Mad Men, Don Draper, and the Coke Hilltop Singers
Like the rest of the sentient part of the country, I stayed up late the other night to watch the final episode of Mad Men, the uber-popular TV series about the world of Madison Avenue advertising in the 60s and 70s. The very last scene of the very last episode shows the main character, Don Draper, at a California hippie retreat, reaching enlightenment during chanting circle.
Draper’s an advertiser to the core of his very being, and he just can’t help multi-tasking — brainstorming while meditating. As the show closes, we see him smile with inner peace, and then it fades to the famous Coke commercial from 1971 showing a group of young people representing different world cultures singing “I’d Like to Teach the World the Sing,” including the line “I’d like to buy the world a Coke…”
So Draper the temporary hippie was also being Draper the ad man, thinking of ads, jingles, campaigns, and clients all the time.
Well, Buzzkillers, the Intersphere and the Twitterverse have been ablaze with commentary and criticism of the final show, including that final scene. Some people didn’t get it, and some thought that it was an invention of Mad Men’s talented writers. Lots of Twitterati complained about Coke taking a wonderful, world-peace-promoting song, changing the words, and exploiting it to hawk soda.
That’s where I come in, oh my listeners and only friends. I was only a tenderfoot Buzzkiller of 7 or 8 when that ad came out, but I remember it as clearly as I remember the moon landing two years before. It was maybe the most popular TV ad up until that time. (Don’t worry, I fact-checked this with Aunt Ginger. It’s true.)
But even some people in the 70s thought that Coke ripped off a popular folk song. And that’s been the myth ever since.
I hate to take the fizz out of their buzz, but this was one of the very few times when the commercial world came up with something so creative that the artistic world borrowed it shamelessly. Yep, that’s right, Buzzkillers, the folk song we know as “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” started as that ad jingle in the television commercial and then was taken up by musicians afterwards.
The original song was the brainstorm of McCann-Erikson ad man, Bill Backer, and three songwriters hired by the firm to work on jingles, Billy Davis, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. They wrote the song, filmed the ad, and it became a hit.
The melody and idea behind the song were so attractive that musicians such as The New Seekers cut out the Coke references, replaced them with feel good verses in keeping with the theme, and re-recorded the song. The new, “pure,” song became a huge hit. Your humble Buzzkiller here even remembers being taught to sing it at school.
In a way, it’s understandable that the myth of a virtuous folk song being copied and cheapened by the commercial world took hold. After all, that’s usually how it happens. Popular songs have frequently been adapted as ad jingles, but almost never the other way around.
So, like Don Draper, have a Coke and a smile, Buzzkillers.
Here’s the original ad:
For more detail on this song than you ever wanted to know, see: