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.
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.