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I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing

Published: February 26, 2024

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I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing
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Episode Description

This pilot episode of the Meaningful Impact podcast tells the fascinating, behind-the-scenes story of one of the earliest cause marketing ads: Coca-Cola’s Hilltop commercial. Better known as I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, the television ad is considered to be among the greatest commercials of all time. The backstory of the ad’s production is nearly as epic.

Though the Mad Men finale credits the fictional Don Draper as Hilltop’s creator, the real creative team was led by Bill Backer, an advertising agency executive who risked his career to get the ad done and on-air. Originally conceived as a radio jingle titled Buy the World a Coke, Backer envisioned a new ‘big idea’ for Coca-Cola, imagining the drink not merely as a refreshment but also as a catalyst for seeking commonality among diverse people. Along the way to creating a commercial about ‘perfect harmony’, the production budget was blown, the actors cast as extras rioted, and the helicopter film crew at the hilltop was pelted with Coke bottles.

This episode of Meaningful Impact tells the incredible true story of how Hilltop transformed from a scribble on a cafe napkin into an unrelatable radio jingle and a catastrophic film shoot that almost scuttled the TV commercial, were it not for the determination of Bill Backer and his account team. Their courage and perseverance eventually yielded a global sensation: a television ad emblematic of its times and a best-selling song that topped the pop charts and was sung by choirs around the world.

On This Episode

Michael OrganMichael Organ produces and hosts the Meaningful Impact podcast. He specializes in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) communications and is the editor of CSR.org and CauseMarketing.com.

Michael Organ offers the insight and expertise which comes from analyzing the outcomes of marketing campaigns that he’s implemented for over 500 corporate and non-profit clients.  In addition to hosting Meaningful Impact’s podcast, Michael Organ also oversees the Meaningful Impact Awards, as Executive Director.

Prior to founding Meaningful Impact, Michael Organ was a Managing Director at Kivvit (a public affairs and reputation agency); Vice President of Digital Marketing at Thematic Campaigns; and served as Obama for America’s first Digital Advertising Director and subsequently its Message Director. That led to co-founding Bully Pulpit Interactive, a leading marketing and public affairs agency for high-profile campaigns seeking transformational change. Earlier, Michael Organ worked at Accenture in multiple roles, including Vice President of Marketing of Accenture Procurement Solutions.

This pilot episode of the Meaningful Impact podcast tells the fascinating, behind-the-scenes story of one of the earliest cause marketing ads: Coca-Cola’s ‘Hilltop’ commercial. Better known as ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, the television ad is considered to be among the greatest commercials of all time. The backstory of the ad’s production is nearly as epic.

Though the Mad Men finale credits the fictional Don Draper as Hilltop’s creator, the real creative team was led by Bill Backer, an advertising agency executive who risked his career to get the ad done and on-air. Originally conceived as a radio jingle titled ‘Buy the World a Coke’, Backer envisioned a new ‘big idea’ for Coca-Cola, imagining the drink not merely as a refreshment but also as a catalyst for seeking commonality among diverse people. Along the way to creating a commercial about ‘perfect harmony’, the production budget was blown, the actors cast as extras rioted, and the helicopter film crew at the hilltop was pelted with Coke bottles.

This episode of Meaningful Impact tells the incredible true story of how ‘Hilltop’ transformed from a scribble on a cafe napkin into an unrelatable radio jingle and a catastrophic film shoot that almost scuttled the TV commercial, were it not for the determination of Bill Backer and his account team. Their courage and perseverance eventually yielded a global sensation: a television ad emblematic of its times and a best-selling song that topped the pop charts and was sung by choirs around the world.

On This Episode

Michael OrganMichael Organ produces and hosts the Meaningful Impact podcast. He specializes in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) communications and is the editor of CSR.org and CauseMarketing.com. Michael Organ offers the insight and expertise which comes from analyzing the outcomes of marketing campaigns that he’s implemented for over 500 corporate and non-profit clients.  In addition to hosting Meaningful Impact’s podcast, Michael Organ also oversees the Meaningful Impact Awards, as Executive Director. Prior to founding Meaningful Impact, Michael Organ was a Managing Director at Kivvit (a public affairs and reputation agency); Vice President of Digital Marketing at Thematic Campaigns; and served as Obama for America’s first Digital Advertising Director and subsequently its Message Director. That led to co-founding Bully Pulpit Interactive, a leading marketing and public affairs agency for high-profile campaigns seeking transformational change.

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Transcript and Related Material

Introduction

On January 18, 1971, a thick fog set in the air over London, England, obscuring visibility — an English fog so dense, so murky, that international flights to Heathrow Airport had to be re-routed to make emergency landings over 500 miles away at an airport in Shannon, Ireland.

One of the re-routed flights, Pan Am 12 from Washington Dulles, carried passenger Bill Backer, a Creative Director who worked at the McCann-Erickson advertising agency.  Like the rest of the marooned passengers, Bill Backer was forced to remain overnight in Shannon and required to stay near the airport to be ready to reboard Pan Am flight 12 when the fog cleared.

The nearby motel was tiny and ill-equipped to handle the 200 passengers, most of whom were required to either share a room or sleep in the lobby. Many of the travelers were furious. But not Bill Backer. Instead, he found inspiration during that unexpected layover in Shannon Ireland. As it turns out, the events that unfolded there impacted not only Bill Backer’s life, but also mine, and all others who embrace what’s now known as cause marketing.

