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The "Hilltop" Ad: The Story of a Commercial

An Inspiration in a Fog | Writing the Song | Trial and Error | Shooting an Ad on a Hillside | A Commercial Success

frame from hilltop commerical

An Inspiration in a Fog

In 1969, The Coca-Cola Company and its advertising agency, McCann-Erickson, ended their popular "Things Go Better With Coke" campaign, replacing it with a campaign that centered on the slogan "It's the Real Thing." Beginning with a hit song, the new campaign featured what proved to be one of the most popular ads ever created.

The song "I'd Like to Buy The World a Coke" had its origins on January 18, 1971, in a fog. Bill Backer, the creative director on the Coca-Cola account for McCann-Erickson, was traveling to London to join two other songwriters, Billy Davis and Roger Cook, to write and arrange several radio commercials for The Coca-Cola Company that would be recorded by the popular singing group the New Seekers. As the plane approached Great Britain, heavy fog at London's Heathrow Airport forced it to land instead at Shannon Airport, Ireland. The irate passengers were obliged to share rooms at the one hotel available in Shannon or to sleep at the airport. Tensions and tempers ran high.

The next morning, as the passengers gathered in the airport coffee shop awaiting clearance to fly, Backer noticed that several who had been among the most irate were now laughing and sharing stories over bottles of Coke. As Backer himself recalled in his book The Care and Feeding of Ideas (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1993):

In that moment . . . [I] began to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as more than a drink. . . . [I] began to see the familiar words, "Let's have a Coke," as . . . 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.

Backer's flight never did reach London. Heathrow Airport was still fogged in, so the passengers were redirected to Liverpool and bussed to London, arriving around midnight. At his hotel, Backer immediately met with Billy Davis and Roger Cook, finding that they had completed one song and were working on a second as they prepared to meet the New Seekers' musical arranger the next day. Backer told them he thought they should work through the night on an idea he had had: "I could see and hear a song that treated the whole world as if it were a person—a person the singer would like to help and get to know. I'm not sure how the lyric should start, but I know the last line." With that he pulled out the paper napkin on which he had scribbled the line, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company."


Writing the Song

The three members of the writing team that night each brought a different perspective to their task. Billy Davis, of McCann-Erickson, had toured as a member of the singing group the Four Tops and had written several songs for the powerful and popular Motown music production organization. Roger Cook, a native of Bristol, England, had teamed with Roger Greenaway to write several 1960s pop standards including "You've Got Your Troubles" and "Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)." Bill Backer was from Charleston, South Carolina, and had written the jingle "Things Go Better with Coke" as well as the jingle for "The Real Thing"campaign.

Appropriately, then, each contributed something different to the song they wrote together that night. Davis provided the core idea for the opening line, that everyone needs a home. Backer gave it the same pattern as the line he'd written, so that it became "I'd like to build the world a home." And perhaps because this was, after all, the late 1960s, the three decided that the home should be furnished "with love." Cook might have drawn on British folksong imagery when he contributed the line "Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves," which Backer and Davis at first thought too grand but eventually accepted for its poetic quality. Next, Backer penned a variation of the opening line: "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." Coming full circle, the last line expressed the song's original idea: "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company." The melody was based on a Roger Cook-Roger Greenaway song that Cook and Davis reworked to incorporate the melody used for the campaign slogan "It's the Real Thing." This allowed them to weave the updated slogan "It's the real thing, Coke is what the world wants today" into the new song's harmonizing voice parts. This was the result:

I'd like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,

Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.

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.

[Repeat the last two lines, and in the background:]

It's the real thing, Coke is what the world wants today.


Trial and Error

The next day, Backer, Cook, and Davis presented the lyrics and melody they had created during their all-night brainstorming session to David Mackay, the arranger for the New Seekers, with instructions to make his arrangement warm and appealing but not too cute. It was immediately decided that the ad should begin with New Seekers vocalist Eve Graham in order to have a woman initiate the message. And after trying out several versions in which the New Seekers attempted to sing the song as a typical advertising jingle, Backer and Davis convinced them to relax and use their own folk/pop style instead. Several weeks later, on February 12, 1971, "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" was shipped to radio stations throughout the United States.

It promptly flopped. The Coca-Cola bottlers hated the ad and most refused to buy airtime for it. The few times the ad was played, the public paid no attention. Bill Backer's idea that Coke connected people appeared to be dead.

