The Death of Coca-Cola’s Dream of “Perfect Harmony”

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The year was 1971, less than 10 years from the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The ‘60s-inspired dreams of utopian peace and love, fueled by psychedelic drugs, had basically given way to the me-decade of narcissistic drugs like cocaine, the first glimmering of nihilistic punk-rock on the horizon in the guise of the Velvet Underground, The Stooges and David Bowie. 

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Infused with that vision of a polyglot world brought together by a sugary concoction which came to symbolize the global ramifications of capitalism run amok, the creative team at Madison Avenue staple McCann-Erickson came up with an idea to sell Coca-Cola.

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The song, which became known as “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)”, actually came first,

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inspired by McCann-Erickson exec Bill Backer – which the final episode in Mad Men suggested might well be the role model for Jon Hamm’s Don Draper.

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“I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”  That was the message Backer scrawled on the back of a napkin at Shannon Airport in Ireland during a layover delay when he noticed his fellow passengers in a joking mood while guzzling down a few bottles of the soft drink.

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Taking the theme from a melody written by his agency companion Roger Cook and partner Roger Greenaway – a previous jingle called “True Love and Apple Pie” – and produced by Motown/Stax veteran Billy Davis, the finished song aired on U.S. radio on February 12, 1971, though it failed to gain much traction.

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Backer then convinced the agency to film a lavish, $250,000-budgeted commercial (the most expensive to that point), using the song, dubbed “Hilltop,” shot on an elevated piece of land outside Rome, Italy, featuring a cast of multi-cultural singers lip-syncing to the tune, displaying bottles of Coca-Cola labeled in a variety of languages.

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In a sign of the times, South Africa asked for a version of the spot without the black actors, which Coca Cola refused, then proceeded to reduce its investment in that apartheid-practicing country.

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The commercial was a sensation, catapulting recorded versions of the song (sans the Coke mention) by the New Seekers and the Hillside Singers to #7 and #13 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100.

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Tying its multinational, global sentiments to Coca-Cola turned into a coup for the company, the perfect storm of a capitalist giant co-opting the peace-and-love message of the ‘60s to the upwardly mobile yuppie dynamics of the ‘70s and Reaganomics ‘80s.

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Mad Men’s use of the commercial, which was apparently the result of a fever dream experienced on a peaceful bluff above the Pacific Ocean by a Zen-addled Don Draper, was the ultimate irony.  It offered a cynical, yet hopeful, commentary about turning our own experiences into creative epiphanies, even if the result offered a self-deceptive parody of transcendence.

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Flash forward to 2016, and the ultimate huckster himself, real estate mogul and short-fingered vulgarian turned President-elect Donald Trump, a product of the very system created by Coca-Cola, representing American consumerism and faux realpolitik at its most divisive.  In a world joined together by the 0s and 1s of the Internet, we are paradoxically doomed to our own niches, as far from Coca-Cola’s mystical mountaintop as ever, guzzling soft drinks in lieu of satori.

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Yes, that hillside in its camaraderie never felt so far away in these Divided States Of America.  That dream of nirvana – differences celebrated, yet masked in mutual communalism – never so unattainable. 

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It’s like what happens to a bottle of Coca-Cola it it’s left open for too long – the fizz, the sparkle, the pop, if you will, goes out, and it’s left flat.

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I’d like to teach the world to sing, too, but that dream of unity is now behind Trump’s equally metaphorical wall.  That perfect harmony has been killed by a cacophony of bum notes falling on deaf ears. Things might have once gone better with Coke, but they sure seem out of tune with these times.

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