Because it was there, in the lobby of a tiny motel, and at a Shannon Airport café, that Bill Backer’s observation of fellow passengers led to a eureka moment. In the advertising business, Bill Backer’s epiphany is what’s known as a Big Idea, which he scribbled on a café napkin. Those scribbled words were the beginnings of a script that would eventually become one of the greatest television commercials of all time, and more importantly, an inspiration to the cause marketers who followed.

Welcome

Welcome to the inaugural episode of Meaningful ImpactTM . Most future episodes of the podcast will feature modern stories and contemporary interviews. But for this first episode, I am sharing one of my earliest inspirations.

Bill Backer
Bill Backer
Bill Backer

Let’s start at the beginning: William Montague Backer, better known as Bill Backer, was born in New York City. Even as a teenager, Backer was a prolific writer and composer.  He attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, where he wrote musical comedies, was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and was president of the Fairfax Literary Society.

After graduating from high school in 1944, Backer joined the United States armed forces during wartime, serving in the Navy for two years. He then attended Yale University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Post graduation, Backer hoped to become a songwriter. But his mother and stepfather convinced him to try selling real estate instead.  That didn’t last.  Then he tried to freelance as a jingle writer and worked as a production assistant at Columbia Pictures. Backer was fired from Columbia Pictures for being too critical of their advertisements.

Finally, Backer got his big break in 1953, when he was hired by the McCann-Erickson advertising agency as a mailroom trainee. He pushed a mail cart for more than a year before getting a shot in the creative department.

Bill Backer Gets Stranded in Shannon, Ireland

Eighteen years later, Bill Backer boarded Pan Am flight 12 to London to attend creative brainstorming meetings in advance of a jingle recording session. At least, that was the plan.

Backer’s fellow passengers on that Pan Am 747 jumbo jet were a diverse group: Britons, Germans, Americans, East Indians, Arabs, and Israelis. In fact, for many of the travelers, London was not ticketed as their final destination but rather just a fueling stop on their way to Frankfurt. Others intended to connect from Frankfurt to other cities in Europe or to the Far East.

But, as you now know, fog and fate diverted Pan Am flight 12 to Shannon, Ireland instead.

After the uncomfortable night at the overrun motel, the stranded passengers gathered at the airport’s café for coffee, tea, or a soft drink. Curiously, their mood had changed. Anger from the day before was replaced with the camaraderie of a shared experience.

That’s when Bill Backer noticed that many of the former strangers – different in nationality, color, and beliefs — were now sharing stories with each other. Their common language was English, for some heavily accented, and their icebreaker was sitting at café tables while drinking Coca-Cola. Despite their many differences, enjoying Coca-Cola was something they had in common.

McCann-Erickson was the ad agency of record for Coca-Cola. Bill Backer led Coke’s creative team and was a big believer in developing ad ideas by observing consumers as they interact with a client’s product.

As Backer contemplated the many heartwarming scenes at the airport café, his epiphany was that Coca-Cola was more than a spirit-lifting caffeine delivery device. Instead, quote, “(I) began to see the familiar (phrase), ‘Let’s have a Coke’ as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment.” Instead, the offer to drink Coke together was “actually a subtle way of saying, ‘Let’s keep each other company for a little while’… So that was the basic idea,” Backer said, “to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but instead as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula (and social catalyst) that would help (bring people together) for a few minutes.”

In that moment of recognition, Backer felt like he heard a voice from somewhere telling him to replicate what he saw at the airport café for the whole world.

His ad concept was not fully formed, not yet ready for a radio jingle, but the kernel of a Big Idea was there. It was at that moment that Bill Backer wrote on his café napkin: “We must fly together or die together.” On reflection, that idea seemed too dark for Coca-Cola. So, he kept writing ideas on the paper napkin until he finally settled on: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.”

That initial concept would undergo many further iterations, especially while burning the midnight oil.

Backer, Davis, and Cook Brainstorm Coke Jingles at the Savoy Hotel

Since Heathrow Airport remained shrouded in fog, Backer flew instead to Liverpool and was bussed to London. Backer checked into the Savoy Hotel shortly after midnight, at which point he met in suite 611 with Billy Davis, the music director on the Coca-Cola account, as well as Roger Cook, a British songwriter.  Their goal was to craft three Coca-Cola radio jingles that were scheduled to be recorded in less than 48 hours at a studio session with a popular folk group called the New Seekers.

Billy Davis, Bill Backer, and Roger Cook

For one of the jingles, Backer pitched his idea of creating harmony by buying everybody in the world a Coke, but Billy Davis was skeptical.

Davis’ reaction: “Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke.”

So, Backer asked, “What would you do?”

Davis replied: “I’d buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love.”

Backer wrote that down as: “I’d like to buy the world a home.”

Billy Davis, who had experienced many lean years before achieving success as a Motown songwriter, expressed concerns that buying the world a home would resonate only with the rich. On the other hand, any group of people, regardless of wealth, can pick-up a hammer and nails to help to build a home.

So, the creative team debated about whether the opening line of the jingle should be ‘I’d like to buy the world a home‘ or ‘I’d like to build the world a home‘.

Like Billy Davis, Backer actually preferred “build,” so they wrote the lyric that way at The Savoy Hotel.  But they relented at the recording studio the next day when the New Seekers’ lead singer, Eve Graham, pushed back. She explained that “I’d” and “buy” are closer to rhyming than “I’d” and “build,” so it was easier for her to sing “I’d like to buy the world a home.”

