Coca-Cola: Behind the scenes of its most celebrated advert 'Hill Top'

One of advertising's most famous pieces of work 'Hill Top' from Cola-Cola has had a resurgence in recent weeks due to its involvement in the finale of long-running drama, Mad Men. Doug Zanger explored the real story about the making of the advert.

Not sure we saw it coming in the Mad Men finale recently. Or, perhaps we did. Don Draper may or may not have come up with the iconic 'Buy The World A Coke' ad (he actually didn’t, but that takes away some of the shine, doesn’t it?) — but there is no question that this one spot, entitled 'Hilltop, occupies an important place in the hearts and minds of not just consumers, but professionals in the industry as well.

When we asked marketing professionals to tell us what they thought was the greatest song in advertising history, this song, and spot, came up over and over.

“For me, my reaction is — what are those spots that I can remember because of that music connection that has left an impression over the years,” noted Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms at iHeartRadio, “and I immediately went to ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’.”

The song itself actually started as the 'I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke' jingle and was intended to convey a sense of community and togetherness.

“Standing on a hilltop in Italy and each holding a Coke,” says Bob Bejan, North America vice-president for sales and marketing of Microsoft, “they sang without irony about a wish for global harmony, peace and a deep emotional connection with other human beings.”

Jeff York, group creative director at Intermark, concurred. “(It) perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the time period and brotherly love, the youth movement and more.”

What started moving the ad into the national (and international culture) was the fact that radio stations began getting calls from people who liked it. Billy Davis, a songwriter and one of the McCann-Erickson team members responsible for the song and campaign was told from some of his radio friends, that it might be a good idea to record the actual song.

It was rewritten, taking out the brand references and adding three verses, and was quickly recorded by The Hillside Singers and then, when more time was available, by The New Seekers. The latter version of “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” was #1 in the UK and #7 in the US in 1971 and 1972. It eventually sold 12 million copies of the song and cemented the song as successful both culturally and commercially.

“It became a pop culture moment,” said Poleman. “It spoke to what America was thinking at that time. I was a kid at the time and it was more than a commercial.”

Ted Ryan, Coca Cola’s historian, concurred.

“The brand is that moment of optimism, that moment of happiness and those kids on the hill singing in the middle of Vietnam, during racial strife with protests on campuses, with that simple message of hope and a simple message of unity.”

Much has been chronicled and documented about the spot and its history. But there were plenty of interesting nuggets that continue to paint the picture of the song, the spot itself, what happened behind the scenes and what ultimately, aside from branding and sales, became of some of the players in the story.

“Bill Backer (from McCann Erickson, and often considered the “Godfather” of the spot) was interviewed a bunch right after the Mad Men finale but Billy Davis was also hugely instrumental in this spot,” said Ryan.

“(Davis) was actually recruited by McCann from Motown. He used to perform with the Four Tops. He dated Barry Gordy’s sister. He was a music genius.”

An interesting side note to the creation and writing of the song involved suite 610 at the iconic Savoy Hotel in London, where Claude Monet stayed when he painted in London.

“Billy and Roger Cook started hammering out the lyrics and they literally wrote it in one all-night writing session,” said Ryan.

The actual studio, where the song was recorded with Australian group The New Seekers, could also be considered another one of those trivia bets one might win.

“The studio that they recorded the spot in, Trident Studios in London, was the same one that the Beatles recorded 'Hey Jude' in,” noted Ryan.

The recording itself had its bumps along the way as well, with the artists not fully understanding the direction they needed to go to create the iconic song. Davis had to keep reminding the group, a rock ensemble, to sing it like a folk song.

“They kept thinking they were doing a jingle and they kept sounding too upbeat and real jingle-ish,” laughed Ryan. “Billy Davis is like ‘No, no, no.’ He had to record it five or six different times until he got that folk feel. They actually have the outtakes of two of the different sessions and you really can tell the difference between a rock group trying to sing a jingle versus a rock group trying to sing a folk song in their normal style. They finally got it right.”

The radio version of the ad (and song) came out before the TV spot and there was some initial pushback.

“Most people don’t know is it actually aired as a radio ad first in February of 1971. It wasn’t hugely successful, some of our bottlers didn’t like it,” Ryan mentioned. “McCann, Erickson and Bill Backer decided to turn it into the TV spot, which they began in June of 1971.”

From there, the legend — and history — began.

“Linda Neary, the girl that’s the principal in the spot, lives in the northern part of England,” said Ryan. “We brought her back to Atlanta for an event in 1986. We’ve kept in touch with her over the years.”

With all of the stories and reminiscing, it is clear that “Hilltop” continues to impact Coca Cola, both externally and internally as a company.

“It’s one of the three ones that everybody talks about when they talk about Coca-Cola advertising history,” remarked Ryan. “It’s always the Hilltop spot, Mean Joe Green and the polar bears. Those three spots form the trinity of Coca-Cola advertising and the aspirational nature of the brand would be what that particular ad means and is relevant within the Coca-Cola Company.”

Ryan, as the company’s historian, has a unique seat with this advertising, but he also has a profound place both behind the scenes and, in a way, on the front lines.

“I love the fact that not a single day that I’ve been at work has ever been the same,” said Ryan. “Every single, solitary day is different and it’s so much fun. One of our presidents, Donald Keough said that the job of Coca-Cola employees is to get up and polish that trademark a little bit every day. That’s what I do. Even more so because I’m in charge of the heritage.”

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