The contrast in characters helped the commercial elicit an emotional reaction among its consumers
As Pepsi promoted itself as the preferred soft drink of young people and launched an advertising campaign centred on a blind taste test, Coca-Cola’s once-vast market dominance began to dwindle in the late 1970s.
Concerned that the catchy jingles that had previously defined Coca-Cola ads were beginning to lose their novelty, McCann Erickson was mandated to come up with a new creative strategy.
Penny Hawkey, a copywriter, was interested in working on the brand. This was distinct from her earlier work on advertisements for Tab, a soft drink. A generic jingle wouldn’t do for the American icon that was Coke. Jingles were already appearing on other types of content, and she had no special fondness for them. An emotional response, rather than only a visual one, had to be elicited through storytelling. That was the goal that Hawkey and Roger Mosconi, the art director, set for themselves.
Through the brand, she needed to convey a complicated character’s journey through hardship in only thirty seconds. Mosconi and she eventually came up with the notion of highlighting a child and a football player. She was requested to do an exploratory study, which entails exploring potential new avenues of communication for the Coca-Cola brand. Several names were mentioned, including Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Roger Staubach, and Terry Bradshaw.
And Mean Joe Greene!
Hawkey wasn’t too into football back then. She didn’t hate football per se. Time was at a premium. She was a mother, so that was what kept her busy at home. Also, she wasn’t all that into the Super Bowl until the Joe Greene ad.
Interestingly, Hawkey had no idea who Joe Greene was. She distinctly recalls asking out loud if there was a real person called Mean Joe Greene. She was curious to know if he was mean, to which her colleagues replied in the affirmative.
‘Mean’ Greene was a perfect foil for the innocent young child, given his frightening moniker.
Greene was already doing commercials. Swanson, Ideal Toys, and United Airlines were among his other TV ad appearances. But he had never before endorsed a brand that was “emotionally woven into American society” (to use Hawkey’s words) as Coca-Cola. A suitable antagonist was necessary for Greene’s ad to be successful. Tommy Okun, who was nine years old, was more than capable.
Surprisingly, the highly acclaimed defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers initially turned down the role out of concern that he lacked the acting skills necessary to convincingly portray the character.
Joe’s agency called him again the next day to remind him that Coca-Cola was one of the easily recognisable brands and that he should do this. And Greene consented.
It was shot in May 1979 in a little stadium in Westchester County, New York. Greene limps down the stadium tunnel after suffering an injury during a game. After accompanying him and offering assistance, little Tommy is rejected. He then nervously tells Greene, “I think you’re the best,” and gives him a Coke. Mean Joe thinks about it for a second before accepting, and he drinks the whole bottle at once.
The kid says, “See ya around” as he starts to walk away while the Coca-Cola jingle plays. Just as he disappears from view, Greene yells out, “Hey kid, catch!” and tosses his jersey to the child, who thanks Greene before walking away. The commercial concludes with a different catchphrase and the words “Have a Coke and a smile” appearing on the screen.
Joe’s ad didn’t do well with viewers at first, but the executives at Coca-Cola were smitten. Although the commercial first aired on October 1, 1979, it wasn’t until January 20, 1980—Super Bowl Sunday—that it took off. Luck smiled on Coca-Cola that night. It just so happened that one of the top players from the winning Steelers team—who defeated the Rams 31-19—appeared in the national ad for the firm.
According to Hawkey, “the general public responded to it,” despite initial expectations that the advertisement would be successful with sports enthusiasts only. Mothers, in particular, adored it. It was the perfect blend of opposites: famous and unknown, black and white, mature yet childlike, timid and menacing. This enormous bear of a man ultimately feels better as a result of this young child.
Hawkey is still friendly with Mean Joe. She inevitably became a Steelers supporter after the commercial’s popularity. She now spends her days managing an organic vegetable farm in Ossining, New York, after retiring from the advertising profession. The spot’s popularity and durability continue to astound her, even after 35 years.
Okon and Greene hit it off right away, and they remained friends.
Although memorising his lines wasn’t too challenging, Greene’s main challenge during filming was delivering them while under the influence of soda.
“We started to shoot,” recalled Greene, “and the first thing out of my mouth was a big burp.” According to reports, Greene consumed 2.25 litres or 18 16-ounce Cokes. He felt bad about spitting out the stuff.
Greene, Okon, and the rest of the team eventually finished the advertisement in time for its premiere. All parties were delighted when the ad played during the Steelers’ fourth and last Super Bowl victory of the decade.
Despite the commercial’s immediate success, it also made a big splash in popular culture.
It’s quite likely that Joe Greene was the first black man to appear in a major advertisement. It concerned his race; the youngster was white, while he was black. At the time, it was shocking, and many people felt and understood its impact.
Mean Joe became Sweet Joe.
Greene, a towering 6-foot-4, 275-pound powerhouse who was notorious for hurling lesser guys aside and refusing to back down from a battle, was a mainstay of Pittsburgh’s famous Steel Curtain defensive front for most of his football career. America came to realise that Greene wasn’t as cruel.
Tens of thousands of spectators’ messages moved Coca-Cola enough that they decided to use the same strategy with athletes from other nations, such as Brazil, Italy, and Thailand. Zico and Diego Maradona were included in other versions.
The commercial’s success prompted NBC to adapt it into a TV movie in 1981 titled “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid.”
The “Hey Kid, Catch!” commercial has since been mentioned in other programmes, including Sesame Street and The Simpsons. In fact, Coca-Cola revived the idea in 2009 for a Coke Zero ad starring Troy Polamalu. In 2012, Greene was included in a parody of the iconic advertisement for Downy.
Despite Greene’s pre-commercial dominance, the commercial for Coca-Cola increased his popularity and changed public opinion of him in significant ways.
The ad contributed to changing the idea that Greene’s meanness extended beyond the football pitch. According to Greene, the public’s perception of him and their treatment of him changed for the better the second the ad was on air.
Even among those who did recognise Greene from before the ad, many were too shy even to say hi. Children followed Greene everywhere he went after the commercial made him famous. They were eager to embrace him and offer him Cokes.
If anything, Greene felt “more recognisable and more approachable” as a result. You can’t help but notice the gulf in character between the youngster and the football star. That was the hook that held the crowd’s attention.
Greene said, “Doing the Coca-Cola spot did change the image,” after making appearances on other children’s programmes in the months after the commercial. That was fun. To my delight, I found joy in it. I became more friendly as a result.
Another thing that his late wife, Agnes Greene, said was that it had a significant impact on their lives. “It changed Joe’s personality a lot because so many kids were looking up to him; he decided he wanted to be a role model for the kids.”
The commercial’s success contributed to the already spectacular Super Bowl atmosphere. The popularity of the Coca-Cola ad undoubtedly influenced viewers to turn on the Super Bowl not just to see the two top teams in the NFL but also to see the advertisements.