In any case, the next line of the jingle needed to convey a visual setting for the world’s home that was furnished with love. A dozen or so options were considered. Eventually, the team agreed to Roger Cook’s poetic suggestion that the home should be surrounded with: “apple trees and honeybees and snow-white turtle doves.” The imagery of “snow-white turtle doves” was intended to convey peace.

This lyrical poetry seems way over-the-top in today’s increasingly cynical society. But, keep in mind, the ad was created in 1971, during a time when many Americans were tiring of the Vietnam War and the culture was still freshly influenced by the ‘peace and love’ flower power movement.  While hard to relate to now, there was a period of idealism then, especially among young people.

The next line of the verse, perhaps the most famous, was written by Backer: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

Backer chose to use the word ‘har-mo-ny’, in part, because it conveniently rhymed with the word ‘com-pa-ny.’  But there was a more meaningful reason too.  Even by 1971, the term ‘harmony’ had already fallen out-of-fashion. Instead, politicians and leaders used alternative phrasing such as “we must work together,” implying that people who don’t necessarily like each other must arrive at a compromise. To contrast that, Backer intentionally resurrected the word ‘harmony’ because, in his view, the term ‘harmony’ conveys that each diverse person, or distinct musical note, has a right to be a different pitch and yet can still blend nicely.

The pay-off line, of course, were the exact words that Backer had written on his napkin at Shannon Airport: I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

Bill Backer, Roger Cook and Billy Davis, in just one hour, completed the verse that would give them immortality.

As the verse repeats, they throw-in a ‘call and response’: ‘Coke Is… What the world wants today. It’s the real thing’ which synced with Coke’s prevailing ‘It’s the Real Thing’ campaign at the time.

Re-Purposed Melody

Like the lyrics, the development of the jingle’s music was equally collaborative.

A year earlier, the ‘Two Rogers’; i.e., Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, wrote a spec melody while on holiday in Portugal, originally recorded with a ukulele.

Roger Cook resurrected that tune as he waited for Backer’s delayed flight. Cook and Davis adapted the year-old melody, added a bridge, and wrote a jingle called ‘True Love and Apple Pie.’

Here is Susan Shirley singing now mostly-forgotten lyrics to what later transformed into a familiar tune:

When Cook and Davis presented the jingle to Backer, he loved the melody but didn’t think the lyrics were right for Coke.

Years later, at TEDxNashville, Roger Cook was candid about the original lyrics of ‘True Love and Apple Pie’: “Roger Greenaway and I had written a song called ‘True Love and Apple Pie’, which was a real dog. I’m telling you it was a bad song. But it had one redeeming feature, it had a very pretty melody.”

 So, Cook, Backer, and Davis re-purposed the music of ‘True Love and Apple Pie’ as the melody for a radio jingled they titled: ‘Buy the World a Coke.’

‘Buy the World a Coke’ Lyrics

What follows is Bill Backer playing the piano and singing in his own voice. Backer re-creates the draft lyrics of the ‘Buy the World a Coke’ radio commercial, as written at The Savoy Hotel in London on January 20, 1971 at 1:00am:

At this point, I’d like to tell you that the value of this revolutionary cause marketing lyric was self-evident and immediately recognized by all involved. But it was not. Far from it.  Just as London’s fog had waylaid Backer’s flight, there were further storms ahead, both literal and figurative, that confronted Backer and his creative team with repeated and almost insurmountable obstacles.

Recording Session at Trident Studios

It’s now January 21, 1971. Location: Trident Studios in London’s Soho district, where the Beatles had previously recorded Hey Jude and where Elton John recorded his first worldwide hit. Bill Backer was joined at Trident Studios by Roger Cook and Billy Davis.

They were optimistic about the potential of the jingle they titled ‘Buy the World a Coke’, but the team hedged their bets by recording three potential radio jingles, not just one.

As part of the research for this podcast, I got my hands on a copy of the demo record produced that day. It’s an old-style 45rpm record with ‘Buy the World a Coke’ on one side and two other, now mostly-forgotten jingles, on the other side.

One of the commercials that earned little public interest was titled: Little Bit of Sunshine.

The other mostly-forgotten commercial, titled It’s the Real Thing, may sound more familiar to you because the lyrics share some commonality with Coke’s overarching Real Thing campaign which Bill Backer started in 1968. But the melody is different.

For context: I started my career as an account executive at a traditional advertising agency. I wasn’t there for long, but I stayed at the ad agency long enough to witness how clients react to creative pitches. After an agency presents multiple options, clients are tempted to request a blend: a little bit of this, with a little bit of that; some of Option A with some of Option B.  That cherry picking can actually make a lot of sense when you’re trying to integrate an overarching campaign theme with a fresh variation. Bill Backer must have anticipated that when he inserted “It’s the Real Thing” messaging into a creative treatment about peace and love. To me, that feels force fit, but perhaps necessary for obtaining client approval.

‘Buy the World a Coke’ Demo Record

You can judge for yourself. What you’re about to hear is the full 60-second, original demo of the Buy the World a Coke radio commercial, exactly as it was recorded at Trident Studios.

The recording session did not start smoothly. Backer felt that the initial takes did not convey the right meaning. The folk group, the New Seekers, started by belting the lyrics like an upbeat jingle. The band thought they were doing the right thing by singing as ‘the voice of Coke’. But Bill Backer wanted them to sing as ‘the voice of the times’.  So, Backer took the unusual step of halting the recording session to correct misunderstandings. It was a long conversation.

