Is 'The Real Thing' Still A Thing?

  • by April 14, 2016
It’s always heartening to dig up some historical pop cultural artifact, not only to try to understand its significance at the time, but also to see what it has to say about our lives today.

Or at least that’s my official journalistic excuse for devoting a column to the topic of Coke’s “Hilltop,” the now 45-year-old,  syrupy, award-winning, monster hit from McCann-Erickson.

You’ll recall that the spot, famously shot on a mountaintop in Italy, gathered “young people from all over the world” dressed in their native costumes -- think Japanese obis and African dashikis -- to belt out (actually, to lip-sync) the jingle  “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”  

Wildly cinematic and sophisticated, it was a big production (with complex helicopter shots!) that represented a major change from the rest of the prosaic, formulaic problem/solution-based advertising that clients returned to in the 1970s, in which someone’s life would transform immediately by buying/drinking/using this “thing.”



Rather, Coke was selling emotion: happiness, unity, positivity.

The song was for “the Real Thing,” with clear-eyed people of  the future, blacks standing next to whites (a reason some Coke bottlers didn't want to show it at the time), mouthing lyrics that included “buying the world a home” and “furnishing it with love/with apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves.” (This while President Nixon had just re-escalated the Vietnam War, invaded Cambodia, and formed the White House Plumbers’ Unit). It immediately became an enormous hit single by the New Seekers that dominated AM radio for years.

OK, I’m working my way to the actual news peg here.  Recently, on Coca-Cola’s corporate blog, Unbottled, Sarah Traverso, group director of multimedia production for Coca-Cola North America, revealed that she had had the honor of color-correcting and remastering the original 1971 spot for 4K television (and rerelease on You Tube.)

“ The original 35mm footage on which the commercial was filmed sits in a vault in the Library of Congress, where American culture is preserved,” she wrote.

“So what was I doing with the original footage almost 45 years later? …In layman terms, … I was preserving an iconic gem for a new generation.”

Traverso never mentions another airing of the spot that shot it to the stratosphere fame-wise.  That’s when, last May, “Hilltop” was unexpectedly used as the shockingly blissful, upbeat (and, some thought, madly cynical and disappointing) ending for seven seasons of “Mad Men.”

Traverso's piece got wide pickup, because the Coke spot is a national treasure and favorite, yes, but also because we’ll never get real closure (aka, The Real Thing) on “Mad Men.”

By the way, as appended to Don’s meditational moment in full-lotus position, the footage that Weiner and group used for the finale actually looks as good or better than the newly remastered one.

And OK, the ending still rankles me.  Was this "MM" showrunner Matt Weiner's  sardonic answer to all of the viewers so invested in his show?  Something like, “You might have thought 'Mad Men' was about the death of the American dream and the rise of chaos culture and whatever else you’ve read into it all these seasons. Nope. In the end, it’s just about advertising. So here’s an ad.”  

But that’s not exactly how the story ends. I stalked Weiner through three New York City appearances after the finale, and he seemed hurt and angry that people even questioned it.

Weiner really believed in the ad, and defended the choice by saying, "In the abstract, I did think, why not end this show with the greatest commercial ever made?”

Weiner also told audiences at the time that he’d thought the ad was the definition of pure and beautiful, and that “there isn’t enough empathy in the world.”

Talking about how disturbing he found “the cynicism,” he said: “The people who find that ad corny, they're probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they're missing out on something." He added: “Unless your heart is made of ice, it’s hard not to react to faces that pure.”

Interestingly, the only time that actual advertising was used in "Mad Men" was in the pilot (“It’s toasted” for Lucky Strike) and the finale, when we all thought Don was toast, and Bill Backer’s famous ad came to the rescue. (Backer is still alive and kicking and living on his horse farm in Virginia, by the way.)

Something else occurred to me.  In the end, "Mad Men" was all about finding home. That fed into the whole “nostalgia” "MM" meme: the pain that makes you want to go home, where you are loved. “Come home…. We’re all worried about you. McCann will take you back,” Peggy says to Don when he calls her from Esalen, at his most distraught, just before his yoga conversion.

With that ping, Don realizes that he is not loved as Dick: only beaten-up, and homeless. As much as he made it hard for himself, he was loved in advertising, and could make a home there.

So we are to believe that, ironically, advertising was the solution to his problems. He could go back to New York, be there for his (motherless) kids, win awards, and perhaps even furnish a home with love.

And that is perhaps a more convincing image to carry than the contemporary reality of The Real Thing:  a liquid combo of sugar water, caffeine and color dye not much loved by millennials.

Still, the polishing of the spot is obviously an easy, inexpensive way to generate excellent buzz for the mother brand, while reconnecting it to the baby boomers who loved "Mad Men."

Does it still have some meaning in this context? The Real Thing was once a thing, and that counts for something.

14 comments about "Is 'The Real Thing' Still A Thing?".
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  1. James Hering from The Richards Group, April 14, 2016 at 6:57 p.m.

    Your best post... ever.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 14, 2016 at 8:06 p.m.

    You have just rounded out so many things at once, Ms. Parker. Sympathy, empathy, discourse.

  3. Irwin Starr from Landings Eagle, April 15, 2016 at 6:25 a.m.

    Thanks for the column.  Just reminds me of how much I enjoyed, and miss, Barbara's post episode musings of Mad Men. 

  4. Jeff Sawyer from GH, April 15, 2016 at 9:06 a.m.

    I guess Diet Coke would be The Faux Thing. 

    Love the show. Don was, in the end, without any redeeming qualities beyond looks and chutzpah – lookzpah.    

  5. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., April 15, 2016 at 9:37 a.m.

    Another brilliant column, Barbara. The ending MM was perfect–– after Don's long Odysseus journey to discover who Dick W. really is, he learns to accept and embrace his Don Draper-self fully.

    Cue the honey bees and snow-white turtle doves.  

    I think "Mad Men" may be the only show in TV history that ended too soon. I miss those people.

  6. George Parker from Parker Consultants, April 15, 2016 at 1:27 p.m.

    Barbara... Sorry to be a wet blanket... (Who me?) But it was not that much of a great spot. For five years after it ran, Pepsi cicked the crap out of them with the tatse test... Which was also crappy advertising. But hey, it's as Scully said to Jobs    Just fizzy colored water. As I say on AdScam... It's not a cure for cancer. As Zippy the Pinhead would say... "Advertising... Nahhh!"

  7. Julie Piepenkotter from FX Networks, April 15, 2016 at 1:32 p.m.

    Really excellent piece, notwithstanding I rather liked the Mad Men finale. Hells bells -- maybe let the rankling go, dear Barbara -- and enjoy that it was a wonderful ride.  Best, Julie

  8. bob hoffman from type a group, April 15, 2016 at 2:14 p.m.

    Pleasure to read such terrific writing.

  9. Barbara Lippert from, April 15, 2016 at 2:21 p.m.

    Thanks, everyone! In the end, Don's main relationship is with advertising-- he's great at transformation. And Julie, good advice. I will let the rankling go! But I do miss the show so much, and it's good to leave a little passion (and unfinished business?) alive! 
    One more thing: that final phone call that Don made to Peggy when she told him to "come home." I didn't understand why the phone was so low to the ground. And duh, it was a genius way to show how low he was, in every possible way, and how he ended up on high, on a cloud, that allowed him to come back down to the ground.

  10. Julie Piepenkotter from FX Networks, April 15, 2016 at 6:46 p.m.

    Oh exactly right on all, Barbara.  I miss it, too -- and understand the rankling ... "how sad and bad and mad it was ... but the, how it was sweet."    Best, Julie

  11. Julie Piepenkotter from FX Networks replied, April 15, 2016 at 6:54 p.m.

    woops ... make that "but then, now it was sweet."   

  12. John Kalish from 81st Street Productions, April 16, 2016 at 4:07 a.m.

    Engaging and thoughtful piece, Barbara, even for someone like me, who never watched a single episode of MM (too close to home.) That Coke ad was full monty corny but the slogan, The Real Thing, gave it and every other Coke ad an edge, at least, for me, because the subtext I hear with that slogan, is "Not A Wannabe, Like Pepsi." That was up until a few years ago, when grocery stores started to stock bottles of imported Coca Cola, sweetened with cane sugar, instead of corn syrup, the way it was formulated from the start...back in the days when America was great, but now, available by importing it from the country that was accused of not sending us their best, but in this case, sending us even better- our best, right back to us, made in Mexico.

  13. Jim English from The Met Museum, April 17, 2016 at 9:35 p.m.

    Thanks Barbara.  I found the 1971 Coke spot too sweet and sugary, like the product itself.  But I have to admit that since I can sing the lyrics some 45 years later the spot has a lasting resonance.

  14. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, April 21, 2016 at 9:24 a.m.

    A guy named Horowitz (maybe Israel Horowitz) once wrote a review of Jack Dillon's great book, The Advertising Man. In it, Horowitz said that Dillon, like Hemingway, writes of people who do well what may not be worth doing at all. Blowing up bridges, fishing for great Marlins, fighting bulls, writing ads. Don Draper, like a lot of successful ad people, bopped around and moved from job to job and then by accident found an enterprise he was good at. Walter White another latter day late bloomer defined by what he was good at. The ending of Mad Men seemed perfect because all of Draper's late wanderings brought him to create an enduring commercial, and that defined him for all time as what he was, an advertising copywriter. 

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