Mad Men and the Coke Jingle Theory
With special reference to Roquel “Billy “Davis, the African-American advertising legend who co-wrote and produced “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing”
Sunday night was the series finale of Mad Men, AMC’s prestige drama about advertising executives navigating their way through the 1960s, ending in 1970. While critics and fans made bets on which characters would live and die, fall for each other or wind up alone, a guiding principle for many was the idea that the end of Mad Men would directly dovetail with an important piece of pop culture. And since the show made strong thematic use of period-specific music in each of its seasons, there were even predictions on what 1970 song might play the series out. As it turned out, Mad Men touched all the bases, ending Don Draper’s story with the 1971 Coca-Cola commercial jingle, “I’d Like to Buy the World A Coke.”
The Coca-Cola song was such an appropriate choice for the show and the period that a number of writers managed to predict that it would appear in the finale. Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen and the Observer’s Maggie Serota made the Coca-Cola connection on April 27, shortly after episode eleven (when Don pitches McCann execs on a California expansion) aired.
Here’s Uproxx’s Danger Guerrero, who also put forward the Coke Jingle Theory on April 27:
During the meeting with McCann about SC&P [Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce] getting swallowed up, while listing off big fancy accounts they’d be working on, McCann head honcho Jim Hobart nodded at Don when he said Coca-Cola. The real McCann Erickson did in fact have Coca-Cola as a client, and in 1970 — where we are now in the Mad Men timeline — they created the famous “It’s the Real Thing” campaign. The next year, as part of the same campaign, they made the iconic commercial above, titled “Hilltop,” which featured young people of a number of races and nationalities singing a song titled “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).”
Other writers advancing what I will here name now and forever the Coke Jingle Theory include Todd Van der Werff at Vox, Newsweek’s John Walters, Slate’s Fred Kaplan, Steve Trevelise from New Jersey radio station 101.5, and Wall Street Journal commenter Dean Casselli, who all correctly predicted “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” would be in the show. Excellent recap detective work all around.
One writer, though, scooped them all. She did it using a completely different set of clues. Apart from matching timelines and spotting keywords, she found something that wasn’t making its way into the show at all — that creator Matt Weiner couldn’t be giving away, because it was barely even there.
Ericka Blount Danois, writing for Ebony last April, before the final season of the show had even begun, called out the Coca-Cola jingle and the McCann advertising firm by name in her essay, “Will the Final Season of Mad Men Get Any Blacker?”
Let Matthew Weiner — creator and producer of the highly acclaimed, Emmy-award winning TV series Mad Men — tell it, the revolution happening in the streets didn’t seep into corporate America except as a shadow. The only Black characters of Mad Men (custodians, elevator operators, housekeepers and secretaries) are all stoic in the company of the White people who surround them on the show. They keep their heads down and do their work — happy to be employed. That’s entirely accurate. And then, it’s not.
In particular, Danois points to the songwriter, producer, and McCann Erickson executive Roquel “Billy” Davis, who conceived and co-wrote “I’d Like To Buy the World A Coke” for that 1971 campaign. Davis, an African-American, is perhaps the best example of the slowly integrating world of modern advertising that Weiner said couldn’t exist in Mad Men’s 1960s — only in our alternate, parallel, real universe.
Davis is one of the people at the margins of Mad Men, whose stories go untold.
Davis’s biography is every inch as remarkable as the fictional Don Draper or any other character from Mad Men. Born in Detroit in 1932, he wrote songs in the 1950s for Jackie Wilson with his partner, Berry Gordy. (Davis and Gordy met after Davis began dating Gordy’s sister, Gwen.) Early in his career, Davis also worked with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and other blues and rock pioneers on the Chess label.
Later, Davis and Gordy — Gwen, not Berry — started the Detroit R&B label Anna Records. Berry Gordy, meanwhile, started his company, Tamla Records. Davis and Gordy continued to write songs and sign artists together, sometimes releasing the same single on both record labels to maximize distribution. They recruited a teenaged Aretha Franklin, along with Mary Wilson, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and what became the Four Tops. (Davis had earlier been a part of the last group when they were called The Aims, or sometimes The Four Aims.)