Backer, an American, discovered that the Australian and British singers related to tea, not a brand of soda, as a social catalyst. So, Backer explained the American perspective. But, most critically, the New Seekers raised a prescient question:  “Who is the ‘I’ in the lyric?” In other words, who is the ‘I’ that says, “I would like to buy the world a home?” Is ‘I’ the Coca-Cola company?  “No,” Backer replied. “Is ‘I’ anyone who would want to build the world a home?” “Yes,” said Backer. “Anyone of good will?”  “Yes.”

After much discussion, Backer was able to direct the folk group to deliver the performance that he wanted.

Underwhelming Response from the Public and Coca-Cola Bottlers

The problem, however, was that Becker could not spend a similar amount of time, 40 minutes, to explain the commercial to each and every American who listened to the radio. So, on February 15, 1971, when ‘Buy the World a Coke’ began airing on Top 40 radio stations nationwide, the response of the American public was… silence.

There was a reaction, however, from Coca-Cola bottlers. They were underwhelmed. The bottler’s feedback was that a commercial about apple trees and honey bees did not “sell hard enough.” That verdict was especially damning because Coca-Cola corporate pays a lot of attention to the opinions of its bottlers – since they are independent franchise owners who partially produce and wholly distribute Coke’s products. Perhaps even more importantly, the bottlers are major contributors to Coke’s advertising budget.

Bill Backer was stunned by the failure. Yet, every time he questioned his faith in the commercial, Backer reminded himself of what he saw with his own eyes at the Shannon Airport. The ad’s premise was true and was right for the times.  So, where had the creative execution gone wrong?

In the normal course of business, the ‘Buy the World a Coke’ ad would run for 3 to 4 months at modest levels of radio airplay, and then largely vanish from memory, as most commercials do.

Unless, of course, someone (or as it turned out, many people) were willing to take risks to make a meaningful impact.

Troubleshooting the Creative Execution

Bill Backer was not a daredevil, but he was willing to stick his neck out for causes he believed in. First, however, Backer needed to figure out why consumers did not understand the radio commercial well enough to be inspired by it. Many theories were offered. But Backer finally got his answer during a lobster dinner with Sid McAllister at New York’s Palm Restaurant on Second Avenue. Sid McAllister was a Senior Account Director at McCann-Erickson. He led the Coca-Cola account and was a fan of the ‘Buy the World a Coke’ commercial. But that night at the Palm Restaurant, McAllister wondered aloud whether the audio-only commercial required too much imagination from a radio audience.

So, Backer came to believe that radio wasn’t the right medium for the commercial, at least as a standalone. To understand the message – to believe that a bottle of sweetened water with caffeine could act as a social catalyst that helps people of various races, colors, and beliefs to talk things over — to really believe that, the commercial audience would need the moving visuals that television provides.

That said, producing a Coke commercial for television raises the stakes exponentially, especially if the commercial is slated for heavy exposure during the summer, the peak selling season for a refreshment product.

By the end of their lobster dinner at the Palm Restaurant, Backer and McAllister made a mutual commitment to the commercial and to each other.

So, they floated the idea to Ike Herbert, Coca-Cola’s Director of Marketing. Keep in mind, months before, when McAllister and Backer pitched a new concept to Herbert, his response was, “Have you guys been smoking pot?” which quickly killed that prospective ad. But this time, when McAllister and Backer pitched turning ‘Buy the World a Coke’ into a television commercial, Ike Herbert said “Yes.”

Visual Concepts for a Television Commercial

So, Backer recruited several of McCann-Erickson’s art directors to brainstorm visual concepts for ‘Buy the World a Coke’.

The runner-up idea was a series of vignettes where people of different ages, races and nationalities were thrown together, with bottles of Coke as their common bond. The montage of vignettes would have included young people hiking or biking through Europe or the Americas; travelers on buses, trains, and airplanes; and diverse neighbors getting acquainted in backyards, and at schools, sporting events, and block parties.

McCann-Erickson’s Al Scully, who led visual branding for the Coca-Cola account, liked but did not love the concept. “Better than a pair of jacks,” he assessed, “but not a royal flush.”

Harvey Gabor

A day later, the winning idea was proposed by a young art director named Harvey Gabor, who pitched his idea to Backer with the intensity of a pit bull.

Gabor began his pitch with a question: “If there were such a thing as a United Chorus of the World, who would be in it and what would they look like?” Gabor imagined “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” being sung by a chorus consisting of singers from every country in the world.

After a very long pause, Backer finally reacted: “The singers should be young, because young people seem to care the most today about whether or not the world has a home.”

Refining the idea even more, Harvey Gabor replied: “But they shouldn’t be dressed-up in similar duds like a chorus that sings together a lot… I see them on a green mountainside somewhere. It’s like they are singing at a spot that’s so perfect that it isn’t real, but it is. It isn’t a set.”

Harvey Gabor had managed to brainstorm a visual concept that would finally answer the question: Who is the “I” that would like to build the world a home and furnish it with love? “I” is anyone, everyone, of good will, regardless of who they are or what they look like. The public had insufficient imagination to relate to ‘Buy the World a Coke’ as a radio ad. But the television visual of a United World Chorus would solve the abstraction.

So, it was Harvey Gabor, a young TV art director with a thick Bronx accent, who proposed the winning visual concept for what would become one of the most celebrated television commercials of all time.

McCann-Erickson Team Roles

To be candid, Gabor was on thin ice at the ad agency. He had managed a television commercial of similar complexity only once before and it was deemed to be “an unmitigated disaster.” Ike Herbert was so upset with the results that he asked for both Gabor and Backer to be removed from the Coca-Cola account. Backer actually continued to lead Coca-Cola’s creative team at McCann-Erickson, but only hidden in the background, until Ike Herbert cooled off.

