America is really good at marketing. Marketing is really good at exploiting non-commercial special events for commercial purposes. The 1970s were really good at kitsch. So, in 1976 when the United States had a year-long celebration of its 200th birthday, the result was a perfect storm of chest-thumping American triumphalism, Madison Avenue salesmanship, three-cornered hats, and Seventies garishness mixed with genuine, heartfelt patriotism and moments of sincere historical reflection. They called it The Bicentennial.
It’s hard to explain The Bicentennial to somebody who wasn’t around at the time to experience it first-hand. One might say it was an event that offered nationalism, spectacle and general hype on the same scale as an Olympiad tends to within its host country, but without having to endure nonsense like performance-enhancing drug scandals, Bob Costas soliloquies or rhythmic gymnastics.
As happens with the Olympics, marketers glommed onto The Bicentennial with gusto. I could write a long list of the products that had Bicentennial editions and promotional tie-ins, but it’s more fun if I show you:
Coca-Cola reminded us of our inalienable right to guzzle carbonated sugar water.
The visual list could go on and on but you get the idea.
As huge of an event as it was, people don’t seem to talk about The Bicentennial much anymore. However, its legacy does live on in a few enduring cultural artifacts:
- Fans of the classic sports movie Rocky may recall that the fight against Apollo Creed was a Bicentennial publicity stunt, which is why the bout took place in Philadelphia and why Creed dressed in the flamboyant George Washington costume.
- Bicentennial coins, especially the quarters, are still in circulation.
- The popular Schoolhouse Rock video “I’m Just A Bill” was part of a Bicentennial education series along with other history and civics-themed videos.
If this post makes you nostalgic for the Bicentennial or sad that you missed it back in 1976, don’t fret. There’s certain to be something very similar in store for us in just 13 short years. If you doubt that, be aware that planning for The Sestercentennial in 2026 is already underway.
In the meantime, we’ll have to keep ourselves entertained with this…