Phil Teer ex­plains why Coke’s plea for per­fect har­mony was so much more per­sua­sive than Pepsi’s decades later

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One morn­ing in 1971, Bill Backer wrote a line on a nap­kin. His flight from New York to Lon­don had been di­verted to Shan­non Air­port the night be­fore due to fog and some pas­sen­gers had been an­gry and frac­tious. Now they were laugh­ing to­gether while drink­ing Coke. He wrote: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”

That line res­onated be­cause the world was an an­gry and frac­tious place in 1971. Be­side the Cold War and the al­ways-present threat of nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion, Amer­ica was los­ing in Viet­nam, four demon­stra­tors had been shot and killed on Kent State Univer­sity cam­pus, Richard Nixon was in the White House, Martin Luther King and Mal­colm X had been as­sas­si­nated a cou­ple of years pre­vi­ously and Amer­ica was riven by racial divi­sion. There was ter­ror­ism across Europe and the Trou­bles were be­gin­ning in North­ern Ire­land. New York, where Backer worked for Mccann Erick­son, was a bank­rupt city.

Coca-cola “Hill­top” was a vi­sion of global youth teaching the world to sing in per­fect har­mony. On the sur­face, it was pure sweet­ness but be­hind the har­monies and the fresh-faced singers lurked an edgy pur­pose. Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, said of his de­ci­sion to in­clude “Hill­top” at the end of the se­ries: “The peo­ple who find that ad corny are prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a lot of life that way and they’re miss­ing out on some­thing. Be­cause five years be­fore that, black peo­ple and white peo­ple couldn’t even be in an ad to­gether.”

The ad was the most ex­pen­sive pro­duc­tion in its day and be­came one of the most fa­mous ads ever. It sold an ocean of Coke, built an im­mense brand and helped make the un­ac­cept­able ac­cept­able.

Even now, peo­ple get wound up at the au­dac­ity of Benet­ton. “How dare they use Aids to sell jumpers,” they splut­ter, miss­ing the point en­tirely. Benet­ton used jumper ads to draw at­ten­tion to the suf­fer­ing of Aids pa­tients. United Col­ors of Benet­ton was a brand pur­pose with real mean­ing. It meant: “We are bet­ter than this, we are hu­man.” It was a de­fi­ant call for com­pas­sion in the mid­dle of the self­ish 1980s.

Dove’s “Cam­paign for real beauty” was a bold face-down of the dan­ger­ous body im­ages that dom­i­nated fash­ion and beauty ad­ver­tis­ing. More re­cently, Un­der Ar­mour’s “I will what I want” film with Gisele saw off in­ter­net trolls with mod­ern, kick-ass fem­i­nism.

Ad­ver­tis­ing has a pow­er­ful so­cial ef­fect. It re­flects and le­git­imises the val­ues of its time. Some­times this is for the worse – cig­a­rette ad­ver­tis­ing made it seem OK to smoke. But some­times ad­ver­tis­ing can defy the times when the times need de­fy­ing.

In our an­gry, frac­tious present, cre­ativ­ity is again a de­fi­ant force. In re­sponse to Don­ald Trump, Shep­ard Fairey’s in­au­gu­ra­tion protest poster of a young Mus­lim woman wear­ing the Amer­i­can flag as a head­scarf made us think about how much times have changed since Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster only eight years ago.

The Women’s Marches around the world in­vited opin­ion with #Why­i­march. That in­vi­ta­tion ma­te­ri­alised beau­ti­fully on the day of the march in the form of hun­dreds of thou­sands of slo­gans hand-painted on plac­ards.

So why could Coke speak for a gen­er­a­tion while Pepsi’s Ken­dall Jen­ner ad, “Jump in”, only suc­ceeded in uniting it in mock­ery?

Well, first off, who knows what the re­ac­tion to “Hill­top” would have been if Twit­ter had been around. The coun­ter­cul­ture was al­ways ambivalent

about brands and held ad­ver­tis­ing re­spon­si­ble for all the prob­lems of the con­sumer so­ci­ety, so maybe Coke would have got flamed too. “Hill­top” also ran for years and had time to work on us all while the Pepsi spot was up and down in days.

But “Hill­top” was liked. The song was rere­corded and be­came a hit. The ad has been re­made. Some­thing in it rang true.

The Pepsi ad is bad be­cause noth­ing about it rings true. Ex­is­ten­tial­ism has a term for not be­ing true to your­self: bad faith. Pepsi has the brand equiv­a­lent of this. It tries to do pur­pose but it is fake pur­pose. Backer saw peo­ple shar­ing a Coke and get­ting on. That was true. He broke with con­ven­tion by bring­ing peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races to­gether in an ad. That too was true. Not even the slo­gans in the Pepsi ad ring true. It would have been bet­ter if they had do­nated the en­tire bud­get to Black Lives Mat­ter. That would maybe have given them a plat­form of truth.

As Ni­cola Kemp wrote in th­ese pages re­cently: “The back­lash to Pepsi’s dead-eyed vi­sion of ac­tivism is a re­minder to the in­dus­try of the per­ils of hav­ing a po­si­tion­ing rather than tak­ing a real stand.”

There’s a lot of fake pur­pose around. Too many ad­ver­tis­ers graft­ing so­cial causes where they should not be. Cannes should stop hand­ing out Lions to such fak­ery.

True pur­pose is about the dif­fer­ence a busi­ness makes to the world. When it comes to drinks brands with pur­pose, give me a Brew­dog any day. It set out to cre­ate a craft-beer rev­o­lu­tion and, through good prod­uct and ballsy mar­ket­ing, is now an in­ter­na­tional player val­ued at £1bn. Brew­dog’s re­cent trade­mark tiff notwith­stand­ing, when pur­pose is core to busi­ness, it works.

As an aside, Teach the World to Sing, which fea­tured in “Hill­top”, was recorded in 1971 in Tri­dent Stu­dios in Lon­don. David Bowie recorded Hunky Dory in Tri­dent at roughly the same time. Did Backer and Bowie meet? Did the man who wanted to buy the world a Coke bump into the man who sold the world? Did two pur­vey­ors of pop, both try­ing to tap the wave­length of a gen­er­a­tion, ever meet? There’s a great story there.

Phil Teer is a part­ner and strat­egy di­rec­tor at Broth­ers and Sis­ters

“There’s a lot of fake pur­pose around. Too many ad­ver­tis­ers graft­ing so­cial causes where they should not be”

Pepsi ‘Jump in’: an un­con­vinc­ing stab at so­cial pur­pose

Coca-cola ‘Hill­top’: struck a chord at a time of great po­lit­i­cal and so­cial un­rest

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