Backer persuaded McCann to convince Coca-Cola executives that the ad was still viable but needed a visual dimension. His approach succeeded: the company eventually approved more than $250,000 for filming, at the time one of the largest budgets ever devoted to a television commercial. Backer then spent weeks canvassing the McCann creative staff for ideas, until Harvey Gabor, a young art director, proposed that the song be treated for television as a "First United Chorus of the World." He envisioned a group of young people from all nations, in clothing representing their nationalities, singing the song on a green hillside. Gabor's idea prevailed, and McCann prepared to shoot the commercial.

Producing the ad, however, proved to be one of the most challenging projects in the agency's history. What kept the project alive was belief in the strength of the ad's basic message, that Coca-Cola is a bond connecting people to one another.


Shooting an Ad on a Hillside

Because London had been the song's starting point, the ad's creators decided that the "green hill" of its setting should be the storied cliffs of Dover on England's southern coast. By March, 1971, a McCann production crew including Billy Davis, Harvey Gabor, and agency producer Phil Messina traveled with photographer/director Haskell Wexler to England to begin work. The chorus, they decided, would consist of several thousand British school children and would feature sixty-five principals who would be seen at close range. The children were cast and rehearsed "lip synching"¬≠moving their lips silently as though they were singing—to the New Seekers rendition of the song. Filming was set to begin on April 8, but three days of continuous rain, with more forecast, forced postponements. The McCann staff decided to move the shoot to Rome, which promised a more favorable climate.

outtakes from hilltop commercial

Hilltop outtake: Helicopter crowd shot changes to shot of kids running down hill

In Italy, the producers had to cast a new group of children by searching schools and youth hostels. One English singer, the "head girl," was brought to Italy to reprise her role. Production was to begin at 7:30 on the appointed morning with close-up shots of the sixty-five new principal singers in the flattering morning light. Unfortunately, it rained that morning for the first time in weeks. When the rain cleared in the afternoon, the leads were filmed singing the song while the "extra" children waited. Finally, late in the day, some twelve hundred children were spaced out on the top of the hill for the climactic shot from a helicopter. With light fading after only a few takes, the children broke ranks and began running down the hill to get more Coke from the truck carrying the props.

When the film was developed there were some unpleasant surprises. The zoom lens used for the close shots was faulty: every frame was out of focus. Additionally, the light levels on the helicopter shots were too low. The lead female singer then informed the crew that she had just been married and was going on her honeymoon and would be unavailable for any additional filming. McCann had now used its entire budget waiting for the rain to end in England and generating unusable footage in Rome.

To keep the ad alive, the McCann production crew went back to the drawing board. They cut the number of children in the youth chorus from twelve hundred to five hundred and began the search for a new female lead. They filled the ranks of the chorus by contacting the foreign embassies in Rome and drawing from their residents. As principals, they selected some forty young people between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. And when they spotted Linda Neary, a British governess living in Rome, walking down the street pushing a baby carriage, they decided she looked perfect for the part of the female lead. Two days before shooting was scheduled to begin, Neary agreed to take the part and the cast was set.

A new local film company, Roma Films, was contracted to film the commercial. Billy Davis rehearsed the young people lip synching to the New Seekers' recording, and filming began on a different hillside the following day. Roma Films changed the strategy that had been used for the earlier shooting, filming the larger group shots first as Davis conducted the chorus. The aerial views showing the entire group from the vantage point of a helicopter were filmed next, while the tight close-ups were actually filmed at a racetrack near Rome.


A Commercial Success

The television ad "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" was released first in Europe, where it garnered only a tepid response. It was then released in the U.S. in July, 1971, and the response was immediate and dramatic. By November of that year, Coca-Cola and its bottlers had received more than a hundred thousand letters about the ad. At that time the demand for the song was so great that many people were calling radio stations and asking them to play the commercial. Clearly, "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" had struck a chord deeper than the normal response to the advertisement of a commercial product, and Billy Davis asked Bill Backer to rewrite the lyrics without the references to Coke.

Because the New Seekers were initially unavailable to record the new version, a group calling itself the Hillside Singers recorded it with a country-and-western flavor and released it as a single. When the New Seekers began an American tour several weeks latter, they re-recorded the new lyrics and released a second single. Both version sold well­in fact, at one point, the New Seekers version was listed among the top ten songs on the American pop music charts while the Hillside Singers version was number thirteen. Such successes were repeated around the world as the ad's popularity expanded. Recordings of the song and versions of the sheet music appeared in a variety of languages to fill an ever-increasing demand.

"I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" has had a lasting connection with the viewing public. Advertising surveys consistently identify it as one of the best commercials of all time, and the sheet music continues to sell more than thirty years after the song was written. Such is the power of television advertising that through the enduring popularity of this ad, at least, Coke has borne out something of Backer's ambitious claims for it, becoming a common connection among people.


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