Counter-Cola: A Multinational History of the Global Corporation

The Voice to Teach the World to Sing

The Coca-Cola Company responded to the “social revolutions” of the 60s not with material changes to the structure and politics of the corporation, but in the sphere of representation with an advertisement they celebrated as “healing” and “good feeling” at the start of the 1970s.[i]  The Coca-Cola Company and McCann Erickson pushed “The Real Thing” campaign further, using it as a vehicle to not only advertise globally, but represent itself as “the real” global after the radical ruptures of the long 1960s.  The 1971 advertisement “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” became the representation of Coca-Cola President J. Paul Austin’s vision of consumer capitalism and Coca-Cola consumption as “the new force for peace” amid these “social revolutions” of the period.[ii]
McCann Erickson creative director Bill Backer was inspired to create “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” by the events of the times and the sense that, as he recounted later in his book, “especially young people, felt a need and a desire for anything that might promote better understanding between various peoples of the world.” [iii] Backer credits the diversity of the McCann Erickson creative team, itself a reflection of the hopes and tensions of the sixties, for giving the ad its vision.  Backer came from a “silver spoon” background of early American settlers and statesmen.  His love of Tin Pan Alley songs inspired him to become a songwriter, a background he would draw upon in creating “song-form” commercials like those for the “Things Go Better with Coke” and “The Real Thing” campaigns.[iv]  Also on the writing team was Roger Cook, a white British songwriter who grew up middle class in Bristol.  His sound was more rock-and roll; he had sung in Blue Mink and David and Jonathon, and wrote songs like "Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)" and “You’ve Got Your Troubles.”[v]  Completing the writing team was Billy Davis, an African American songwriter and music producer, who had been raised by his grandmother in Detroit in the thirties and forties, and had experienced both poverty and discrimination -- For a period in the fifties he toured the South as one of the Four Tops and was locked out of all-white towns and segregated public accommodations.  Davis became one of the many talents that helped to create Motown Records, and wrote a number of hit songs for Jackie Wilson including “Lonely Teardrops” and was working as the repertoire director of Chess Records, writing and producing hits like 1965’s “Rescue Me,” before advertising executives “cajoled” him into the business, according to Backer.[vi]

The process of creating an advertising anthem of unity in diversity was marked by tensions based on these differences, as well as some participants’ suspicion of the sincerity and applicability of such a message coming from a corporation.  According to The Coca-Cola Company’s recounting of the story, Billy Davis was skeptical of the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” lyrics, saying:  “Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke.”  Instead, he would “buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love.”[vii]

The question of voice, who would be doing this wishing and buying, and its double meaning for a song as it required both a perspectival voice and a singing voice, was a repeated concern in the commercial’s development.  The creative team worried about the risk of the commercial becoming “too heavy” for the “thin ice” it was walking on with such idealism.  “Without the right tone of voice, ‘Buy the World’ would become unbelievable – even a joke; a piece of communication that had no validity at all.”  
…[S]omeone has to decide, 'Whose voice is it?' Was 'Buy the World' the voice of Coca-Cola, or a much bigger voice – a voice of the times in which we were living, and of which Coke was a very natural part?  I decided it was a voice of the time in which Coke would join believably because it was natural that [T]he Coca-Cola Company would wish for an ideal world where consumers could enjoy its product and where the product could play – in a minor way – an active part…Sure, Coca-Cola is a profit-making corporation, but that fact did not preclude it from expressing such wishes, even if enunciated in human and very idealistic terms…Therefore, I resolved to have the song sung with as much emotion as if it were a true hit folk song of the day – or even a hymn…'the voice' would be bigger than Coca-Cola's.  It would try to be the voice of the times – the end of the sixties…peace groups are parading in front of the nation's capital, flower children are calling for more understanding among peoples, the time is rapidly ripening for the fruit of this idea to be plucked"[viii]
Plucking this countercultural fruit required infusing sincerity in the idea that The Coca-Cola Company could represent the voice of a generation seeking global understanding and peace.  Backer told the pop folk group, the New Seekers, “to make the arrangement warm and universal.  Resist the temptation to editorialize on the idea with an arrangement that is tender or cute.” Originally from Australia, the New Seekers were making their careers in London.  They had never done a commercial before; their commercial “purity” both worried and attracted the advertising executives.[ix]  The first takes in the recording studio sounded contrived and Backer tried to convince them that they weren’t singing a jingle, that they didn’t have to sound like the jingles they had heard on radio and television, instead they were singing a song; a “song-form commercial.”  “The subject of a jingle is a product,” he said, “'Pepsi-Cola Hits the Spot (or Is the Choice of a New Generation)'…or 'Coke Is It.'”  “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” was advertising a much bigger concept.  Or, rather, would not work as an advertisement for Coca-Cola unless it sounded sincerely like an advertisement for something bigger.[x]

The creative directors decided the song should start with the sweet, clear voice of the female lead vocalist, without accompaniment by the men in the group.  The wish at the center of the commercial would seem more sincere and innocent coming from a young woman’s voice, they reasoned.  “We had realized that what we had was more a woman's wish than a man's…when a lovely young blond girl, a total amateur, would lip-sync on film… the wisdom of our instructions would be appreciated.  Eve's was a voice that could wish the world a home, and five hundred million listeners all over the world would know she meant it.”[xi]   As a radio ad, this voice was gendered, and once produced for television, it was young white womanhood that became the central unifying voice of the song’s wish and the point of reference for coding the racial difference of others in the rest of the group.
[i] Bill Backer, The Care and Feeding of Ideas (New York, NY: Times Books 1994).
[ii] J. Paul Austin, "A New Force for Peace:  The International Business Exchange," in International Advertising Association Luncheon (New York, New York, 1964), J. Paul Austin, "World Marketing as a New Force for Peace," The Journal of Marketing 30 (January, 1966).
[iii] Backer, 47
[iv] Ibid. 24.
[v] Ibid.
[vi]In actuality he had been the fifth Top in a tour schedule that was so full and required so much travel that the group needed five members: a rotating member could make up sleep by missing a gig.  Ibid. 25.
[vii] The Coca-Cola Company, The 'Hilltop' Story (accessed 2006); available from
[viii] Ibid. 46-48.
[ix] Ibid. 51.
[x] Ibid. 56-57.
[xi] Ibid., 52.

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