Berry Gordy would later merge Anna and Tamla Records into Motown. As Gordy took more control over the growing company, Davis’s work was increasingly marginalized. He began to look elsewhere.
Davis soon became head of A&R at Chess Records in Chicago, writing and recording Etta James, Little Milton, The Gems (featuring Minnie Riperton), and more. Davis’s work at Chess helped transition the record label from its 1950s blues and early rock acts to a more popular, crossover sound — a kind of “Motown West.” The best example is probably Fontella Bass’s Davis-produced hit “Rescue Me”:
In 1968, Davis was wooed away from pop music by advertising, and left the record industry to join McCann-Erickson. He’d quickly become the agency’s music director, writing and producing songs for radio and television commercials. At McCann, Davis created music for Nabisco, Sony, Miller Beer, Campbell’s Soup, and many others. Eventually, along with being the agency’s musical director, Davis reached the rank of senior vice president.
By far, Billy Davis’s most successful work was for Coca-Cola.
Soul music’s loss was the advertising world’s gain. The company was one of the first to take pop music seriously as a way to sell consumer goods. Davis helped create a jingle for Coca Cola based on ‘Mom, True Love And Apple Pie’, a song by British writers Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. Recorded under the title ‘I’d Like To Buy the World A Coke’, the song was a failure when it was first played on the radio in 1971, but when it was re-recorded for a television spot, this time sung by an enormous children’s chorus, it caught on. Later, Davis rewrote it as ‘I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)’, as recorded by the Hillside Singers and the New Seekers. His other successful jingles included ‘It’s the Real Thing’, ‘Have A Coke And A Smile’, ‘Coke Is It’ and ‘Things Go Better With Coke.’
The Coca-Cola company gives this account of the creation of the “I’d Like To Buy the World A Coke” campaign:
Bill Backer, creative director on the Coca-Cola account for the McCann Erickson advertising agency, was flying to London to meet up with Billy Davis, the music director on the Coca-Colaaccount, to write radio commercials with two successful British songwriters, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, to be recorded by the New Seekers, a popular British singing group.
The heavy fog in London forced the plane to land in Shannon, Ireland. Passengers had to remain near the airport in case the fog lifted. Some of them were furious about their accommodations. By the next day, Backer saw some of the most irate passengers in the airport cafe. Brought together by a common experience, many were now laughing and sharing stories over snacks and bottles of Coca-Cola. Backer wrote of the scene:
“In that moment [I] saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light… [I] began to see a bottle ofCoca-Cola as more than a drink that refreshed a hundred million people a day in almost every corner of the globe. So [I] began to see the familiar words, ‘Let’s have a Coke,’ as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment. They were actually a subtle way of saying, ‘Let’s keep each other company for a little while.’ And [I] knew they were being said all over the world as [I] sat there in Ireland. So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.”
So far, Bill Backer is sounding an awful lot like Don Draper. (And why did these guys all have alliterative superhero names?)
Billy Davis’s contribution even at this conceptual stage turns out to be crucial. Davis gives the idea body, turning it from a jingle into a song. (Backer is nevertheless quick to bottle that song up.)
When he finally arrived in London, Backer told Billy Davis and Roger Cook what he had seen in the airport café. After he expressed his thoughts about buying everybody in the world a Coke, Backer noticed that Davis’s initial reaction was not at all what he’d expected and asked him, “Billy, do you have a problem with this idea?”
Davis slowly revealed his problem. “Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke.”
Backer responded, “What would you do?”
“I’d buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love,” Davis said.
Backer said, “Okay, that sounds good. Let’s write that and I’ll show you how Coke fits right into the concept.”
The team that created the Coke advertising campaign included Davis, Backer, English songwriters Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook, producer Phil Messina, and art director Harvey Gabor. Backer had the initial concept. Working with Davis, Greenaway and Cook came up with the melody.
It was Gabor who proposed the idea of a “First United Chorus of the World” — a massive, multiethnic, multinational group of singers who would try to somehow embody this notion of a world united by delicious fizzy water.
The ad cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to photograph, including a then-rare helicopter shot. But it’s only when the idea, the song, and the visual came together that the idea of buying the world a Coke became a genuinely successful advertisement.
