If you’ve lived in America at any time in the past 45 years, the above video should be instantly recognizable to you. A group of multicultural kids hanging around on a hilltop singing a song that begins, “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” which quickly segues into an inspirational jingle for Coca-Cola, is one of the most iconic TV commercials ever produced in advertising history. Its effectiveness is at least partially due to the fact that it taps into a cultural vibe that was prevalent in 1971, the year it was made; that it’s also a catchy song doesn’t hurt either. Although it’s nearly 45 years old, this commercial is temporarily back in the public eye this week (May 2015) as a result of its inclusion in the final scene of the AMC television series Mad Men. Although my intent here is not to discuss that episode or the meaning of the ad in context of it, I thought it might be interesting, and timely, to investigate the real life back story of this very famous ad.
The ad really was produced by McCann-Erickson, the worldwide ad agency that appears often in Mad Men. In the early 1970s Coca-Cola was a client of McCann. The legend is that McCann ad exec Bill Backer was stranded in an airport in Ireland with songwriters Billy Cook and Roger Davis, who often wrote commercial jingles. After seeing fellow stranded travelers smiling while enjoying a Coke, Backer came up with the tag line “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” This idea became a song, “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” and the concept of a commercial that emphasized the worldwide recognition and supposed tranquility of Coca-Cola.
Directed by advertising director Roberto Malenotti, the ad was filmed on a hilltop in the town of Manziana, near Rome, Italy. An initial attempt to film the scene was botched by bad weather, so they had to do it again. The total cost of the ad was $250,000–the most expensive commercial ever made up until that time, and, for a one minute product, $4,166 per second. But the result was magic. Coke loved it. It first aired in July 1971 and proved so popular that Cook, Davis and fellow songwriter Roger Greenaway eventually licensed it as a song to the UK pop group The New Seekers, who released it as a hit single. The song was everywhere in the 70s. Coke kept coming back to the well as many times as it dared: spinoffs and updates of the commercial were done in the late 1970s (a Christmas-themed version), 1991, 2005 and 2010.
Successful advertising, especially since the 1960s, has sought to harness and channel the themes and feelings of a time to sell products. This ad did that perfectly. In 1971 the world sorely needed a message of unity and peace. That it was conceived as a ploy to sell products is somewhat cynical, but no less so than any other advertisement, I suppose. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and I remember this commercial more vividly than any other, with the possible exception of the famous “crying Indian” commercial, which was also from 1971.
What does it mean in the context of Mad Men? I leave that for you to decide.