I don’t think I’ve ever watched a single episode of “Mad Men,” and that would include the season finale which aired on May 17. But, as recently reported in The Post and Courier, there was more than the usual buzz here in the Holy City because the final sequences included iconic imagery from the famous 1971 Coca-Cola hilltop commercial — which was originally developed in part by a gentleman with ties to Charleston.
As someone affiliated with a media company, I might have known that, but in fact did not and am delighted to finally understand the connection.
Why? Because — and I don’t have any scientific data to support this — for those of my generation, that commercial is probably king of them all.
I refused to admit as much as a 14-year-old back in the day, with its sweet as sugar (or should I say Coke) musical content and schmaltzy themes of peace and love, but those themes segued right into the last throes of the hippie era and presaged a multicultural inclusiveness which has been gaining steam ever since.
The musical content was huge. Certain pre-teen and teeny bopper girls I knew all too well recorded the music straight from family TV sets onto portable tape recorders and walked around playing and singing the tune — over and over again, day and night, night and day, all the time. It never ended. There was literally no escape.
Consequently, to this day, I can hear every note in my head with the clarity of an auditory hallucination. In fact, it has become a maddening ear worm just thinking about it:
« ...I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company ... »
The genius of the commercial was that it blended the familiar ideals of charity, inclusiveness and love around the social glue of a popular soda pop while backed by a remarkable pop song, itself a tremendous hit that added emotional depth.
In case you missed it, the man who came up with the idea of buying the world a Coke was Bill Backer, 89, who now lives on a farm in Virginia but spent part of his youth in Charleston.
Backer’s mother, Ferdinanda Legare Backer, grew up on the property now known as Charles Towne Landing. She married a prominent New Yorker whom she met at Cornell, William Bryant Backer, and they had three children, including the late Nancy Stevenson, South Carolina’s lieutenant governor from 1979-1983.
The senior Backer died young. His widow returned to Charleston where she later married Dr. Joseph I. Waring. Backer’s namesake attended what would later become Porter-Gaud before heading off to Episcopal High, service in the Navy, then on to Yale and a subsequent career in advertising.
According to the Coca-Cola website, Backer got the idea of buying the world a Coke while stuck in the Shannon airport where his London-bound plane was forced to land due to heavy fog. Most of the passengers were irate but bonded by their experience and ended up laughing about their troubles in the airport cafe over shared snacks and bottles of Coke.
Due to the experience, Backer, as quoted on the website, began “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-linked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.”
Part of Backer’s inspiration may have been fueled by deadline pressure for coming up with new ad ideas.
At any rate, according to the history of the ad, he finally made it to London, met with Billy Davis, the music director on the Coca-Cola account, and songwriters Roger Greenway and Roger Cook. Their collaboration jelled and was released to radio airplay on Feb. 12, 1971. Before long people were calling stations and requesting DJ’s to play the commercial like it was a hit record.
The TV ad production was fraught with logistical and financial issues and ultimately cost the company $250,000, a staggering figure at the time. Shot on a hilltop near Rome, the production involved 500 young people and numerous delays due to weather, but was finally released to the U.S. the following July to an enthusiastic audience, which practically bubbled over, as it were, with excitement.
And we (or at least some of us) are still talking about it — and hearing it!
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at email@example.com.