Backer decided to give Gabor one more shot. Al Scully, head of the art department, would be an advisor, but stayed back in the U.S., as did Bill Backer and Sid McAllister. So, the McCann-Erickson team leaders on-location to film the commercial would be Phil Messina, producer; Harvey Gabor, art director; and Billy Davis, music director.

External vendors would include Harpoon, a British production house; Haskell Wexler, a highly-regarded camera operator; and Cal Bernstein, an acclaimed director.

The (Initial) Budget for the TV Ad

The McCann-Erickson team proposed a $100,000 production budget, which would have been the highest production cost in the history of Coca-Cola advertising at that time. Accounting for inflation, $100,000 in 1971 is equivalent to a production budget of $750,000 today. Coca-Cola balked, so Sid McAllister asked for budget cuts. But as a practical matter, for the aerial shot, how do you rent half a helicopter? How do you find a remote mountaintop in an idyllic, natural setting that’s already wired for electricity?

White Cliffs of Dover

Ultimately, Sid McAllister gave approval to start producing the television version of ‘Buy the World a Coke’ without a signed commitment from Coca-Cola to cover the cost. That is a rare and significant risk to take, for an advertising agency.

Sid McAllister figured that it would be easier for Coca-Cola USA to eventually accept the production cost if the bill could be split with   Coca-Cola Europe — a standard practice when both regions aired the same commercial. To increase the probability that the decision-makers at Coca-Cola Europe would like the ad enough to air it there, McAllister decided to shoot the ad in Europe, at the glorious White Cliffs of Dover, 77 miles outside of London.

Filming in Europe would also make it possible to have an epically large cast for the United Chorus of the World. The creative team envisioned 65 leads, known as principal actors, supplemented by several thousand extras.  At the time, when American commercial actors appeared in close-ups, they were paid a day rate for the shoot PLUS a residual fee every time the TV ad aired. But European principal actors earned only a day rate as a one-time buyout for commercial shoots; no residuals.

‘Hilltop’ Shoot #1

The shoot was scheduled to occur on April 8, 1971. The enormous cast required considerable logistics: Food trucks, make-up trucks, sound trucks, A/V equipment, portable toilets, and electric generators all had to be transported to the remote cliffs.

Unfortunately, the weather at the White Cliffs of Dover did not cooperate. A cold front moved-in, winds gusted to 70 miles per hour, the sky became overcast, and the location looked too depressing and gloomy to film a chorus singing about harmony.

So, despite considerable non-recoverable costs, the shoot was canceled, with the hope that the English weather would soon improve. But, it did not. In fact, the weather got worse the next day and even worse the day after that. There had been enough contingency money in the budget to cancel the shoot once, but there was not enough money left for continued delays while waiting for the weather to improve.

‘Hilltop’ Shoot #2: The Plan
The Sacrofano Hilltop

At the suggestion of Phil Messina, Sid McCallister agreed to move the shoot from the White Cliffs of Dover to a hilltop in Sacrofano, Italy, 16 miles north of Rome, where sunny weather was more consistent. The Sacrofano hilltop was not as green as Dover, but it would have to do. In fact, the setting inspired the television commercial’s official name: Hilltop’.

Most of the principal actors and all of the extras would need to be re-cast in Italy; Messina was given a tip on a supposedly-reliable, local production company that could help with that.

The one saving grace, Messina hoped, was not needing to re-cast the lead singer – the young woman who appears in a solo close-up at the opening of the commercial. The Harpoon casting director had found a little-known British folksinger who sang in small-town pubs in the British Midlands. She looked the part and sang in the same key as the New Seekers’ Eve Graham. That would have given Billy Davis the option to use live vocals recorded on location or to later dub in Eve Graham’s voice in the final audio mix.

The on-location lead singer was initially a bargain too. She had agreed to sing at the White Cliffs of Dover for just double the standard daily rate. But when asked to fly to Italy for the Coke commercial, she got an agent who demanded a huge increase in compensation equivalent to over $200,000 today. That negotiation gambit was greeted with a hard “No,” so now the role of lead singer also needed to be re-cast, in Italy, in a hurry.

With the help of the local Italian production company, a new female folksinger was found and cast for the lead. Messina felt that she was not quite as ideal as the first, but she was enthusiastic and seemed to have a special spark in her eyes.

For the rest of the United Chorus of the World, there would still be the other 65 principal actors; but to save money on the wide shots, the number of extras was scaled down from approximately 5,000 children to 1,200 children.

Close-ups of lip syncing in perfect harmony

For Shoot #2, the plan was to begin filming at sunrise, when the light is soft and warm.  Haskell Wexler wanted to use the inspirational morning light to film glowing close-ups of the faces of the principal actors as they lip-synced. The variation of their faces — from Ireland, Nigeria, Nepal, Liberia, Argentina, Senegal, China, Portugal, Japan, Pakistan, Romania; more than 30 countries in total – would pictorialize the lyrics about Coke’s role as a social catalyst in building good will and unity among diverse people.

Once the close-ups were complete, the next part of the plan was to film aerial shots of the full chorus, including the principal actors and 1,200 extras, all together in harmony.

That was the plan. But that was not what happened.

‘Hilltop’ Shoot #2: Chaos

The Sacrofano hillside had been consistently sunny for the previous two weeks. But, on the day of Shoot #2, a morning rain drenched the hillside. The cast waited in buses hoping for the sky to clear, which finally occurred around 10am.

