He Taught the World to Sing

(1 minute read, 1 minute watch, 4 minute watch)

By: Steve Beshara

Bill Backer passed away last week at the age of 89. The former advertising executive is not a household name - like the character Don Draper of "Mad Men" - but his creative genius is recognized by millions across generations and cultures. Mr. Backer took an amazingly courageous (and expensive) step into history when he created the iconic Coca-Cola television ad, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)" in 1971.  

On his way to London in 1971, Mr. Backer's flight was diverted to Ireland overnight due to foggy conditions. His inspiration for the ad's tune came when he saw the previous night's angry passengers chatting together in the coffee shop the next morning. People from all over the world sharing cheerful conversations over refreshments while kept each other company. He scribbled his jingle on a napkin, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company."

Like many great creative inspirations, it was met with resistance. The president of Coca-Cola thought it was too sappy. The bottlers detested it. Backer collaborated with a young art director, Harvey Gabor, to make it a video with a diverse chorus in native dress singing on a hilltop in Italy. A budget of $250,000 was approved for production, a near record at the time. 

The commercial succeeded, by most measures, wildly. 

Why do advertisements like this achieve such immediate and enduring popularity? This commercial did not include anything about the functional benefits of the product or mention anything about the brown-colored, carbonated beverage. The genius of this ad focused on a higher calling, a shared experience, that resonated emotionally with people. That alone helped signal a new era of purpose-driven communications. 


Takeaway #1

In advertising and marketing, most companies fall into the uninspired trap of focusing on features & benefits and speeds & fees. Organizations like Coca-Cola, Apple, and others, however, learned long ago that establishing a higher calling, a shared purpose, is key to forging a heartfelt relationship with consumers. This commercial was one of first manifestations of that. The ad is not about the product explicitly - it's the shared, human experience of teaching the world to sing. 

Takeaway #2

Genius moments often come when the mind is at rest or play. Genius moments are not likely to come when you are sitting in a board room, or whiteboard, or in front of a computer screen trying to force inspiration. Get up and move about. 

Takeaway #3

Even though it has been 45 years since this advertisement first aired, it endures culturally to the point that the Mad Men finale, literally the last minute of a multi-year series, incorporated this quintessential ad concept to put an exclamation point on Don Draper's advertising career

Takeaway #4

More businesses and employees need to have the courage to try new things. It takes courageous leaders to push forward and drive innovative concepts to execution. Suspend judgement, be open-minded. 

Focusing on a higher calling works. It's not easy to go into this emotionally-charged and purposeful place. But there are decades of evidence now that support this inspired type of communication. 

And in many ways, it took a pioneer like Bill Backer to teach the world of communications how to sing.