What’s the story behind the Coke ad from the Mad Men finale?

Mad Men Six


The major topic of conversation regarding this past Sunday’s Mad Men finale is, of course, the ending. The now-infamous smash cut from a meditating, smiling Don Draper to the still-famous 1971 “Hilltop” Coca-Cola ad featuring the song “I Want To Teach The World To Sing” has probably inspired the most discussion of any moment in the show’s history.

To begin with, here’s the ad itself, in all its Coked-up glory:



The most obvious connection between the ad and the episode itself is the pigtailed girl with the red ribbons in her hair. As numerous Twitter users have pointed out, she’s dressed almost identically to the same Coke bottle-holding girl in what, within the timeline of the show, would become the Coke ad.

The actual commercial was created by McCann executive Bill Backer, and first aired in July of 1971. The song that drives the ad’s sentimentality, though, was written and released to radio several months earlier, in February–and was a dismal failure. Radio stations refused to play “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” in part because they felt it was too sentimental, and could never be taken seriously by a listening audience.




At the same time, Backer, during a layover in Ireland, noticed many of his fellow travelers laughing and joking while enjoying fine Coca-Cola products. He and the two other executives he was traveling with came up with the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” line, wrote it on a napkin, and took the idea back to New York with them. Since the song was a failure, the rights to it were cheap, and McCann snatched them up and had British songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenway rewrite it to incorporate the newest Coke slogan.

The commercial was filmed on a hilltop in rural Italy, and cost the then-astronomical sum of $250,000 (or just shy of $1.5 million today). In something of a bizarre case of life imitating would-be art, the ad’s success fueled the success of the song, which was then re-written to include two more verses. (The radio version that followed the success of the ad also had none of the references to Coke that made the ad so popular in the first place.)

Since 1971, Coke has re-used the song and the concept of the original commercial at least three times: in a mid-70s Christmas remake featuring a nighttime setting and the singers holding candles in the shape of a Christmas tree; in the 1991 “Hilltop Reunion” featuring the original singers and their children; and, in 2006, in a special Dutch-only version.

Backer, now 88, has come back into the spotlight thanks to the attention Mad Men has brought to his work. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal he acknowledged that he had “no idea” the show was going to use his commercial, and that Mad Men, overall, did justice to the period and the way advertising worked:


I thought it was accurate but a bit over dramatized, just as many things on TV are….People that worked for me seemed to think I was like Don. They thought I was bedding a different girl every night and I let them believe it. But if I had really done that, I wouldn’t have had any time to create the ads….I think that the agencies are not able to build brands the way they used to. The old brand mangers that built solid brands are gone. It takes a while to build a brand and that amount of time isn’t there anymore. Companies don’t give brands enough time.


As for his reaction to the finale, Backer said he stopped watching the show after the second season, because it became more about drama and less about advertising.


(Photo credits: Screencaps via AMC)

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