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:
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. 19 Real-Life Ads from the "Mad Men" Era Volkswagen, April 11, 1960 Early in Season 1, Don Draper comes across this Volkswagen ad in an issue of LIFE Magazine. He tells his colleagues he doesn’t know what he hates more, “the ad or the car.” But after discussing Volkswagen's strategy at length, he’s forced to concede, “Love it or hate it, we’ve been talking about it for the last 15 minutes.” VW’s Lemon ad, along with its “Think Small” campaign, was widely considered some of the most innovative advertising of the 20th century for its honesty, irony and freshness. LIFE Magazine Coca-Cola, April 11, 1960 Although Sterling Cooper never counts Coca-Cola as a client, Coca-Cola nearly counts Betty Draper as a model. The ad she models for, later ditched when the agency decides to go with an Audrey Hepburn look over Betty’s Grace Kelly countenance, is a shot of a picture-perfect picnicking family, a counterpoint to Betty and Don’s troubled real-life family. This real Coca-Cola ad from the same year focuses not on familial love but on innocent romantic love, with words by a copywriter who dealt heavily in exclamation points. LIFE Magazine Maidenform, May 16, 1960 One of Sterling Cooper’s clients in Season 2 is Playtex, whose executives are envious of the head-turningly sexy ad campaign by their competitor, Maidenform. Sterling Cooper comes up with an equally sexy campaign that shows the two sides of every woman, at least as contained within the male fantasy: her Jackie Kennedy and her Marilyn Monroe. In its real ads at the time, Maidenform did, in fact, play up the sex factor, though they also included a substantial amount of copy touting the materials and construction behind the seductive product. LIFE Magazine American Airlines, May 16, 1960 Sterling Cooper pitches American Airlines in Season 2, ultimately failing to win the account. Though the pitch meeting is never shown, some of the ideas appear in the meetings leading up to it. Taglines include the rather generic “American flies the world,” “Let’s fly away” and “This is American Airlines,” the latter accompanied by a watercolor of a plane taking off against a darkening sky. This real ad from 1960 tugs at the heartstrings, playing up American Airlines’ role in bringing families together when it counts, at great speed and an affordable price with stewardesses that “keep you feeling at home.” LIFE Magazine Lucky Strike, December 12, 1960 Lucky Strike is one of Sterling Cooper’s most important clients throughout the series. The pilot episode focuses on the challenges of advertising for cigarette companies amidst a growing public awareness of the health risks associated with smoking. Don proposes emphasizing the taste and unique quality of a Lucky Strike cigarette (“It’s toasted!”). This real ad similarly focuses on taste, promoting the pleasurable experience of smoking as a distraction from the health-related drawbacks. LIFE Magazine Playtex, June 30, 1961 Though Playtex is a client of Sterling Cooper’s, we only see the agency’s work for the company’s undergarments division. In 1960, Playtex began selling tampons, baby products and other goods. This ad for disposable diapers takes a different approach from Sterling Cooper’s usual strategy, attempting to blend in with LIFE Magazine’s content by taking the form of a pictorial essay. The arrangement of photos and captions mimics the layout of a reported photo essay, making it easy for a reader to miss, at first glance, the fact that he or she is looking at an ad. LIFE Magazine Pepsi, August 31, 1962 In Season 3, Sterling Cooper produces a commercial for Patio Cola—rebranded in 1963 as Diet Pepsi—in which an Ann-Margret look-alike sings “bye bye sugar” to the tune of “Bye Bye Birdie.” This real print ad for Pepsi, from the same year that the episode takes place, relies on the same youthful glow Sterling Cooper was hoping to achieve by alluding to newly crowned superstar Ann-Margret. Youth, the ad suggests, is less about one’s age than one’s attitude (assuming it’s accompanied by a bottle of Pepsi). LIFE Magazine Lufthansa, June 28, 1963 Whereas Mad Men’s pitches for airlines tend to focus on the planes and the journey, many aviation companies put their stewardesses (or at least the models playing them) front and center in their ads. This 1963 ad for Lufthansa advertises flights to “darkest Africa,” where Bob Hope had recently completed shooting the film Call Me Bwana. The flight attendant, or so the ad would have its target audience believe, is prepared to treat customers with the same gentle touch as she does George the chimpanzee and Tony the lion. LIFE Magazine Bethlehem Steel, June 28, 1963 Don’s pitch for Bethlehem Steel is a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the tagline, “New York City, brought to you by Bethlehem Steel.” The company’s real-life ads also advertise not the steel itself, but things that can be made from it, in this case, soda cans. Whereas Don’s idea played on the notion of reverence for the modern metropolis, the real ad is more lighthearted and playful, imagining a day at the beach made easier by replacing bottles with lighter, smaller cans. LIFE Magazine Samsonite, July 12, 1963 Mad Men’s pitch for Samsonite coincides with the legendary