Coca-Cola’s Long Culture War

The company's Super Bowl ad stirred the ire of English-only trolls. But radical, it ain't.

By Jeff Chang Feb 05, 2014

Coca-Cola’s "It’s Beautiful" commercial premiered this past weekend at the Super Bowl to a social media storm led by English-only trolls and anti-multiculturalist knuckle-draggers. But the spot, which featured "America, the Beautiful" sung in a number of languages, is not the first time the largest soft-drink company in the world took a side in the culture wars.

Four days after Independence Day in 1971, the company debuted the ad best known as "I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony." The spot began with a blonde woman, eyes clear blue as her tunic, lip-syncing a strange lyric, "I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love." There was an even weirder second line, about growing apple trees and honeybees and snow-white turtle doves.

In the spot, the camera panned across rows of young lip-synchers smiling with the rising sun–Spanish, Swedish, Nigerian, Nepalese, dressed in a dashiki, a kimono, a dirndl, a Nehru, a turtleneck. Each held Coke’s iconic green, glass hobble-skirt bottle in their right hand, one bottle branded in English script, the next in Thai, the next in Arabic.

"I’d like to buy the world a Coke," they sang, "and keep it company."

The spot ended with an aerial view of two hundred singers aligned on a green hillside like an open fan–a youth chorus of the world. It became known in company lore as the "Hilltop" commercial.

At that moment, millions were marching to stop the war in Vietnam, prisoners had been attacked at Attica, the Manson and Serpico and My Lai trials were underway. Students had launched an Ethnic Studies revolution on the campuses. Desegregation struggles over busing were beginning to rage in the cities.

Internally, Coca-Cola’s official code name for the ad campaign was "Buy the World." The budget for this commercial alone was nearly $1.3 million in 2013 dollars. Through it, the company–whose image was associated with freckled Norman Rockwell boys, Cuba Libre drinks and Molotov cocktails all at once–hoped for a shot at more than just glass-bottle redemption.

Imagine in a season of racial division, imperial deception, capitalist malaise and national despair, the whole world gathered upon a hill sharing a fizzy brown drink. Bam! American faith renewed, global status restored.

The commercial had been conceptualized and co-written by Bill Backer, a McCann-Erickson executive. He wanted "a big basic idea–one that would involve the entire United States market for Coca-Cola," everyone regardless of race, color, class or creed. Backer was struck by the notion that Coke was "a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes." He wrote the song that would become famous.

Backer’s young colleague Harvey Gabor suggested an idea for "The First United World Chorus" singing the song. "Medium Cool" director Haskell Wexler signed on to direct. When the company went to film the idea, however, it decided to do so in Italy.

The first shoot was a disaster, a telling one.

The Italian production company brought in 1,200 young extras from local orphanages. As the sun grew hotter, the orphans were kept locked in steaming buses. By noon the bored and parched teens were rocking the buses off their axles and wolfishly eyeing the big truck full of Cokes parked at the bottom of the hill.

At the top, Billy Davis stood on a conductor’s ladder and struggled to teach the united world chorus how to mouth the lyrics in a language that many of the extras did not speak.

For the final scene–an aerial shot of the orphans alongside the united world chorus–the teens were released from their buses. They raged loud and broad across the field. A beleaguered team of marshals finally corralled and herded them into place near the chorus. There the orphans took the glass bottles they had been handed and with an angry roar began flinging them at the director’s helicopter overhead. Then they stormed down the hill toward the Coke truck and tried to overturn it, a teenage riot worthy of Black Friday.

A few years ago, Google brought back Harvey Gabor to revive the commercial in its "Re-Imagining Coca-Cola" campaign, a project that no doubt inspired "It’s Beautiful," a third version of "Buy the World."

It is now the winter after the summer of George Zimmerman’s acquittal and the Supreme Court’s partial repeal of the Voting Rights Act. Culture wars have been stoked anew against the emerging colorized America seen in "It’s Beautiful," by those who want to restore an America that never existed–the America of Coke’s capitalist-realist 1970s "Real Thing" ads, the mythical America brought back for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 "Morning in America" commercial.

Coca-Cola has once again cannily staked itself on one side of the culture wars. It’s the right side of history, no doubt. But it might be worth asking again: Do we really just want a Coke and a smile and some trolls to rage against?

Jeff Chang is a cultural critic and former editor of Colorlines. Portions of this piece are excerpted from his latest book, "Who We Be: The Colorization of America," to be published in October by St. Martin’s Press.