‘Mad Men’ Finale Revives Landmark Coke Ad (SPOILERS)

jon hamm don draper mad men
Image Courtesy of AMC

A single TV commercial from Coca-Cola is now in the enviable position of making history twice.

The soda-maker’s iconic 1971 commercial showing young people on a hilltop crooning a ditty about buying Coke to boost world peace struck the kind of chord that year that few TV ads do. The commercial, produced by the agency once known as McCann Erickson, stands among the ranks of TV ads that transcended their sales pitch and became landmarks of American culture – think Apple’s famous “1984” commercial” or Budweiser’s “Whassup!” campaign. The song, featuring the lyrics “I’d like to teach the world to sing / In perfect harmony / I’d like to buy the world a Coke / And keep it company / That’s the real thing” proved so popular a message that it became a popular radio hit as well.

Now the ad has become tied up with the zeitgeist again, after being used in the last scene of the finale of the AMC drama “Mad Men.”

In the series’ final bow, a despairing protagonist Don Draper tries to practice meditation on a hill, part of a New Age regimen he submits to after hitting professional and personal lows. What viewers discover is that the experience provides the spark of inspiration for the famous Coke commercial, which takes up the screen and is the last bit of “Mad Men” viewers see. As the show has made plain throughout its seven-season run, the best commercials are borne not out of client research or market demands, but personal stories (typically Draper’s) fraught with emotion.

Coca-Cola had “limited awareness” into how the commercial might be used, the company said in a statement. “The finale gave everyone inside and outside the Company – some for the first time – a chance to experience the magic of “Hilltop” within the context of its creation and the times,” Coca-Cola said.  A spokesman for AMC, the network that airs “Mad Men,” declined to comment. McCann Erickson, now part of Interpublic Group, was not involved in the placement of the old ad, a spokesman said.

In the advertising business, it is common practice for advertisers to retain intellectual-property rights to old ads, meaning that it would not be unheard of for the program to pay Coca-Cola some sort of licensing fee for use of the spot. In 2012, “Mad Men” reportedly paid $250,000 to use the Beatles’ song “Tomorrow Never Knows” in the closing credits of an episode. Even so, Lauren Thompson, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman said “no exchange of money at all” took place.

While “Mad Men” would have viewers believe Draper came up with the idea for the fondly-remembered commercial, its true genesis comes in the efforts of McCann executives to create radio jingles to be sung by the New Seekers, a British singing group. A McCann creative director, Bill Backer, was traveling to London for a session, but his flight was forced down in Ireland due to heavy fog, according to a history of the commercial presented on Coca-Cola’s web site. Backer witnessed a group of grumpy passengers soothed by the chance to have a snack and some Cokes, and the germ of an idea came into being.

The jingle’s popularity should come as little surprise. Among the songwriters working on the spot were Billy Davis, who had a hand in penning “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson and Roger Greenaway and Roger Cooke, who wrote such memorable tunes as “Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress) and “You’ve Got Your Troubles and I’ve Got Mine.” The song first was heard as part of a Coca-Cola radio campaign.

Coke has dipped back into this well on a few occasions. In the mid 1970’s, the company created a holiday-themed commercial using the song and showing singers holding candles at nighttime. In 1991, the company ran an ad during Super Bowl XXV showing the original singers from the TV commercial taking another crack at the song, with family and children in tow. And in 2005, singer G. Love offered a new version of the song in service of Coca-Cola Zero.

“Mad Men” broke with its own creative tradition in presenting Draper as the creator of the Coke ad. Don Draper always created smart commercials for familiar products, but they were typically fake spots that played off the ad man’s past or the plot lines of the program. In one popular instance, Draper created a spot for Glo Coat, a floor polish, that sold the product, but also echoed some of the scarier elements of the character’s unpleasant childhood.

In tying the series protagonist to a verifiable touchstone of real U.S. popular culture, creator Matthew Weiner may have worked to link his entire oeuvre to the world which in the past it has only mirrored.

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  1. rodrian roadeye says:

    Let’s see the print ads for the “other” old original Coke that really helped turn on the world to more than just singing way back when it was first introduced. LOL

  2. Jeff says:

    Who in fact own the rights to the commercial? The agency? Or Coke? Can it ever be used under “fair use” laws for a documentary? Who would have the master footage?

  3. claytonlust says:

    They portrayed Draper as the creator of “It’s toasted” for Lucky Strike, a slogan that dates to 1917. So, hardly the first time they did this – they did it in the very first episode. But thanks for showing again that Hollywood has a short memory.