The visually warm and glowing ambiance of sunrise had long since passed. Now, Wexler would have to deal with dreary overcast skies. At least the rain had stopped. So, the 65 principal actors were called to the hilltop where Wexler and Gabor began directing the close-ups for the commercial’s opening scenes.

Unfortunately, the upheavals caused by weather were not done. The troubles just shifted from rain to heat. The temperature had reached a stifling 95 degrees, made more humid by the hillside’s damp grass. To cool off, Phil Messina hiked to the bottom of the hill to get a Coke from a fully-stocked Coca-Cola truck, conveniently located at the parking lot. Along the way, Messina noticed the buses which had brought the 1,200 extras. They had also arrived at 7am. Yet, despite the oppressive heat, all 1,200 children were still in the buses almost 4 hours later. The bus doors were locked.

Meanwhile, the adult chaperones responsible for the children were outside of the buses. The chaperones were blithely sitting in camping chairs, each with their own bucket of ice, drinking bottles of Coke in full view of the sweltering children.

Steam on the windows of the buses partially obscured what was going on inside, but the children’s rage and frustration was obvious from the shouting and pushing which shook the buses from the inside, as if buffeted by the winds of a hurricane.

Messina demanded to know why the children hadn’t been let out of the buses to cool-off with a drink or even to use the restrooms. The chaperones explained that the extras were not typical school children but rather were orphans who had very little interaction with the outside world.  The lead chaperone added that the orphans were like animals and needed to be treated that way.

Now livid, Messina ordered the chaperones to release the children, but the chaperones stalled by saying they needed to first speak with the head of the local production company. By the time he was found, the issue was moot, because Haskell Wexler was ready to board the helicopter to shoot the aerial shots.

So, the chaperones released the 1,200 orphans that had been treated like animals. The orphans emerged from the buses sweating and screaming. They didn’t know why they were there or what they were supposed to do. When they finally followed a chaperone up the hill, he led them along the wrong route, trampling the grass and scarring the ground in front the of chorus before the aerial shot could be filmed.

The production crew’s bullhorns were not loud enough to be heard over the roar of the helicopter. So, the chaperones shoved the orphans into place. The children responded by throwing bottles of Coke at the helicopter — the same bottles of Coke that were supposed to be symbols of peace, love, and harmony.

Once the orphans ran out of bottles to hurl at the helicopter, Wexler tried to salvage the shoot by getting at least one aerial shot. But, before he could do that, the children rioted. They knocked down two production assistants and then swarmed around and through the principal actors, causing some of them to drop to a knee. The extras then charged down the hill toward the Coca-Cola truck, which they violently tried to topple onto its side.

Later that night, Messina, Gabor, and Davis checked the dailies. As they feared, there was not a single frame of usable footage from the aerial shots. Yet, remarkably, there was an even worse problem. The zoom lens used for the close-ups turned out to be faulty. All of the close-up footage was out-of-focus. Ordinarily, that could be fixed at a subsequent pick-up shoot. But unknown to the McCann-Erickson team, the lead singer was getting married in two days. By the time the team could be ready for a pick-up shoot, their lead singer would be in South Africa on her honeymoon. As it turns out, it didn’t matter anyway because the lead camera operator and director were no longer available. Wexler and Bernstein left the next day back to go back to the United States for a prior commitment.

There’s no way to candy coat it: ‘Hilltop’ Shoot #2 was an unmitigated disaster.

Phil Messina called Sid McAllister to deliver the news. Remember, it was McAllister who had green-lighted the initial production budget without written approval from Coke. Now, Messina had to wake-up McAllister at 3am his time to report that the budget was mostly gone without anything to show for it.

‘Hilltop’ Shoot #3

Sid McCallister still had faith that the ‘Hilltop’ commercial would make a meaningful impact. So, when Phil Messina asked to go over budget to pay for a third shoot, McCallister said: “Well, I never saw the Coca-Cola company pay anything for a blank piece of film — much less big bucks. But, I’ve (also) never seen them refuse to pay for film they thought was good. So, Phil, make it good.”

“Make it Good” became the team’s credo; as did “no frills.”

To reduce the cost of Shoot #3, the production was downsized… though still epically large. The group of lip-syncing principal actors was reduced from 65 to 40. The chorus of extras was reduced from 5,000 at the first shoot to 1,200 at the second shoot to 500 at the third.

Costumes recognizably native to the actor’s home countries

Yet, despite the cost-saving measures, one major crew role was actually added to the team: Costume Designer.

The decision to add a costume designer was made after reviewing the footage from Shoot #2. Gabor and Messina discovered that they would need to do more than cast actors with different face shapes and skin colors to quickly establish them as representing different nationalities and cultures. (It didn’t help that the teenagers were wearing similar-looking shirts and jeans).

So, a costume designer was hired to dress the principal actors in clothes recognizably native to their home countries, even though some of the outfits were old-fashioned and anachronistic.

Another lesson learned, of course, was to switch to a different, local production team. That role was ably filled by Roma Films.

The final piece of the puzzle was casting the new lead. Having done this twice before, Phil Messina had a strong sense of the kind of person he was looking to cast, but had not yet found her. Time was running out.

Less than a day remained before the third shoot when Phil Messina spotted Linda Higson at Piazza Navona, a public square with beautiful fountains.

