick through across several different types of media. I considered choosing ten different Christmas ads but then felt that would be too monotonous for my participants. Additionally, the more I read about Coca-Cola’s iconic ads, the more curious I became about them overall. Why are they so successful? What is it about them that just works? To attempt to uncover the mystery, I decided to select my ten advertisements from all eight decades to see if I could if I could crack the code.

All images were selected via Google Images and cross-referenced with Coca-Cola’s website to ensure I would avoid testing someone’s kitschy decor interpretation for sale on Etsy. The bulk of the ads originally appeared in print and one is a still image from a television ad that aired in 1971 (more about that one later).

Those ten ads needed task-based questions, and I wanted to find out what people were seeing when they were looking at these ads. I decided to use three unique questions that would be used for multiple tasks as follows:

  1. Click on the first thing you read when you saw this image (x3)
  2. Click on one thing that jumps out at you when you look at this image (x3)
  3. Click on the first thing you noticed when you saw this image (x4)

For a Chalkmark study, I wouldn’t ordinarily use the word “click” in the task question-but this was no ordinary Chalkmark study. I used it this time to make it as simple as possible for my participants, given that I was trying something new with the functionality of the tool.

I also decided to include one pre-survey question as a warm up before launching my participants into the main event:

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Coca-Cola?

Rounding up the Reindeer: Participant recruitment

I could have recruited my own participants by tweeting about it, but with me up to my elbows in flour trying to figure out how to make gingerbread, handing the recruitment over to Optimal Workshop seemed like a much better idea. The process was quick and easy, and I found myself with 52 completed responses in no time at all.

Opening the gifts from Chalkmark: Task Results

The task results from this study provided some incredible insights and for me cemented Chalkmark’s status as the gift that keeps on giving. Chalkmark presents task results in a really nifty way: called heat maps,  they show you exactly where your participants clicked, enabling you to spot the hot spots quickly and easily. I’m a stick-stuff-on-the-wall kind of UXer, so naturally I printed the heat maps out, pinned them up, and stepped back to take them in as a whole.

enterprise-ux-coke wall

In doing this, it was simple enough to spot the connections and similarities between the ads and the elements clicked on in the study. Regardless of the decade, these ten Coke ads had three major aspects in common: people were consistently clicking on these same elements:

  • faces (human and non-human)
  • drinking glasses, bottles, and cans held by people
  • the Coca-Cola logo in its many forms



Every single time participants were presented with an ad that included a face, it received a substantial amount of clicks. Even when asked to “click on the first thing you read when you saw this image,” they still went for the faces. As mentioned, they weren’t just human faces either—the adorable toy panda won at the garden fete in the ad below had 27% of ad clicks planted on its face.


Why did this happen? Sure, the panda toy is cute but the answer lies in the visual cortex of the brain—specifically in a part called the fusiform face area (FFA). It was identified by Nancy Kanwisher in 1997, and it allows us to identify faces more quickly than any other object. As Dr Susan Weinschenk (aka The Brain Lady) says in her book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People:

People recognize and react to faces … faster than anything else on the (web) page

—Dr Susan Weinschenk

People with autism are the exception, as they do not use the FFA to recognize faces. Instead, they use areas and pathways of the brain that recognize objects to see faces.

100 years of drinking glasses, bottles, and cans

enterprise-ux-bottles cans and glasses

Participants in this study also consistently clicked on bottles, cans, and drinking glasses held by people in the ads. In two cases, the person in the ad was looking at the bottle/can/drinking glasses, which, as Dr Susan Weinschenk explains:

If a face on a web page looks at another spot or product on the page, people will also tend to look at that product. This doesn’t actually mean that they paid attention to it, just that they physically looked at it.

—Dr Susan Weinschenk

This potentially explains those two instances cited, but what about the others? My two cents? I think this happened because the Coca-Cola contour bottle (yep, there’s an actual name for the iconic Coke bottle shape) forms such a large part of the Coke identity that it is impossible to miss! Time and time again the contour bottle has cemented its place in popular culture. For example:

When Andy Warhol wanted a shape to represent mass culture, he drew the bottle and when Volkswagen wanted to celebrate the shape of the Beetle, they compared the car to the bottle.

Ted Ryan via Coca-Cola Journey

2015 marks the contour bottle’s 100th birthday, and you don’t need to be an industrial designer like me to appreciate its classic design.

The logo


And lastly, where would Coca-Cola be without its iconic logo and ribbon font? Participants in this study did not fail to notice it and of the three key elements, this one attracted the highest number of clicks per task. Participants also consistently clicked on the words “Coke” and “Coca-Cola”. I suspect the reason for this is a similar story to the contour bottle—it’s so familiar to us that it simply stands out.

Just like Chalkmark, Coca-Cola shows in this study that all you need is three simple yet key ingredients and you’re on your way to success!

Childhood memories, Fanta, and polar bears: Pre-survey questionnaire results

The pre-survey questionnaire responses from this study were so full of the warm-fuzzies that I couldn’t help but smile. Participants were (as you know) asked: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Coca-Cola?, and their responses were overwhelmingly positive. From childhood memories to hot tips such as serving it with a slice of lemon or lime, there was a common theme among the responses of pure joy.

Here are some of my highlights:

  • Delicious beverage that I probably enjoy too much
  • A cool refreshing drink that is even better with lime
  • Going to Wet’n’Wild in Dallas, Texas during the summer of my childhood
  • I think about Fanta whenever I think of Coca-Cola. Fanta (is an) orange flavor, which is tasty
  • Christmas polar bears

These questions are fantastic for gauging how your customers/users/target audience feel about your product, and this one certainly delivered.

… and to all a good night!

To those who are still with me and haven’t dozed off by the fireplace with a belly full of pie, I wish you nothing but happiness this holiday season.

Whether that means you are making snowmen in your backyard, relaxing on a beach (with a Coke, of course), or complaining about the incessant chirping of cicadas that heralds yet another scorching hot day—enjoy! I will leave you now with my favorite Coca-Cola ad. It was launched in 1971, and I hope it makes you smile as much as I do when I watch it. For the record, I loved it before Mad Men featured it earlier this year, but I can’t deny the fact that my inner Don Draper played a role in writing this piece.