Muhammed Ali vs. Sonny Liston fight for World Heavyweight Champion. Don’s last-ditch idea is to play off the photo of a victorious Ali that appeared in newspapers across the country following the fight, comparing the suitcase to the boxing champion. This real Samsonite ad mentions the luggage’s durability in the copy (“dent-resistant body, strong magnesium frame”), but visually prioritizes its value as a handsome fashion accessory to take on exotic trips. LIFE Magazine Heinz, February 14, 1964 Don, Peggy and the team throw around a lot of ideas for Heinz, a hard-to-please client, from “Home is where the Heinz is” to “Heinz beans: some things never change” to “Heinz. The only ketchup.” This 1964 Heinz ad is much less sentimental, though the images it uses emphasize familial togetherness with Heinz at the center. Here, it’s the notion of variety, and the excitement of a dual-identity brought about by multiple ketchup flavors, that’s used to entice customers. LIFE Magazine Accutron, September 11, 1964 In the first episode of Season 7, Don pitches Accutron, using Freddy Rumsen as a mouthpiece. His tagline: “Accutron. It’s not a timepiece. It’s a conversation piece.” The pitch is meant to suggest that the watch makes its wearer interesting. This real Accutron ad from the mid-1960s favors simple design and a briefly stated plug for the watch’s best feature: its accuracy. The copy describes the technology that elevates the watch to best-in-class for timekeeping, so sophisticated that even the government relies on it for satellites. LIFE Magazine Philip Morris, January 29, 1965 Philip Morris is a recurring player in Mad Men, a desirable client due to its sizable share of the cigarette market. In Season 5, Peggy is asked to brainstorm ideas for a top-secret ladies cigarette, and later, the partners pursue Commander, a Philip Morris brand. This 1965 ad, echoing both Don’s Lucky Strike pitch and real-life Lucky Strike ads, places flavor at its center. Targeting women, it sends the dual message that Philip Morris cigarettes are simply enjoyable and flavorful. LIFE Magazine Sunkist, July 2, 1965 When Sterling Cooper & Partners pursues Sunkist during Season 6, Don makes a big push for advertising on color TV, which he believes will be the most effective way to advertise a fruit whose name itself is a color. This real Sunkist ad, though it’s in print rather than on television, uses bright color to its advantage to snap readers’ attention into focus. From bright orange lettering to the shiny oranges to the use of a redheaded model, the ad creates a visual counterpart for the experience it’s meant to sell: “real citrus excitement.” LIFE Magazine Honda, August 13, 1965 Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce only pretends to shoot a commercial for Honda Motorcycles, so we never see any completed work on the show. Honda’s actual campaign at the time took a friendly approach. This ad’s copy suggests that nice people ride Hondas, which the well-dressed couple in the photo reinforces. Playing up its ease of use (“Almost anyone can handle it”), the ad conveys the message that motorcycles are not just for those who prefer leather—white gloves and a knee-length skirt will do just as well. LIFE Magazine Pond's, August 22, 1965 In the show, results from a focus group suggest that the best way to target potential Pond’s buyers is to play on young women’s dreams of getting married. This Pond’s ad from 1965 targets a slightly older demographic, as the model, French actress Jacqueline Huet, was a married mother. The visual choices contribute to a sense of elegance and maturity, not least of all the use of a Parisian backdrop, European architecture and a sophisticated gown. The ad is imbued with a slightly modern sensibility, appealing to busy working mothers. LIFE Magazine John Deere, April 7, 1967 When remembering the Season 3 episode featuring John Deere, viewers will think first of the gruesome office accident involving a lawnmower. We never actually get to see the agency’s work for the company. The company’s real advertisements, later in the decade, sold lawnmowers by emphasizing how little time those who bought one would end up spending on it. It’s a bold way of circumventing the problem that the company’s product, for many customers, is something they need but don’t necessarily want. LIFE Magazine Chevrolet, October 27, 1967 Sterling Cooper & Partners works long and hard in an attempt to secure Chevy’s business, but the company proves a tough customer. This two-page spread from 1967 takes on a lot a once: It introduces the next year’s models, targets a specific demographic (youthful, affluent) and uses significant copy space to tout its use of computers, explain new features and highlight safety, including a brand new safety measure: the seatbelt. LIFE Magazine Heineken, September 12, 1969 Don pitches Heineken on targeting suburban housewives by advertising in grocery stores. Conversely, this ad from the late 1960s is explicitly aimed at men, and not just any men: the model is bespectacled (intelligent), suited up (a businessman) and bejeweled (married). In contrast to ads like Chevrolet’s that rely on ample text, this one is simple, offering two straightforward takeaways. First, that Heineken’s product is distinguished from its peers. And second, that it simply tastes good. LIFE Magazine