Teaching the World to Sing: Trees, bees & Coca-Cola turtle doves
It’s slightly jarring when you realize that popular advertising is as valid a part of one’s life tapestry as any first date, kiss or any other similarly time-stamped event. Like a serendipitous song playing at just the right moment, advertising can just as often set the tone, inform the mood or capture the feelings that matter to us the most. So how can it be wrong to get squishily sentimental over some dusty old television ad?
I was a child of the seventies and as such there is but one Christmas commercial that, decades later, still manages to give me goose bumps. Was it true emotion or a scandalously devious sales pitch? No matter – because the message it laid bare was beyond corruption both then and now. Clearly I am speaking of the famous Coca-Cola Hill Top Christmas Tree spot.
The commercial is about as textbook as they get. Take an easily memorable theme song, stir in a unifying message of hope and global togetherness and then tie it all together with the giving of a gift, in this case a bottle of Coke. Based on the previous summer’s smash success, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” the Hilltop Christmas spot showcased the same smiling and singing, sea of faces, but this time at night, all coming together in happy celebration of sharing, giving and being together as one. Each are holding candles and swaying as the song makes its way to that most famous of lines “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.” Eventually, the camera pulls back to reveal that everyone on the hillside has assembled themselves into the shape of a flickering Christmas tree. Positively magic.
The creation of the original spot, entitled “Hillside” was attributed to an ad executive named Bill Backer. One day, Backer and two others - Roger Cook and Billy Davis - found themselves along with many others stuck in a forced layover at Ireland’s Shannon Airport. At the time, the stranded masses were displaying little patience and short tempers with each other but by the next morning Backer had noticed that many previously agitated travelers were now talking and joking over bottles of Coca-Cola. Immediately, Backer grabbed a napkin and wrote the line "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" and the rest was, as they say, history.
After being released as a TV commercial in the summer of 1971 the song became so popular that it was re-recorded by The New Seekers as a full-length song (sans the Coke references) and even became a hit record, hitting #1 in the U.K. and #7 in the United States. Being as popular as it was, the logic of doing a Christmas version was bullet-proof. In fact, Coca-Cola would ride this horse for a very long time. Can you blame them?
Me? I loved the ad – and the serial re-runs of it over the years merely cemented its place in my memory forever. I hummed the song – everybody hummed the song – and probably even harangued my folks to buy me Coke because of it. It clearly did the job of selling product but it also implanted an image inside my head that has never wavered: that of seeing harmony and peace between all peoples, regardless of nationality, faith, or home as a desirable thing – a good goal. We’re all in this together and while that particular truth was writ large long before that spot ever aired, it would be naïve to think that its re-statement was wholly unnecessary. That it grabbed hold and held tight in my mind through all these years either confirms the dark art of advertising or reminds us of the promise such things can hold. Even when you’re selling soap you have an opportunity to make the world a better place, and if you can, you should.
Corporations are huge profit-driven monoliths – no question. They exist to grow bigger. It’s what they do. But no matter how suspicious we may be of these behemoths and their world-beating motives it cannot be denied that many millions of people toil deep inside these seemingly faceless conglomerates. Real people, supporting real families, chasing dreams and living lives thanks to the “business” generated. Are they affected by their firms? Of course, but so are the firms affected by their people, and that is what allows for even the largest of businesses to show heart, and in turn, to positively affect the world that enables them.
Can commerce and capitalism co-exist within a giving, sharing and scrupulously humane world? For many, that's a pretty radical notion to be sure. But then again, Christmas is all about new beginnings and second chances, so anything is possible.