Behind '71 Coke jingle, a man (with Charleston roots) who wasn't mad

Bill Backer, who grew up in Charleston and created Coca-Cola's iconic 1971 “Hilltop” commercial, is shown with his farm dogs Daisy (left) and Harry in The Plains, Va.

Bill Backer lives on a farm in Virginia. He raises horses and cattle. When the weather gets cold, he and his wife of more than 30 years head to their small beach house in Florida, where they walk in the sun.

He does not spend much time watching TV, and on the night of May 17, when so many were tuning in to the series finale of “Mad Men,” Backer simply ignored it. He gave up on the acclaimed show during its second season.

“I certainly don't watch shows that center around people that I have a hard time identifying with,” he said in a phone interview last week.

So imagine Backer's surprise when he learned of his supporting role in the final moments of an episode that had TV viewers and online commentators buzzing. Like Don Draper, Backer was an adman. And in 1971, Backer came up with the jingle “I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke” for the iconic commercial that appeared at the end of the “Mad Men” finale.

After the episode aired, many were quick to link Backer — and the ad he helped create for the McCann Erickson agency, where the fictional Draper also worked — to the show's brooding, famously flawed protagonist. But Backer, who will turn 89 in June and grew up in Charleston, insists otherwise.

“I've forgotten most of my vices,” Backer said. “I'm not Don Draper.”

The inclusion of the Hilltop commercial, which features a multicultural cast singing on a hillside, had some wondering if “Mad Men” had simply been one long advertisement.

For its part, Coca-Cola said it had virtually nothing to do with the ad's placement. Conversations about including the commercial began about a year ago, when Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” approached Coca-Cola. The company eventually provided Weiner with a high-definition copy of the ad. The original film is at the Library of Congress in Washington.

“No money changed hands,” Wendy Clark, a top marketing executive at Coca-Cola North America, said last week.

Only a handful of employees and executives even knew the commercial would be part of the show, she said.

“We had no idea of the story line,” she added. “We knew better than to ask.”

She described a tense moment as she and several colleagues watching the finale wondered when the commercial would appear. Sitting at home, laptop at the ready, she thought to herself, “I might be writing a different internal email.”

Then came the final scene. Don Draper sat meditating on a hillside at a spiritual retreat on the California coast. A smirk formed on his lips and then the Coca-Cola ad began.

Once the credits began rolling, the reactions were swift. Some on social media said closing the series with a well-known commercial was native advertising at its best. Clark, borrowing words she said Weiner had used, called the ending “a love letter for a brand.” (Journey's “Don't Stop Believin'” got a similar jolt of attention after it was featured in the final seconds of “The Sopranos” in 2007.)

Coca-Cola is not planning to run the Hilltop ad as a paid, stand-alone commercial in the near future, Clark said, because “it should be viewed by anyone whenever they want to see it.”

The origins of the commercial date to January 1971. Backer, who was also behind lauded campaigns for Miller beer, Campbell's Soup and others, was then the creative director on the Coca-Cola account for McCann Erickson. He was flying to London to meet several colleagues and record radio commercials with a British pop group called the New Seekers. The plane was forced to land in Shannon, Ireland, because of fog. Passengers were angry about the diversion, he said, particularly because the airport was too small to accommodate such a large group of travelers. Above all, he remembered feeling pressure to come up with ideas for ads. “We had to have some material,” he said. “I wanted to keep my job.”

The next day, Backer said he observed some of the passengers — “all types, ages, sexes,” he recalled — in the airport, talking and sharing bottles of warm Coca-Cola. Their frustration seemed to have dissipated. It was then, he said, that the now famous jingle came to him. On a napkin, he scribbled, “I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.”

“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,” Backer wrote, according to Coca-Cola's website.

What was initially a radio ad eventually became a television commercial with young people singing together on a hillside. And on Sunday night, it became a part of TV history — again.