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Pop CultureSeptember 22, 2015

Television: A Chronology of Coca-Cola Advertising from Hilltops to Polar Bears

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Earlier this year, Mad Men’s prize asshole Don Draper was forever tied to Coca-Cola’s advertising history in an act of televisual finale-making so audacious that it raised the question: is great advertising art? The answer, obviously, is no, but does that necessarily mean its empty calories are worthless? That’s both a clunky rhetorical question and a heavy-handed analogy that will bear no more weight, if it has born any at all. Coke and television advertising share some important similarities, but none more important than that they were the subject of my recent google search for – and resulting chronology of – Coke’s greatest TV ads.

1950. The first ever Coke television ad.

The first ever Coke ad no longer exists in its original form. It was apparently not that great.


Coke’s television advertising history really starts with their decision to ditch their advertising agency of 50 years, D’arcy, in 1956. New agency McCann-Erickson made a bunch of lame celebrity ads, then in the early 1960s a creative called Bill Backer created ‘Things go better with Coke’, which is both a sensational jingle that ran for years and a sentence my dad still considers a worthy punchline, decades after the first time nobody laughed at it. Bill Backer went on to create the legendary ‘Hilltop’ ad in 1971. My dad went on to create the following joke, in 1993: “When is a nerd not a nerd? When it’s annoyed.”

1971. Hilltop.

Hilltop opens on the face of an attractive young white woman, Linda Neary, and pulls back to reveal two more attractive young white people. They’re singing lyrics of such cloying sentimentality that your impulse is to buy a Pepsi. The only reason you don’t immediately vomit is that the words are cut through by a tune of unparalleled melodic beauty.

It cuts to more young people singing, some of them not white. It tracks along the whole beautiful line of them, on top of a hill in Italy. That’s pretty much it. The lyrics are along the lines of love, harmony and buying the world a Coke, as if those things are somehow linked. At the end, a badly-written message scrolls jerkily up the screen, over out-of-focus helicopter footage.

When Hilltop was this year shown as part of the final episode of the greatest television show of both modern times and all of history, I watched in awe. I think I cried.

1979. Mean Joe Greene.

The ad’s eponymous American football legend comes off the field injured and, due to some unexplained security breach, there’s an admiring boy in the tunnel annoying him with anodyne comments and general sycophancy. Greene is justifiably pissed and quite brusque, then the boy gives him a Coke and, without even checking to see if the bottle’s been tampered with, Greene downs it, then says “Hey kid,” and throws him a towel that has to be 90 percent BO. Local versions of this ad were made around the world, including one with Maradona. Although no New Zealand version was made, a quality casting agent of the era would have made out a massive cheque and taken it straight to Geoff Howarth.

1986. Max Headroom.

Is this actually the name of this ad? Who cares! I watched it multiple times and could find no meaning in it. I concluded that this lack of meaning is, in fact, its meaning – an incredible achievement in an ad for a brand whose values include happiness. It doesn’t so much encourage you to drink Coke as it does make you want to build a bomb shelter and then bomb that shelter straight to hell. This ad was made a year or two after Red Dawn and during a period in which Coke was getting its ass handed to it by Pepsi at almost every ad break.

1988. First time first kiss.

An ad featuring both a terrific pop song that ended up being a number one hit across Europe and a series of clichés so clichéd that, were it created 20 years later, it would have broken the internet. You watch agape as you ask: “Were people really sucked in by this cut-and-paste schmaltz?” And then you wipe the tears from your eyes and look at the air you have just punched with one hand, and the ice cold Coca-Cola clasped in the other hand, on which you notice you have just tattooed the phrase ‘Coca-Cola 4eva’.

1993. Always Coca-Cola.

1993 was the beginning of Coke’s advertising resurgence. There were various ‘Always’ ads made, but the one called ‘lyric logo’ was the finest and most audacious. Its sole visual was the lyrics to the ad’s jingle on a red circle, with strobing background images including corn, capsicum and spring onions. The message appeared to be: “We have a song so good, so catchy, that for visuals we’ll just use the groceries from the office fridge.’

1993. Polar bears.

A group of animated polar bears look at the sky. Good God.

2015. Hilltop.

Exactly the same as the 1971 version, but made by a fictional hunk who has just made peace with his multitudinous and egregious acts of moral vulgarity, and therefore better. This is art.

Greg Bruce travelled to Atlanta recently as part of the 100th birthday celebrations for Coke’s famed contour bottle. His story about that trip will appear in the upcoming October issue of Metro magazine.

Left thirsty for more historic advertising? Click here to watch seasons 1-6 of Mad Men on Lightbox

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