An early copy of the song Davis produced for the radio was not popular at all, especially with Coca-Cola bottlers. How was this hippie anthem going to help them move product? But reportedly, Davis’s friends in the music industry liked the song.
They were saying things like, ‘I’m getting requests to play your commercial like it was a hit record’ and “You should record it as a record."
Davis did eventually produce a record of “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing” for Phillips with the group The New Seekers. The single version dropped all references to Coca-Cola and became an unlikely hit in the US and Europe. This is one reason why the song is remembered and referred to almost equally as “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing” and “I’d Like to Buy the World A Coke.”
Now, the television show stops short of attributing any or all of McCann’s Coca-Cola campaign or the song to the work of the man we’ve come to know as Don Draper. In the tradition of the Sopranos finale and old-fashioned inscrutability, it leaves things ambiguous.
Here’s a summary of what the use of the commercial and song is intended to indicate for the viewer. (Just because it’s from Wikipedia doesn’t make it any less true.)
Just before the commercial segment played, the series protagonist, Don Draper, was shown meditating, finally at peace with a smile on his face, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and facing the rising Sun. The broadcast of the famous commercial was used to tell the audience that Draper had returned to McCann-Erickson, that his creative ability had returned, that he was responsible for producing the “Hilltop” ad campaign inspired by his experience in the California retreat, and that he had finally reconciled his alienation and personal demons and found creative fulfillment in his professional advertising career.
At Quartz, Adam Epstein likewise has a pretty thorough interrogation of the final scene, Don Draper’s possible authorship of the Coke ad, and what it all might mean.
This move to try to sneak credit for the Coke ad under the table to the thoroughly made-up Don Draper raises some serious concerns.
- We already have a television show, set in and documenting the cultural change of the 1960s, that, while attempting to portray, in presumably good faith, what was in many ways still a starkly segregated society, mostly does so by diminishing characters of color and pushing them to the margins.
- We also have a television show that, while laying bare the flaws and existential emptiness of its primary protagonist, also seems to continually return to the idea that he is a special boy, a creative genius who spins his own emotional shortcomings into advertorial gold, capable of creating and selling stupendous visions if only he is properly inspired.
- We also have a very real black advertising executive who plays a decisive part in creating the ad campaign that serves as the show’s endcap. He works in tandem with historical figures who match up eerily with character analogs in the show.
- But there is nobody in Mad Men, even in this final episode, who in the slightest way resembles Billy Davis. What’s more, the world of the show is constructed in such a way as to suggest that not only does he not exist, but that he could not have existed.
In her Ebony article, Ericka Blount Danois puts this better than I ever could:
The genius of Mad Men is that it’s as much about what’s invisible and what’s not said as what is. White male privilege is critiqued and dissected with fascinating scrutiny, because of the problem it creates in seeing the value in “others,” and the resulting self-destruction that comes from unchecked power and privilege. The catch is, those “others” have to be present to even begin to be neglected.
We have a long tradition in the United States of erasing the creative work of black Americans, of suggesting that the inventions of black men and women either came from nowhere, came from no one in particular, or were in fact the creations of white people. We do this in our history, in our oral traditions, and even in our fiction.
In Back to the Future, Marty McFly travels back in time and somehow manages to retroactively invent rock and roll. He does this by playing a version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” which Chuck’s cousin Marvin (who happens to be in Marty’s backing band) relays to him over the telephone.
In Back to the Future, this little bit of songwriting-musical-chairs-as-temporal paradox is a joke. It’s a clever contemporary pop-culture reference for the audience, who (one assumes) knows how it all really turned out. But it’s a joke with a nasty center, parked at the end of a movie that, for all its charms, kind of plays like an unapologetic nostalgia-fest for the 1950s. You know — the old, oppressive, fully-segregated bad times that even in Season One, Mad Men is trying to escape.
Don Draper doesn’t have a time machine, and he doesn’t quite steal credit for “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing” from Billy Davis and his colleagues. But then again, at least Chuck Berry gets his name in the movie. Even at the very end of Mad Men, on the dawn of a world he did as much as any of the show’s characters to create, poor Billy Davis doesn’t even merit a telephone call. He deserves better.