'Mad Men' Finale: The Real Story Behind the Coke Jingle That Became a Billboard Hit

Courtesy of YouTube
A scene from the 1971 commercial "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke."

Warning: If you haven't seen the Mad Men series finale and don't want it spoiled, stop reading.

Amidst a sea of ill-conceived Mad Men series finale predictions, someone actually predicted it correctly (hat tip to Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen). The AMC drama ended Sunday night with Don Draper turning his sunshine-drenched spiritual cleansing into the most legendary TV commercial of all time: Coca-Cola's July 1971 TV spot "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke."

You may not be familiar with the commercial if you weren't around in the Vietnam era, but the ad's optimistic tone and multi-cultural appeal -- not to mention the way it gently suggests you can establish community through consumerism -- made it one of the most successful and celebrated ads ever. More than that, the jingle was turned into a full-length song that became a hit for two separate groups.

Nice work, Don Draper!

Actually, real-life advertising legend Bill Backer is the man responsible for the Hilltop Coke ad. A longtime McCann Erickson employee (yes, it's a real firm), Backer is also the guy behind the slogans "Millertime" and "Things go better with Coke" -- there's a reason he's in the Advertising Hall of Fame.

As for his magnum opus, here's how it came to be (spoiler: Meditating hippies are not involved). The Gospel According to Coca-Cola says that after a heavy London fog forced his airplane to land in Shannon, Ireland, Backer noticed the other passengers -- irritated at first over the unexpected delay -- were bonding with each other over bottles of Coke in the airport.

"I began to see the familiar words, 'Let's have a Coke,' as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment," Backer said. "They were actually a subtle way of saying, 'Let's keep each other company for a little while.'"

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From there, he teamed with songwriters Billy Davis, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway to turn it into a tune – but not without some convincing.

When Backer pitched them the idea of buying everyone in the world a Coke, Davis was less than enthused, telling him, "If I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke. I'd buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love." (Reminder: This was just a few years after the Summer of Love).

Backer assured him the concept of his ad was in tandem with that altruism, and they adapted a melody titled "Mom, True Love and Apple Pie" into "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke."

The Coca-Cola account supervisor at McCann Erickson was so impressed with the concept and jingle that despite production delays forcing the commercial to go $150,000 over budget, he made sure the project came to completion.

While the commercial showed a multi-cultural swath of youth singing the song on a hilltop in Italy, the actual vocals were recorded by the Hillside Singers, a folk group assembled specifically by McCann Erickson for the task of bringing "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" to life. Originally, the ad agency asked the British folk outfit the New Seekers to record the song, but they declined due to scheduling conflicts. However, after the Hillside Singers' recording began to impact the charts (people actually called into radio stations to request the jingle), the group reconsidered and recorded the song, now titled "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)."

Nearly six months after the TV commercial's debut, the song hit its chart peak: The New Seekers' recording reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 on the chart dated Jan. 15, 1972; that same week, the Hillside Singers' version peaked at No. 13.

Ultimately, the Coke revelation at the end of Man Men was more than an organic, fitting way to conclude Don Draper's storyline. It's a nice in-joke on advertising that a man with a fragile false identity would create an ad centered around the concept "It's the real thing."

In case you're curious, full lyrics to the commercial are below.

I'd like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves

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

What the world wants today
Is the real thing

 

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