The Boomer Generation grew up with commercial jingles being the norm. In contrast, much of today’s TV and radio uses existing songs (even from the boomer era!), but in our day, music in commercials was composed specifically for the product or service. Many boomers will recall several of these classic jingles to this day. One jingle that reached the ultimate pinnacle of success during the boomer era was written for Coca-Cola.
It was July 1971 when Coca-Cola released their I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke commercial in the U.S. The commercial featured hundreds of people from around the world on a hillside, singing about buying the world a Coke as a way of promoting world harmony. The company had first aired the jingle on the radio in February of that year, but it failed to catch attention of the Coca-Cola bottlers. On TV, though, the entire message was immediately embraced.
The story of how the commercial and jingle came to be is a fascinating one. Bill Backer, ad agency McCann Ericson’s creative director for the Coca-Cola account, was flying to London to meet with Billy Davis. Davis was the musical director for the account, and they were to discuss ideas for a jingle that was to be recorded by the New Seekers, a group popular in Britain at the time. Fog forced Backer’s plane to land in Shannon, Ireland, where the passengers were required to deplane. Backer said he observed how angry the passengers were at the lack of accommodations during their impromptu stay; they were required to remain close by in case the fog lifted. It would be twenty-four hours before that would happen.
The next day Backer saw the same group of people from the night before, only now, having been brought together under the circumstance, were talking and laughing among themselves as they munched snacks and drank Coca-Cola. It was at that moment when Backer sparked the idea that a Coke could be more than “the pause that refreshes,” the previous tagline for the soft drink giant. A world-wide product such as Coke, in his estimation, could become a symbol for a universal commonality among people.
When Backer met Billy Davis, he told him about the scene at the airport and Davis was not impressed with the notion. After further discussion Backer asked Davis what he might do for the world if he could. Davis talked about making sure everyone had a home and would share peace and love. Backer asked him to write a song that expressed those sentiments.
Roger Cook and Roger Greenway were enlisted to assist Davis in composing the song. The trio already had a reputation for hit songs, having written This Golden Ring, Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress), You’ve Got Your Troubles, I’ve Got Mine, Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again, and more.
The two Rogers played a melody they had been working on for Davis, that they had called Mom, True Love, and Apple Pie. They played the melody for Backer, who recommended it become the basis for I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke. The New Seekers recorded the jingle and it made its debut on American radio in February 1971. Though spurned by the affiliate Coke bottlers, stations began getting requests for the jingle. DJs told Coke executives they should record the song for public release. Coke got Bill Backer involved in trying to come up with a way to add a visual to the song so it might air on TV, and the hillside singing chorus concept was formulated.
Coke approved the idea and set a budget of $100,000 to film it. The original attempt was to be on the cliffs of Dover, with 65 schoolchildren lip-synching the song. However, it rained for three straight days, so the shoot was cancelled.
The second attempt was moved to Rome, where it also rained. The shoot was delayed but when the rain cleared, the final helicopter view of the 500 singing stand-ins was filmed. When Backer and his team reviewed the film, they discovered the rain had ruined the scene and lighting, and the shoot was scrapped again.
Backer convinced Coke that the concept was a winning one, so the budget ballooned to $250,000 — an unheard-of amount for commercials in 1971. The third try would be the charm. Close-ups of some of the 500 young people hired for the shoot were actually shot separately at a Rome racetrack. The commercial’s message of hope and peace, first aired 45 years ago this month, was a giant success.
In conjunction with the airing of the commercial, Billy Davis wanted to release a record of the song, retitled, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony). He approached the New Seekers to record it, but their manager intervened and said there were schedule conflicts that would preclude the group’s involvement in the project. Instead, Davis gathered a group of studio singers under the name of “The Hillside Singers” to record his song. Two weeks later, the New Seekers came back and recorded the song, which immediately became a Top 10 hit. Davis followed the successful New Seekers version by releasing the studio Hillside Singers rendition. That version climbed to number 13 on the pop charts.
All told, the commercial became an instant classic. It was the first instance where a commercial jingle birthed a Top 10 pop hit, instead of the other way around. It was recorded in several different languages, and became popular the world over. The sheet music for the song sold more than any other song from the previous decade.
The Coca-Cola Company signed an agreement with UNICEF that they would donate the first $80,000 in royalties from their writers and publishers — it was a work for hire and not the property of Davis, Cook and Greenway. In one tiny way, Coke was lending a helping hand to the world, yet still profiting from it.
Mister Boomer remembers the original appearance of the commercial. His opinion did not fall in line with the majority. He felt the song was sappy and overly optimistic. In his estimation, the message subverted a vision of world harmony by interjecting a capitalistic subterfuge that the sixties had fought so hard to break, man. But what did he know? People liked it. A lot. And certainly, Mister B enjoyed many a Coca-Cola in his days, especially icy cold 8 oz. bottles on hot summer days from the machine at the corner gas station.
In 2015, the commercial resurfaced as part of the finale for Mad Men. This TV show was, depending on your point of view, an homage or condemnation of the very type of ad agency that produced the Coke commercial. Using the real thing — the original ad — in a fictional story emphasized the impact this commercial had on the world, both at the time and now forty-plus years later.
Did you or someone in your family buy the I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony) record, boomers?