Linda Neary (née Higson)

Higson, a 19-year-old blonde-haired Briton, was pushing a baby carriage while working in Rome as a nanny. Messina felt that Higson’s manner and idealism personified the values expressed in the opening words of the Coke commercial. She was not a professional folksinger, as the previous two leads had been. So, that would remove the option of using Higson’s actual voice in the final cut of the commercial. At least, however, Higson had perfect teeth, a key requirement for soft drink advertising.

But Linda Higson was shy. When offered the lead in the commercial, she declined, more than once, but eventually agreed. Years later, Higson (whose married name is now Neary) referred to the ‘Hilltop’ experience as Cinderella-like. But she also wished that she had earned more than the flat $50 buyout rate.

The third, and finally successful, attempt at shooting the commercial was split into two locations. Learning from previous experience, the tight close-up shots were filmed more economically at an empty racetrack near Rome. The angle of the commercial’s iconic, close-up tracking shots was partly born out of the necessity to avoid revealing the background power lines and telephone wires near the racetrack.

The aerial shot at the hilltop was also challenging. Wind rocked the helicopter back and forth. Electronic motion stabilization was not yet invented for cinematography in 1971. So, in post-production, Gabor’s team reconstructed the aerial shot footage by hand, frame by frame, to try to smooth it out.

That said, if you watch the ‘Hilltop’ commercial closely, the aerial footage still appears quite shaky. Gabor was personally bothered by the flaw, but the creative team ascribed to the Voltaire admonition: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Despite an initial budget of $100,000, the actual production cost of ‘Hilltop’ skyrocketed to over $250,000 which, at the time, was one of the largest production budgets ever devoted to a television commercial. Accounting for inflation, the ad cost the present-day equivalent of almost $2 million — that’s a production cost of $33,000 per second.

The first time that the client signed-off on the budget was after Coca-Cola’s new brand manager, K. V. Dey, reviewed the rough cut.

The Chyron

With the production challenges overcome, one big obstacle remained: a legal issue.

To comply with contractual obligations to American film unions, there needed to be a legitimate artistic reason to have produced the ‘Hilltop’ ad outside of the United States. To assert an artistic reason, Bill Backer made one final edit to the commercial. He inserted a text crawl over the final aerial shot. The chyron reads: “On a hilltop in Italy, we assembled young people from all over the world to bring you a message from Coca-Cola Bottlers all over the world.”

The chyron would have been unnecessary if ‘Hilltop’ had aired outside of the United States first.

Yet, despite the multi-national cast, Coca-Cola Europe felt that the television commercial was inappropriate; i.e., “too American,” for their markets. So, Coca-Cola Europe declined to air the ad, even once… until months later when the commercial’s astonishing success in the United States inspired a change of heart.

Unprecedented Reaction

‘Hilltop’ debuted in July 1971, airing on all three major American networks. The response was unprecedented. Coca-Cola received over 100,000 letters from appreciative viewers who felt moved to share their personal experience of how the commercial made them feel. Seventy-five percent of the letter writers were under age 30. Ninety percent of the letter writers requested the commercial’s lyrics; some even offered additional verses of their own. Many of the letter writers wanted to know when the commercial would air next so that they could be sure to watch it again. Radio listeners called DJs to ask them to play the commercial as if it were a hit song.

According to Bill Backer: “As far as I know, the commercial ran in almost every country in the world that speaks English. And they all understood it: A product saying that we can be a little social catalyst that can bring people together to talk things over.”

The Pop Song: ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’

Inspired by the response, Backer converted the lyrics of the 60-second ‘Hilltop’ commercial into a 2 minute and 20 second pop song titled: “I’d like to Teach the World to Sing.”

The song was recorded first by studio musicians who were credited as the Hillside Singers.

Here’s what happened next, according to Roger Cook: “The record went out and started jumping up the charts immediately. So, Billy Davis went to the group who originally recorded the commercial – they were called the New Seekers — and cut a version with them and then (that version) went out as well.  For the next 2 or 3 months, these two records vied with each other as they went up the charts all the way to the top 10, which is something that happens very seldom with one song.”

On the US Billboard Top 100, the Hillside Singers version of ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ peaked at 13.

The version by the New Seekers simultaneously peaked at 7. The New Seekers sold 12 million records and reached #1 with the song in the UK.

Bill Backer and Billy Davis were especially proud that a fictional United Chorus of the World actually inspired real church and school choruses, all over the world, to perform ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’.

For the pop song’s lyrics, references to ‘Coke’ were replaced, but still subconsciously present.

Listen for yourself. Here is an excerpt from ‘Hilltop’, the TV commercial version: I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

And now, here is a similar excerpt from ’I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, the pop song version: I’d like to hold it in my arms and keep it company.

Extending the lyrics for a pop song also gave Bill Backer the chance to further explain the concept of a United Chorus of the World.  Here is that new verse:

I’d like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace throughout the land

Rather than just the abstract symbolism of snow-white turtle doves, did you notice the now-specific reference to peace?  When converting the lyrics for the commercial into a pop song, Backer actually added three new verses about peace. However, the New Seekers chose to only use one of those new verses. To hear the second and third direct references to peace, we need to listen to the Hillside Singers’ version:

It’s the real thing
(What the world wants today)
That’s the way it’ll stay
With the real thing
Peace and love

(It’s the real thing)
I’d like to teach the world to sing
(What the world wants today)
In perfect harmony
A song of peace that echoes on
And never goes away

Though direct references to Coke were removed from the pop song, the subliminal advertising value is obvious.

