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volume 22
january 2020

To teach the world ...


  Coca Cola's use of pop music for its commercials
by Hans Knot
  In 1971 the New Seekers reached the U.S. Top Ten with their song "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)," a call for a peaceful loving world and at the same time a commercial for soft drink Coca Cola. The song not only had a lengthy title, but also a longer history. It all started, Hans Knot tells us, in 1964 ...


Right: "Things Go Better With Coke." The classic TV commercial from the 1960's (2:01)

A Canadian initiative. In 1964 at the Canadian branch of Coca Cola Ltd. the idea arose, in collaboration with the advertising agency McCann-Erickson, to use pop artists to bring their product to the attention of young radio listeners. Young Canadian singer Bobby Curtola was chosen as the first artist to sing "Things go better with Coca Cola." Despite the fact that many Canadian radio stations refused to play it on the radio, it was still a success. Curtola became a kind of advertising pole for the bottling company and appeared throughout the country for promotional activities.

  The success of the actions with Bobby Curtola was reason enough for the parent company to go big. Many well-known artists were willing to sing a commercial on the same theme for about 90 seconds, which was distributed worldwide. Radio stations were also given the so-called musical beds that could be used for the already well-known games on the radio. Radio Veronica, for example, had the so-called "Hittip Toto" in the summer of 1971 where the version "It's the real thing" of the Fortunes was used by Lex Harding as a "musical bed."
  Returning to the first idea of using the soft drink as promotional material through commercials sung by an artist, Curtola was not the only one from Canada, because in the next twelve months other pop artists from that country were willing to participate as well. For us in Western Europe totally unknown names like "J.B. and the Playboys," "Jack London," "David Clayton" and "Thomas and the Shays" were also willing to promote the ultimate taste through their singing.


Left: Petula Clark sings the Coca Cola spot (3:18)

Internationally dispersed. As mentioned above there were many artists participating in this project in the US and later worldwide, the first of which were Roy Orbison, the Four Seasons and the Surpremes. Hardly any bigger names were possible at that time to put the advertising campaign on super sharp. And the success of the first Canadian artist in this campaign led to more at the time. As you know, Canada has an English part as well as a French part, which automatically meant that French-speaking commercials had to come as well to promote the soft drink. For this purpose "Cesar and the Romains," "Les Baronets" and "Les Cailloux" were hired. However, the biggest name in the French campaign was British singer Petula Clark.

  An awful lot of versions of the theme were sung in and when a new hit formation appeared on the firmament of some potential, the people of the advertising agency stood prepared to record another new version. It often happened that several versions were recorded with a certain group, like those of the British group the Fortunes. On You Tube there are plenty of "Coca Cola it's the real thing" spots to score.


Right: The Coca Cola spot as sung by the Fortunes (1:03)

The idea of a bottle of Cola. And then there is the story of Bill Backer, creative director for the Coca Cola account of the aforementioned McCann Erickson advertising agency. In January 1971 Backer flew to London to meet Billy Davis, the music director for the Coca Cola account, and write radio commercials with two successful British songwriters, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. British artists were supposed to sing the new commercials and Backer and Davis even planned a single version with the New Seekers.

  The heavy fog in London forced the plane to land at the airport near the Irish not-yet-a-city of Shannon. Before disembarking the passengers were advised to stay near the airport in case the fog lifted. Some of them were furious about their accommodation. The next day, however, Backer saw some of the most angry passengers in the airport café. Brought together by a common experience, many now were laughing and sharing stories about snacks and bottles of Coca Cola.

Right: "It's The Real Thing." A 1970's compilation (9:01)

It was then that Bill Backer started to see the idea of a bottle of Coke in a whole new light. He realised that a bottled Coca Cola had become more than a drink that refreshes a hundred million people a day in almost every corner of the world. So he began to see the familiar words, "Let's have a Coke," as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment. They were actually a subtle way of saying: "Let's keep each other company." And Backer knew these words were said all over the world like it was in Ireland. So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed — a liquid refresher — but as a little commonality between all the peoples, a universally loved formula that would help keep them company for a few minutes.

  When he finally arrived in London, Backer told Billy Davis and Roger Cook what he had seen in the airport café. After expressing his thoughts about buying a Coke for everyone in the world, Backer noticed that Davis' first reaction was not at all what he expected and asked him: "Billy, do you have a problem with this idea?" Davis slowly revealed his problem: "Well, if I could do something for everyone in the world, it wouldn't be to buy them a Coke."


Left: "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing ..." by the New Seekers (1972) (2:17)

A special version. Eventually, according to tradition, coincidence at Shannon airport became the source for the composition of 'I'd like to buy the world a coke' and a special version was composed for the New Seekers, but their manager said the group didn't have time to record the song. Davis had a group of studio singers record the new song "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke." They called themselves The Hillside Singers in order to identify with the image that was shown during the promotional film. Within two weeks after the release of the Hillside Singers recording it was in the national charts.

  Two weeks later Davis was able to convince the New Seekers to find the time to record their version of the song, now titled "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)." He took the group to the studio on a Sunday and produced the song which became a Top 10 hit, followed by the Hillside Singers' version as #13 on England's pop hit list. The song was recorded in a wide range of languages and sold more sheet music than any other song in the previous ten years.

Right: Bill Backer gives his take about "I'd Like The World To Buy A Coke" (3:00)

The Coca Cola Company donated the first $80,000 in royalties, which writers and publishers of the song had earned, to UNICEF under an agreement with the writers. It meant eternal fame for the song which, when the first tones are heard, almost everyone starts singing or humming. So, time for a Zero Coke for me! Courtesy of The Coca Cola Company Archive you can hear Bill Backer tell some more about the commercial ...

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