‘It’s the Real Thing’: When a Coke Ad Inspired 2 Hit Singles

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One of Andy Warhol’s iconic Coca-Cola works is an homage to the contour bottle

Coca-Cola connotes so many iconic images and memories that it’s an impossible task to narrow it down to one. Is it its cursive logo, created in 1885 by the bookkeeper of its inventor, biochemist John Pemberton? The shape of its iconic, contour bottle? The red in its logo, known simply as Coca-Cola red?

Still others… Is it the use of the hyphen in its name? (Did you ever notice it before?) Andy Warhol’s iconic Coca-Cola work? Perhaps it’s the seasonal ads coupling Coke with Santa? Or the brand with any number of professional athletes like the legendary ad with Mean Joe Greene? Or its longtime association with American Idol?

For some, it’s the memory of a pair of near-identical hit singles, inspired by a 1971 radio and TV ad.

Bill Backer was a fixture at McCann Erickson, the longtime ad agency and creative director for their Coca-Cola account. As legend has it, he wrote the words “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” on a cocktail napkin and shared it with frequent songwriting partners Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, and Billy Davis, who produced jingles for McCann clients.

Cook and Greenaway borrowed one of their own compositions, “True Love and Apple Pie,” which had been recorded earlier that year by an artist named Susan Shirley. Though the song made no impact at the time, the pair felt the melody would work for the basis of a jingle for Backer’s new Coke campaign.

English pop group the New Seekers—a recent spinoff of the pop-folk quartet, the Seekers—recorded the jingle, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” which made its debut as a radio ad for Coke in February 1971.

An early scene in Coca-Cola’s 1971 Hilltop ad

Recognizing the popularity of the radio spot, Backer convinced his bosses at the agency to create a TV version of the jingle. His vision was to emphasize the global power of the brand, with dozens of people of all nationalities lip-syncing the lyrics, while standing on an Italian hilltop outside of Rome. Each of the fresh-scrubbed actors held a contour bottle, emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo from their own country.

The highly elaborate production cost a reported $250,000, said to be the most expensive TV ad ever, at that time. The 60-second spot, starring the fictional Hilltop Singers, made its debut that July.

The significant TV exposure started lighting up radio station request lines for a song that didn’t really exist. The buzz soon made its way to Madison Avenue and the creative team again went to work. Davis drew from his vast experience as a songwriter (including Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops”) and producer (Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me”). Cook and Greenaway had previously penned such hits as the Fortunes’ “You’ve Got Your Troubles” and Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ “Green Grass.”

The trio co-wrote extra verses for “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)” and are listed as co-writers, with Backer. The clock was ticking, and when the New Seekers—who had recorded the original jingle—weren’t immediately available to record it, producer Al Ham and Davis organized a group of studio singers, dubbing them the Hillside Singers.

The single was released in early November on the Metromedia label and entered the Record World 101-150 singles chart on Nov. 20 at #122. All the while, the New Seekers sensed that they had missed a golden opportunity and rush-released their own superior recording of the full song.

“It’s The Real Thing!,” blared an ad by their label, Elektra, in the Nov. 20 issue of Record World. “Accept no substitute. No one can imitate the flavorful sound of the New Seekers’ new single.”

This ad appeared in the Nov. 20, 1971 issue of Record World

The cola wars were on. But this wasn’t Coke vs. Pepsi. No matter which song charted higher, Coca-Cola would be the winner. “Metromedia has the real hit,” was the headline on the ad for the Hillside Singers’ version.

The following week, both versions debuted on the Record World singles chart. The Hillside Singers, with their one-week head start, bowed at #83. The New Seekers were close behind at #91. Both made steady climbs up the chart. By Dec. 11, the Hillside Singers jumped from #70 to #52; the New Seekers moved from #84 to #69.

On 1971’s final chart, dated Dec. 25, Melanie’s “Brand New Key” was #1. Don McLean’s “American Pie” jumped from #9 to #3. Songs by Sly & the Family Stone, Three Dog Night, Michael Jackson and David Cassidy were also in the Top 10.

The Hillside Singers took a massive jump from #33 to #19. The New Seekers’ version, while still rising, went from #40 to #31.

Then, over the holidays, the New Seekers picked up steam. By the Jan. 15, 1972, issue, their version leapfrogged over the competition, putting them ahead by one position, at #9. The songs were simultaneous Top 10 hits. The New Seekers’ version would ultimately peak at #8. (Rival Billboard had them reach #7, with the Hillside Singers peaking at #13.)

Eight months later, in September 1972, Cook (who’ll turn 80 on Aug. 19) and Greenaway (who’ll turn 82 on Aug. 23) earned a #1 single, which they co-wrote, with Allan Clarke: the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress).”

Backer would be promoted to creative director for all of McCann Erickson. Among his other memorable campaigns was “Tastes great, less filling” for Miller Lite. In 1979, he co-founded the Backer & Spielvogel agency; he was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1995. He died in 2016 at age 89.

Watch Backer talk about the legacy of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”

On May 17, 2015, the acclaimed television series Mad Men, about a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency, aired its final episode, set in 1970. It was time to close the book on its well-developed characters. In the series’ final scene, its troubled lead character, creative director Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), is seen outdoors at a meditation class. As the camera closes in, a smile appears on his face, as he has the inspiration for a new campaign for Coca-Cola.

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Greg Brodsky
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