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Following our trip to the dystopian world of Apple’s 1984 commercial, where next? An idyllic hilltop in Italy, of course. Bring your hiking boots and a bottle of Coke, because we’re revisiting Coca Cola’s iconic ‘Hilltop’ advert.

Our millennial readers may be unfamiliar with this 1971 commercial, but older generations may still remember it and have the insanely catchy song I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke stuck in their heads. The advert features a group of diverse young hippies, from all over the world, singing along to the tune, while holding bottles of… well, you know what. At the end of the ad, over a helicopter shot of the entire crowd, text scrolls, telling us:

“On a hilltop in Italy, we assembled young people from all over the world… to bring you this message from Coca-Cola Bottlers all over the world. It’s the real thing.”

The catchiness of the song and the heart-warming ‘world peace’ message of the concept, made the advert tremendously popular, so much so that it is now regarded as the most popular commercial ever made. It’s so iconic that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner decided to use it to close his hit series, suggesting that anti-hero Don Draper got the idea for it while on retreat.

In fact, Hilltop’s real Don Draper was Bill Backer, Creative Director at McCann Erikson. Ironically, the idea for such a popular video came about thanks to one of the least popular things: travel delays.  

The date is the 18th of January, 1971. Backer is on a flight to London, when a thick fog covering the capital forces the plane to land in Shannon, Ireland, grounding them till the next day.  While most would grumble and glare angrily at their watches, Backer noticed a group of fellow passengers doing something different. Sitting in the airport café, he saw his fellow passengers laughing off their misfortune, enjoying a conversation, and drinking coke. At that moment, Backer saw Coca-Cola from a different perspective. Rather than a simple thirst-quencher, Backer realized that Coke is used around the world as a way of getting people together.

“I began to see the familiar words, ‘Let’s have a Coke’, as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment”, says Backer. “They were actually 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.”

Finally arriving in London, Backer teamed up with songwriters Bill Davis, Roger Cook, and Roger Greenway. After Backer pitched his idea of ‘buying the world a coke’, Davis was at first sceptical. He admitted that “If I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke.” Backer asked him what he would do, to which Davis responded that he would buy them a home and fill it with love. This became the basis of the song’s opening lyrics. British song-writing duo Cook and Greenway already had the perfect melody for it, by reworking a previous song of theirs called Mum, True Love and Apple Pie. Cook recalls that the four of them thrashed out jingles for “about 3, or 4 hours, and we had the song written”. The jingle went on to be smash hit in the UK and the USA.

The advert proved to be the perfect antidote for the neuroses at the time. In an interview with AdWeek, Pete Favat (Chief Creative Officer at Californian Marketing Agency Deustch) claimed this was key to its appeal.  “It was a terrible time in culture. It was extremely negative. There was violence everywhere. And then this piece of film comes on TV. And basically, it was a bunch of kids singing on a hilltop about sharing a Coke.” In fact, Favat claims that this is the most powerful commercial created. “I haven’t seen anything that even comes close to that.”

The advert is without a doubt a product of its time. It was created close to the height of the hippie movement in 1969 (as the kids’ clothes seem to show). It’s somewhat ironic that the advert uses a crowd of hippies, a culture based on rejected consumerism, to sing about the most consumerist product of the 20th Century. Never-the-less, its sentiments about harmony fit perfectly with the ethos of the movement.

Watching the advert today, it’s clear that, while its inherent charm is evergreen, it’s admittedly dated. It’s easy to imagine that the ‘apple trees and honey bees’ lyrics that those hippies sing would be winced at by today’s more cynical hipsters. However, this commercial has undoubtedly been hugely inspirational to future advertisers. Hilltop proved the power of marketing to youths. It was also a very progressive commercial for its time, showing a very diverse mix of races. Watching contemporary commercials aimed at millennials, it easy to see Hilltop’s influence, with their inclusive casts and social messages.

The Hilltop commercial is a perfect time capsule of a video. One that shows a more innocent generation, that dreamed of a utopia that never really came. While the singing hippies didn’t exactly inspire world peace, they did sell a lot of Coke. And in the world of advertising, isn’t that enough?

by Bruce Micallef Eynaud