By Megan Gibson
May 18, 2015

Sunday night’s finale of Mad Men ended with Don Draper meditating on a hillside, right before the 1971 “Hillside” Coca-Cola commercial plays, sparking debate about whether the fictional advertising maven had created the actual iconic ad.

In reality, the commercial was brewed up by Bill Backer, the creative director on the Coca-Cola account for the McCann-Erickson advertising agency at the time. According to Coca-Cola’s website, Backer came up with the idea when en route to meet with Billy Davis, the music director on the Coca-Cola account, as well as British songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, in London. But bad weather forced his plane to land in Shannon, Ireland, instead, and Backer noticed how many of the initially irate passengers on his flight seemed to calm down and relax after chatting over food and Cokes in the airport cafe.

According to Backer:

In that moment [I] saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light… [I] began to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as more than a drink that refreshed a hundred million people a day in almost every corner of the globe. So [I] began to see the familiar words, ‘Let’s have a Coke,’ as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment. They were actually a subtle way of saying, ‘Let’s keep each other company for a little while.’ And [I] knew they were being said all over the world as [I] sat there in Ireland. So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.

When Backer made it to London, he shared his idea of giving everyone in the world a bottle of the soft drink with Billy Davis and Roger Cook. Davis was initially doubtful, saying, “Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke.” Instead, Davis prioritized giving people a home and sharing peace and love. Backer replied: “Okay, that sounds good. Let’s write that and I’ll show you how Coke fits right into the concept.”

The team played around with the concept and eventually came up with the song “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” A British group, the New Seekers, recorded the track.

And the commercial’s visuals were not inspired by Don’s hippie retreat, but came from art director Harvey Gabor, who pitched a concept called “The First United Chorus of the World.” Featuring a diverse group of young people singing the jingle together on a hillside, the idea was approved by Coke advertising manager Ike Herbert. He gave the team more than $100,000 to film it.

Yet the ad’s shoot—which first took place in Dover, England, then in Italy—was marred by bad weather numerous times and production costs eventually hit $250,000. According to Coke’s website, 500 young people were hired for the chorus from embassies and schools in Rome and many of the close-ups of the leads were actually filmed away from the hillside, at a racetrack in Rome.

Eventually the ad, known as the “Hilltop” commercial, was released in the U.S. in July 1971 and became an instant hit. Letters about the ad poured in at the Coca-Cola company. The New Seekers and a U.S.-based group, the Hillside Singers, recorded new versions of the jingle, titled “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony),” which left out the mentions of the soft drink — and became a chart hit.

Here’s Backer discussing the commercial in 2007:

The Hillside ad certainly had a big impact on Backer’s career: it was considered one of his highlights and he was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1995.

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