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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.