    • Brian Steinberg says:

      Clayton, I think you are misreading my sentence. The show typically came up with its own ads, for products that were both real and not. Use of the Coca-Cola ad is different, because the show is taking someone else’s intellectual property and weaving it into its own plotlines. Yes, they certainly did come up with ads that used slogans. etc for actual products, but I do not think the show ever ran a real ad from the actual past

  4. a says:

    Funny how much debate has gone on over the Coke ad at the end of mad men. But for some odd reason noody is talking about how that same coke ad played a central role in the plot of the Showtime show Happyish on that very same night the mad men finale aired. An ad thats over 40 years old played a main role in two totally different shows on the same night

  5. The debate about Mad Men’s ending may continue for years but no one can debate the fact that Coca Cola has succeeded in getting the world to buy a Coke. The wildly successful “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke 1971” commercial was in perfect harmony with the way Coke had been extending itself globally for decades. During WWII while Coca Cola was busy boosting the morale of fighting men they were simultaneously laying the groundwork for becoming an international symbol of solidarity. Colorful beautifully illustrated ads focused on cokes ability to bring people and nations together. Take a look at ads over the decades show Coke presented itself as an international sign of friendliness and camaraderie.

  6. bcat79 says:

    I remember this and the spirit of our world when this played the first time around in the 70’s. With all the open racism happening again, maybe the timing of this ad being seen by todays generation is advantageous. Maybe the nostalgia of it will remind the dinosaurs what they were a part of in the 60s and 70s. Pre-Reagan.

  7. Brian Crowe says:

    “Mad Men” broke with its own creative tradition in presenting Draper as the creator of the Coke ad.”

    Not exactly. There was “It’s Toasted” (Camel) and “It’s not a wheel, it’s a carousel” (Kodak) from season one. And the Samsonite stuff from the episode “The Suitcase” borrowed from some of the luggage ads of the time.

  8. shemitch says:

    Actually, Brian the song was first, not the jingle. It wa recorded by a group called New Seekers and it was a bomb!No radio staionwould play it. Not until it got re-worked into the now iconic jingle did the band re-record it and the song became a hit!

    • Brian Steinberg says:

      We say in the story that the radio effort came first. I guess I don’t see the difference between the tune in its “song” form and in its “jingle” form. They are both ads, and thus, both jingles

  9. LABete says:

    I’m glad Coke went along because I thought it was a pretty brilliant ending! I kept wondering about Coke since people kept bringing it up to Don as a reason to stick with McCann Erickson. My ears really perked up when the sad guy that Don hugged in his group session said something about wanting something but you don’t even know what it is. I immediately thought, “it’s the real thing!”

  10. 46xy says:

    The show was very vague about whether they were saying that Draper actually created that campaign.

    • Adeline says:

      I believe that Don wasn’t even part of the Coke Campaign… In fact, he never went back to work! He enjoyed his new found hobby of old cars and traveling. My take was, Peggy and the agency were responsible for the memorable Coke commercial and Don wasn’t even involved. The retreat experience showed Don that after years of lies, being emotionally detached, drinking, philandering and running…that life would go on with or without him, no matter what name he used, or what he did, and that he was, in fact, dispensable. To me, that peaceful smirk, was him FINALLY coming to grips with the consequences of his personal decisions and realizing he can’t always be in control. To me he was thinking, “I am who I am, this is all there is, I’m gonna do whatever (whomever) I want, and if people don’t like it…screw ’em, I got this”!

    • Bill says:

      Not at all ambiguous – Don’s smile as he sat there chanting, followed by the bell played by the person leading the mediation (or WAS it?) followed by the ad?

      Not to mention the pigtail girl…

      • ohioatheist says:

        Couldn’t the smile been from him finally achieving peace with himself? Couldn’t he have relayed the idea to Peggy and walked away from advertising for good? There are many possibilities. And having read through many message boards on the topic today, it’s hardly as cut-and-dry and you seem to think it is. I’m not saying you’re wrong (I happen to agree with you), but the point is that’s it’s not a slam dunk conclusion, which is often intentional (see Sopranos, Dexter) in series endings.

    • Gene says:

      Not at all. They wouldn’t just place a specific commercial at the end for no reason. It wasn’t random.

      • ohioatheist says:

        I don’t think 46xy is suggesting that it was random, either. I do think that the ending was intentionally ambiguous to allow the viewers to draw their own conclusions. When I saw the Coke ad, my initial thought was that Draper would appear after the commercial in a meeting room with Coke execs, as if Draper was presenting the finished product to them. When that didn’t happen, I also considered the possibility that the commercial was simply a contemporary representation that Don was finally at peace with himself, in “perfect harmony.”

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