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Envisioning Capitalist Hegemony from a Hilltop
Coca-Cola mobilizes youthful insurgency and racial difference to portray its vision of a neoliberal single world order where diverse peoples are united in consumer capitalism.
Coca-Cola spent a record $250,000 on filming the television commercial, “Hilltop.” The first attempt to create a utopic visual aesthetic to match the sound took place on the otherworldly English White Cliffs of Dover with a cast of several thousand, but rain soaked the scenery and actors, the footage was dark, and the budget was running out. The producers therefore decided to move the shoot to a hilltop outside of Rome, Italy, where they had heard they could find similarly pastoral, visually denationalized terrain, as well as good weather. As director, they hired Haskell Wexler, no less—fresh from shooting films about the Chicago Democratic National Convention protests, the My Lai massacre, the Brazilian military’s torture of radicals, and Chilean socialist president Salvador Allende—to provide a countercultural aesthetic. The cast of sixty-five principals from more than twenty countries were dressed to represent international peoples and called the “First United Chorus of the World.” They were backed by twelve hundred lip-syncing Italian teenagers to increase the appearance of the size of the global chorus.
While everything seemed to be in place to portray the utopic vision of global unity, the shooting was almost dystopian. Producers left hundreds of teenage extras shut in buses for four sweltering hours while Wexler and the team filmed the principal cast members. The extras, whom Backer describes as institutionalized “orphans,” were hot and angry at the shoot field marshals, who had not explained to them why they were there, and had failed to share with them any of the Coca-Colas from the truck waiting on-site to supply the commercial. When they were finally let off the buses to populate the commercial’s final dramatic helicopter shot to evoke the earthly connectedness of humanity, and were handed Coke bottles to hold as symbols of harmonious connection, they more accurately portrayed contemporary youth rebellion, storming up the pristine grassy hillside and hurling the bottles at the helicopter. That is, until they ran out of bottles, at which point they “stampeded” down the hillside to the Coke truck and tried to overturn it. Wexler abandoned the project suddenly, forcing the producers to find Italian filmmakers to reshoot the commercial yet again.”[i]
The final commercial plays on the metaphor of the “chorus,” in both audio and visual forms, to portray a diverse collective of cultures, together constituting one world, united in voice and consumption of the global commodity, Coke. Only a few years after the “It’s the Real Thing” campaign’s first racially integrated ads, “Hilltop” endeavored to portray the diversity of the entire world. Visually and sonically, the commercial evoked the countercultural ethos of the day. But Graham’s voice and the image of the young, white woman on screen manages the difference of the commercial and the chorus, with the rest of the group slowly building as the camera pans to take in different members, side by side in long, well-ordered, straight lines. They comprise the “First United Chorus of the World,” a tokenist multicultural group of representatives, distinguished by traditional folk costumes, each standing for a people, and together unthreateningly suggesting the possibility of global harmony.
“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” offered a utopic vision of global unity, but one meant to supplant other counterhegemonic social and cultural movements with a good dose of Coca-Cola. Thus, in the succeeding decades, Coca-Cola and McCann Erickson executives would refer to the ad in both visionary and reactionary terms as “captur[ing] the imagination of an entire generation . . . as the world was healing from the turbulent 1960s.”140 The Coca-Cola Company asserted itself as a global corporation and a sign of the global, but also assuaged fears—even its own—by suggesting that the world’s peoples and “social revolutions” would be appeased by “a new force for peace”: a new capitalist hegemony offering the freedom to consume the global brand.[i] Bill Backer, The Care and Feeding of Ideas (New York, NY: Times Books 1994), 52.