Without revealing specific revenue figures, Backer confirmed: “You could see on a sales curve the effect that the combination of the commercial and the song had on sales.”

Fans of the TV series Mad Men , particularly the finale, may have already made the connection between the real-life of Bill Backer and the fictional life of Don Draper. Both worked for McCann-Erickson and, parenthetically, both eventually resigned from the agency due to philosophical differences. More to the point, both Bill Backer and Don Draper are credited with creating Coke’s iconic ‘Hilltop’ ad.

If you want to get even more details about the development of ‘Hilltop’, Bill Backer provides a first-hand account in his excellent 1993 book titled The Care and Feeding of Ideas.

In the book, Backer asks the reader to: “Think of all the times that you have personally used Coke as a social catalyst, as a disarmer, or maybe as a peace offering. If you stop to think about it,” he wrote, “offering someone a glass of Coca-Cola is really the world’s most accepted way of saying ‘Let’s sit down for a chat, let’s get to know each other better, I want to be your friend’.”

Though much of what Backer writes in his book is universal and ageless, his 1971 notions about positioning Coke as a social catalyst seems somewhat antiquated now, at least in the United States, where it is more common to invite an acquaintance for coffee rather than a soda.

Coincidentally, the first Starbucks opened in March 1971, one month after the initial airing of the ‘Buy the World a Coke’ radio ad. But it was not until the early 1980s that Howard Schultz of Starbucks noticed the social scene at expresso bars in Italy and then started to replicate that coffeehouse culture in the United States and Canada.

‘Hilltop’ Sequels

In any case, the worldwide success of theHilltop’ ad inspired sequels:

Christmas Version (Mid 1970s)

Coca-Cola first revived the campaign in the mid-1970s with Christmas versions. Perhaps the most memorable featured a new United Chorus of the World on a hillside, where this time, each of the singers holds a lit candle. As daylight fades into night, the aerial shot reveals that each of the points of candlelight collectively form the shape of a Christmas tree. Meanwhile, the sound of sleigh bells accompanies the ‘Buy the World a Coke’ anthem.

Hilltop Reunion (1990)

For Super Bowl XXIV, ‘Hilltop Reunion’ brought back 25 of the original 40 principal actors, this time accompanied by their own children. The commercial opens with Linda Neary (nee Higson) talking with her daughter about the experience:  Linda Neary: “You know it happened right here, twenty years ago.” Daughter: “Right here Mom?” Linda Neary: “Mmm Hmm. You just can’t imagine what it felt like.”

A close-up of a 39-year-old Linda Neary crossfades to the iconic close-up of her as a 19-year-old, as we hear: “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.” A second cross fade returns to the 39-year-old Neary as the rest of the reunion commercial is reenacted by the chorus alumni and their children.

Teach the World to Chill (2005)

In 2005, to help launch Coke Zero, the anthem was reimagined as: “I’d like to teach the world to chill. Take time to stop and smile. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and chill with it awhile.”

NASCAR (2010)

In 2010, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” was sung (out-of-tune) by NASCAR drivers, who briefly wave at each other, while racing. The massive crowd applauds as the chorus of drivers reaches the crescendo of the song.

Final Thoughts
Bill Backer

Bill Backer was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1995. The vote was unanimous. Mr. Backer died in 2016 at age 89. He lived long enough to experience the resurgence of interest in the ‘Hilltop’ ad generated by the Mad Men finale.

In addition to encouraging the world to sing in perfect harmony, Backer is credited with creating the Coca-Cola slogans: “Things go better with Coke” and “The Real Thing.” Backer worked for several other marquee clients and created many other classic ad slogans, including “Miller Time” and, for Miller Lite: “Tastes Great. Less Filling” as well as “Everything you ever wanted in a beer, and less.”

But it’s for Bill Backer’s pioneering cause marketing campaign for Coca-Cola that he is the first honorary recipient of the Meaningful Impact Laureate Award.

I appreciate your interest in this inaugural episode of the Meaningful Impact podcast. With each episode, I will feature an inspiring story about a purpose-driven leader who went way beyond the requirements of their job to leverage their ordinary role to make an extraordinary difference, like an ordinary creative director at an ad agency who increased Coca-Cola sales by promoting harmony. We’ll focus on case studies which demonstrate how to achieve a triple win: A win for a company, a win for a cause, and a win for the purpose-driven leader.

For this episode’s case study, we know Coca-Cola won. We know society benefited. But what about Bill Backer himself? Did he win personally? Yes, Bill Backer was promoted to the equivalent of Group Creative Director in 1972 and eventually became a Vice Chairman at McCann-Erickson before leaving to co-found his own very successful ad agency. But what about Bill Backer’s self-fulfillment?

For insight into that, here’s an observation shared by Harvey Gabor in his eBook of anecdotes. In it, Gabor describes the scene when Bill Backer saw the ‘Hilltop’ ad for the very first time.  Here’s what Gabor recalls: “The three caballeros, me, Phil Messina, and Billy Davis presented to (Bill) in the screening room… Now you don’t just plop yourself down next to Bill Backer. We sit a row in front of him, about five seats to the right. We run the spot. I turn to look back and Bill, not one to ever be accused of being overly emotional, I believe (Bill) is crying. Now I’m really worried. Finally (Bill) speaks to us: ‘If the world only remembers me for this one commercial, I’d have had a pretty good life’.”

Bill Backer had a pretty good life.

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Never miss an episode of Meaningful Impact. We’ll send announcements to your inbox (about twice per month) whenever a new, inspiring case study is released.

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