RIP Bill Backer, The Guy Who Taught the World to Sing (About Coca-Cola)

If you’re on the not-so-old side and were a fan of Mad Men, you’ll know Bill Backer’s work. Let’s start with the series’ final scene, which has Backer all over it.

If you’re of an older vintage (i.e. musically sentient in 1972), you might remember this song.

And if you go back one more year, you might recall this commercial.

All of the music in the above clips originated with one man: Bill Backer, an ad executive who worked for McCann-Erickson, then the agency of record for Coca-Cola.

The story goes that Bill and a group of his fellow real-life Mad men were caught at the airport in Shannon, Ireland. But after some initial grumbling amongst the passengers, Bill noticed that they eventually started getting along–even joking. The thing they all had in common was everyone was drinking Coke.

A phrase came to Bill: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company,” which he wrote down on a napkin. He gave it to songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway who adapted a melody from a previously unused idea entitled “True Love and Apple Pie.” It was eventually turned into the iconic “Hilltop” commercial, a production that cost $250,000, the most expensive TV commercial ever to that point.

The spot proved to be so popular that it was recorded as a full-length song–without the Coke references, of course–by both The Hillside Singers (a bunch of anonymous studio musicians) and then The New Seekers  (a real group; see above).

The Hillside Singers version from 1972 reached #13 on the Billboard singles chart while the New Seekers version reached #1 in the UK, #1 in Ireland, #3 in Canada and #7 in the US, selling 12 million copies in the process. Coca-Cola, which, as owners of the ad, were entitled to royalties, but that money was donated to UNICEF.

It marked one of the few times a hit song evolved out of a hit TV commercial. Today, hit songs are used to make hit TV commercials.

But back to Bill Backer. Even though this idea evolved into two top 15 hits (not to mention a ton of covers by bands all over the world), it was hardly his only victory. Backer also came up with the following:

  • “Things go better with Coke.” (More Coca-Cola)
  • “Everything you want in a beer…and less.” (Miller Lite)
  • “Soup is good food.” (Campbell Soup)
  • “It’s Miller Time.” (Miller beer)

He also created campaigns for Quaker Foods, Xerox, Fisher-Price, Hyundai and a couple of cigarette companies. In other words, the man was a real-life Don Draper.

Bill Backer died on Friday, three weeks short of his 90th birthday.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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