(Spoilers for the Mad Men series finale are below, but if you’ve been online more than 30 seconds today, you already know how it ended.)
Mad Men ended last night with the fabled Coca-Cola commercial featuring “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” I don’t know whether Don Draper took his Esalen experience back to New York and turned it into one of the most iconic ads of all time. The more I ponder it, however, the more I think that’s probably what the show means to suggest. Which is a cynical way to end the show—that for all the emotional pain Don felt in the final episode and those leading up to it, he ended up using it to sell something to people—but one in keeping with Mad Men‘s recurring theme that true change is impossible.
So let’s talk about “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”
Adman Bill Backer of McCann Erickson hatched the idea on a weather-enforced layover at an airport in Ireland, then songwriters Roger Cook and Billy Davis blended the idea with a tune Cook had written with Roger Greenaway. Davis had been on the production staff at Motown and toured with the Four Tops; Cook and Greenaway had some success as performers as the duo David and Jonathan. Cook was also a member of Blue Mink. He and Greenaway were responsible for some of the finest British bubblegum: Greenaway teamed with the great Tony Burrows in the Pipkins (“Gimme Dat Ding”) and was also in the group Brotherhood of Man for a bit. Greenaway and Cook wrote “My Baby Loves Lovin’,” recorded by White Plains, and the Fortunes’ “You’ve Got Your Troubles.” They would eventually write “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” as well.
“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” first hit the radio as a single early in 1971 under the title “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” by the New Seekers. It flopped. Radio stations resisted it, for obvious reasons—a free three-minute plug for Coke? I don’t think so—and Coca Cola bottlers didn’t like it much, either. (The company was just coming off a long run of success with the slogan “Things go better with Coke.”) Backer, however, believed so strongly in the concept that he persuaded McCann to spend what turned out to be $250,000 turning the song into a TV ad. The first attempt, intended to feature dozens of schoolchildren, was shot in Europe by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, but the film turned out to be unusable. The concept was scaled down and the footage shot by an Italian company, most of it in Rome. The New Seekers’ version of the song wouldn’t sync to the film, so a new version was recorded by a group eventually called the Hillside Singers.
When the commercial hit the air in America, in July 1971, it was so popular that people called radio stations asking to hear it. By the end of the year, two versions of the song, a recut version by the New Seekers and the version from the ad by the Hillside Singers, were on the charts. The Hillside Singers’ version first appears at ARSA on a survey from WPOP in Hartford, Connecticut, dated November 3, 1971. The New Seekers’ version first shows up at WIXY in Cleveland the next week, and hits the Top 10 there the week after that (and #1 a couple of weeks later). The Hillside Singers’ version made the Hot 100 first, on November 27, with the Seekers charting a week later. For the weeks of January 15 and January 22, 1972, the Seekers’ version held at #7 and the Hillside Singers’ version at #13 on the Hot 100. The Seekers’ version shows up on 255 charts at ARSA, compared to 185 for the Hillside Singers. It was by any measure a monster hit, although the Seekers had the better of it. But “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” didn’t stay on radio station playlists very long. Both versions were gone from the Hot 100 dated February 19, 1972, and I don’t recall hearing it much after that.
“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” wasn’t the first time popular culture was used to sell us something—and not just a thing, but in true Don Draper fashion, an emotion. But it resonated with us like few other ads in history, and in that regard paved the way for the constant remixing of art and advertising we’ve lived with ever since.
For much that’s more interesting on the music used in seven seasons of Mad Men, click here.