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Buy the World a Coke
Coca-Cola mobilizes youthful insurgency and racial difference to portray its vision of a neoliberal single world order where diverse peoples are united in consumer capitalism
Coca-Cola spent a quarter of a million dollars on the filming of the television commercial - at the time one of the largest budgets ever spent. Their first attempt to create a utopian visual aesthetic to match the sound took place on the other-worldly hills of White Cliffs of Dover with a cast of several thousand, before continuous rain left the scenery and actors waterlogged, the footage dark, and the budget running out. The producers decided to move the shoot to a hilltop outside of Rome, where they heard they could find similarly pastoral, de-nationalized terrain, as well as good weather. They hired no less than New Left director Haskell Wexler, fresh off directing images of the Chicago DNC riot [For Medium Cool amidst his growing corpus of radical filmmaking], to provide the hoped for countercultural aesthetic.[i] The cast of sixty five principals from more than 20 countries were dressed to represent international peoples and nations and called the “First United Chorus of the World.” They were backed by 1,200 Italian teenagers to fantastically increase of the size of the global chorus, who would lip-sync the New Seekers song.
While everything seemed to be in place to portray the utopic vision of global unity, once begun, the shooting of the commercial was not quite as utopian. Producers left the 1,200 Italian teenaged extras shut in buses for four sweltering hours without access to the Coca-Colas from the Company truck waiting on-site to supply the commercial. In Backer’s retelling of it, when they were finally let out to populate the commercial’s final dramatic helicopter shot, and were handed Coke bottles to hold as symbols of harmony, they proceeded to hurl them at the helicopter. That is, until they ran out of bottles, at which point they ran down the hillside to the Coke truck and tried to overturn it. Much more than The Coca-Cola Company’s vision of “harmony” and “understanding,” the resulting footage evoked images of the student protests around the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wexler abandoned the project suddenly, forcing the team to find Italian filmmakers to re-shoot the commercial yet another time with different extras comprising the “First United Chorus of the World.”[ii]
The final commercial plays on the sonic metaphor of the “chorus,” to construct a diverse collective of cultures together constituting one world, united in voice & the universal consumption of the global commodity. Only a few years after the company’s first racially integrated ads, “Hilltop” endeavored to portray the diversity of the entire world. From the normativity of the “lovely young blond girl,” the camera pans to take in the rest of the “First United Chorus of the World,” a tokenist multicultural collection, with internationalized characters marked in traditional dress, each person standing for a people; racial metonymies for nations of the world. In its ordered inclusion and harmonious integration, the group is an overtly non-threatening suggestion of a multinational new world order. Set in the de-nationalized, open pastoral space of the hilltop, world peace is never directly mentioned in the text, but implied throughout, through the sonic metaphor of “harmony,” as the lack of dissonance even with difference, suggesting world peace as the lack of conflict, a post-political project. The song's lyrics gesture to potentially radical political foundations in the recognition of natural abundance, sharing and distributing resources and even utopian communalism in the contemporary codes of generosity and earthy simplicity, made palatably vague in the visions of “buy[ing] the world a home” and “grow[ing] apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves.” “Hilltop” symbolically dispelled any possible concern about the politics that might actually bring a multicultural collective of young people together amid the upheavals of the era by playing on the difference of others to suggest their significant similarity: their common wish for the commodity.
In fact the commercial mobilizes the presence of those that signify youthful insurgency and racial and national liberation to legitimate the ad’s wish and build its vision of hegemony. In the most utopian way, “buying the world a Coke” portrayed a neoliberal single world order, where diverse peoples could peacefully and freely share in the consumption of Coca-Cola, “what the world wants today.” Coca-Cola thus asserted itself as a global corporation and a sign of the global, but also assuaged fears – even its own – by suggesting that the world’s peoples and “social revolutions” would be appeased by “a new force for peace”: unity in the freedom to consume the global brand.[i] Haskell Wexler had recently finished his directorial debut in the 1969 Medium Cool and was in Interviews with Mai Lai Veterans (1971), Introduction to the Enemy (1974) on Vietnam, and Underground (1976) with the Weathermen; and the struggles of the global south in Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971) and Interview with President Allende (1971)[ii] Bill Backer, The Care and Feeding of Ideas (New York, NY: Times Books 1994), 52.