The 1971 commercial of bringing people together of different regions with Coca Cola by “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”.
On January 18, 1971, Bill Backer, McCann Erickson’s creative director on the Coca-Cola account, was flying to London to meet Billy Davis, the Coca-Cola account’s music director, to write radio commercials. The two successful British songwriters, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway were being used. To be sung by the New Seekers, a British singing group.
Dense fog caused the plane to land in Shannon, Ireland. Passengers were urged to stay close to the airport in case the fog dispersed. Their living conditions infuriated some. Backer saw some irate passengers the next day in the airport cafe. Many were now laughing and sharing stories over munchies and Coca-Cola, having been brought together by a common experience. Backer narrated the scene:
“At that moment saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light. I began to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as more than a drink that refreshed a hundred million people a day in almost every corner of the globe. So I began to see the familiar words, ‘Let’s have a Coke,’ as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment. They were a subtle way of saying, ‘Let’s keep each other company for a little while.’ And I knew they were being said all over the world as I sat there in Ireland. So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.”
When Backer landed in London, he told Billy Davis and Roger Cook what he saw in the airport café. Backer asked a non-committed Davis, “Billy, do you have a problem with this idea?” After Davis proposed buying everyone in the world a Coke.
Davis gradually disclosed his issue. “Well, if I had to do something for everyone on the planet, it wouldn’t be buying them a Coke.”
“What would you do?” said Backer.
“First and foremost, I would purchase everyone a home and share it with them in peace and love,” Davis added.
Backer said, “Okay, that sounds good. Let’s write that and I’ll show you how Coke fits right into the concept.”
Shoots cancelled due to bad weather
Phil Messina, the producer, filmed Gabor’s concept on the Dover cliffs. Hundreds of British kids and 65 principals lip-synced the song. Three days of incessant rain disrupted the shoot.
They moved to Rome.
Davis recast the young people there and taught them to lip-sync. The commercial’s first shot needed the “correct face”, which was provided by a Mauritian girl visiting Rome.
Filming was delayed further due to rain. Late in the day, the crew finished the helicopter shot. Later, it was found that the kids had been trapped in a downpour. The film was useless, the finances ran out, and the kids were sent on their way.
Because Bill Backer liked the hillside idea, Sid McAlister, the Coke account supervisor, argued for a reshoot, and McCann Erickson agreed. The revised budget ultimately hit $250,000, a substantial figure back then.
Success After Several Hundred Thousand Dollars
The chorus included 500 youth from Rome’s embassies and schools. This was a big reduction from the original rained-out chorus. A British governess found in Piazza Navona with a baby carriage was cast in the lead female role. The commercial was shot by Roma Film in Italy, and the weather was kind. Close-ups of the juvenile “leads” were shot separately at a racetrack in Rome. To avoid power and phone wires, the crew had to use some unorthodox camera angles.
“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” was released in July 1971 and became an instant hit. In response to the commercial, over 100,000 letters were written to Coca-Cola and its bottlers. Many radio stations were urged to play it by listeners.
A New Pop Version
Billy Davis wanted to have a record version of the commercial with the New Seekers, but their management said they didn’t have time. Studio vocalists recorded the new song lyric to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” They named themselves “The Hillside Singers” to fit the TV scene. The Hillside Singers’ recording reached No. 1 on the national charts in two weeks. Two weeks later, Davis got the New Seekers to record “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony),” the song’s new title.
On a Sunday, he took them to the studio and produced the Top 10 song, which the Hillside Singers covered and reached No. 13. The song was recorded in multiple languages, sold more sheet music than any other song in the last decade.
The Coca-Cola Company agreed with the writers to donate the first $80,000 in song royalties to UNICEF.
The ad is still a classic, and the sheet music is constantly in demand. The song is sung in school glee groups and church choirs worldwide. Thirty years after Bill Backer was stuck by fog, Coca-Cola is still a brand. It is a common tie that unites people everywhere.