'Mad Men' Series Finale: The Real Story Behind That Coke Ad

Coke Commercial 1971 - H 2015

Coke Commercial 1971 - H 2015

"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."

For a certain generation, those lyrics inspire a rush of nostalgia. For another, much younger generation, it probably means … not much. Either way, if you were watching the Mad Men series finale on Sunday night, you saw the ad incorporated into the final scene, in which Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is meditating on a hillside before the commercial played. Did Draper create the ad? That's the impression many viewers were left with.

But who actually created the iconic 1971 commercial?

According to Coca-Cola's website, credit for the spot — dubbed "Hilltop" — goes to Bill Backer, who was then creative director on the Coke account at McCann Erickson. (That, incidentally, is the ad agency that acquired Draper’s firm in the show's final season.)

"We've had limited awareness around the brand's role in the series' final episodes, and what a rich story they decided to tell," a Coca-Cola spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter. "Mad Men is one of the most popular TV shows of all time, and 'Hilltop' is an iconic piece of Coca-Cola history. The finale gave everyone inside and outside the company — some for the first time — a chance to experience the magic of 'Hilltop' within the context of its creation and the times."

The company offered no further comment on how the spot came to be incorporated into the finale, nor whether it might be revived in some form, and THR has reached out to AMC for additional comment. However, sources said that, while Coke gave permission to use the ad, the company didn't play a part in the planning of the series finale, nor did it pay for integration. 

Meanwhile, here's the real story of how the spot came about: In January 1971, Backer was flying to London to meet with Billy Davis, the music director on the Coca-Cola account, and songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway when his plane was forced to land in Ireland. Backer observed the following morning that many passengers who had been angry the night before were laughing together and bonding as they were snacking and drinking Coke.

According to Coke's backstory of the spot's creation, Backer wrote: "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 got to London, he told Davis and Cook about his idea. Davis was skeptical, replying: "Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke." Instead, he said, he'd "buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love." Backer's response: "Okay, that sounds good. Let's write that and I'll show you how Coke fits right into the concept."

The song that eventually became "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke," recorded by a British group dubbed the New Seekers.

"Hundreds of British schoolchildren and 65 principals were cast to lip-sync the song," according to Coke's website, but the shoot was marred by bad weather. It was initially supposed to take place on the cliffs of Dover but was scrapped due to rain. The production then moved to Rome, with a group of new castmembers, but was delayed by more rain. The shoot proceeded anyway but the footage was deemed unusable. A third try proved more fruitful, but the final budget wound up being a then-astronomical $250,000.

When the spot was released later that year, it became a hit, and many listeners called radio stations asking them to play it. Just weeks later, a pop version was released that made it onto the national charts.

Below, watch an interview with Backer where he talks about the commercial: