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.