American History Museum Scholar on the History of the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” Advertisement

The commercial that closed out the series finale of “Mad Men,” explained

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A series finale for any popular television show is likely to get a lot of attention, but then there's "Mad Men," the hit AMC show that ended its seven seasons on Sunday night with not a bang, but a jingle. The famous "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" commercial (embedded above) that aired on televisions nationwide in 1971 closed out the finale, coming on the heels of a shot of a meditating, at-peace Don Draper, the show's enigmatic central character, at an Esalen-like retreat in coastal California. And, like clockwork, the thinkpieces and reviews have been pouring in, some disappointed with the finale, others exhilarated and others more mixed.

But lost in the onslaught of divinations of what the ending meant for "Mad Men" is what that iconic advertisement said about America itself at the time and how it tranformed Coca-Cola forever. The exhibitions team at the National Museum of American History selected the commercial for inclusion in the brand-new American Enterprise exhibition, set to open this July. The exhibition will look at the role that American capitalism and business plays in shaping our everyday lives. I spoke with historian Kathleen Franz, who is working on the American Enterprise show, about the advertisement and its place in American culture.

Give me a sense of how big a deal this commercial was. What did it do for the Coca-Cola company, and what did it do for the advertising industry itself?

For Coke, it was really a turning point in their advertising, a shift from their long-running tagline, "Things Go Better With Coke," and it becomes a turning point in the advertising world at large. 

But first, some context. Coke had a long running relationship with [ad agency] D'Arcy. The company had been with the agency for decades, and then in the mid-1950s, when they started advertising on television switched to McCann Erickson. [At the time of the "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" ad,] it's one of the biggest brands in the world. The cola wars are sort of starting in this period. Pepsi has gone heavily for the youth market, tapping into the counterculture with the "Pepsi Generation." Pepsi is starting to tap into these countercultural images and themes—music, trippy graphics, "peace and love," and beautiful people with flowers in their hair. Coke is thought of as this mass market, some would say sort of square, product. It's the All-American product; it goes well with everything.

In a world where a lot of things are bad—in the late '60s and '70s, you have riots, Vietnam, there's a counter culture pointing to commercialism and saying it's all false. Coke changes its strategy, with McCann's help, to "It's the real thing" in a world full of things that are made up. The company was trying to get to that youth market that is searching for truth.

On top of that, the younger generation is looking for peace, love and harmony in a world that's pretty dark. This commercial hits all the right notes, literally. The song went "viral," in our terms today—people called radio stations wanting to hear it. McCann made Coke not just a product, but an instrument of world peace. In a world full of divisions, fraught by all kinds of strife, Coke put its product at the center of it all.

Do we know the real story of how this ad came about?

Bill Backer, the creative director on the Coca-Cola account at McCann Erickson, tells a version of how he came up with the ad, that he saw people sitting together in an airport drinking a Coke. [Ed note: Read the official version of that story here.] But as a historian, I'm also seeing the bigger picture of how it competes with Pepsi, who is targeting this younger generation with different views from their parents. 

We use the commercial in the exhibition as a late example of the "creative revolution" in advertising that starts in the '50s and makes branding and advertising less about the product and what it can do for you, and more about larger themes about how it makes you feel good. 

Do ads with this sort of impact still exist?

As a historian, I'm always reluctant to say something about the current day. The best place to look for them is the Super Bowl, still that mass market impact. The "Imported from Detroit" advertisement—people really talked about that. It was another dark moment, in the midst of America's economic crisis, and it was another statement about Detroit, Chrysler and America as a place of business and economic prowess.

What did you think of the "Mad Men" ending? Did you see it coming?

I don't know if I saw it coming this season—others did. But if you're going to end the series in the 70s, then this is the ad to end with. It's a nice way to end.

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