Remembering Bill Backer
Meaningful Impact has recognized Bill Backer as a cause marketing pioneer by conferring its highest honor: the Meaningful Impact TM Paragon Laureate.
Bill Backer was the advertising creative director on the Coca-Cola account in 1971 when he scribbled a script idea on a café napkin that would eventually become one of the most celebrated television commercials of all time — and more importantly — an inspiration to the cause marketers who followed.
Bill Backer boosted sales of Coca-Cola by uniting the world to “sing in perfect harmony.”
‘Buy the World a Coke’ Radio Ad
For the script of the radio ad, the first line that Backer wrote was: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” Backer later explained: “(I) began to see the familiar phrase, ‘Let’s have a Coke’ as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment.” Instead, the offer to drink Coke together was “actually a subtle way of saying, ‘Let’s keep each other company for a little while’… So that was the basic idea,” Backer said, “to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but instead as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula (and social catalyst) that would help (bring people together).”
During a brainstorming session with his co-writers, Billy Davis and Roger Cook, Backer penned the most famous line of the ad: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”
Backer chose to use the word ‘har-mo-ny’, in part, because it conveniently rhymed with the word ‘com-pa-ny.’ But there was a more meaningful reason too. Even by 1971, the term ‘harmony’ had already fallen out-of-fashion. Instead, politicians and leaders used alternative phrasing such as “we must work together,” implying that people who don’t necessarily like each other must arrive at a compromise. To contrast that, Backer intentionally resurrected the word ‘harmony’ because, in his view, the term ‘harmony’ conveys that each diverse person, or distinct musical note, has a right to be a different pitch and yet can still blend nicely.
What follows is Bill Backer playing the piano and singing the ‘Buy the World a Coke’ radio commercial in his own voice.
‘Hilltop’ Television Commercial
The television version of the ad was named ‘Hilltop’, inspired by the setting of the closing aerial shot.
The public’s response to ‘Hilltop’ was unprecedented. Coca-Cola received over 100,000 letters from appreciative viewers who felt moved to share their personal experience of how the commercial made them feel. Ninety percent of the letter writers requested the commercial’s lyrics; some even offered additional verses of their own.
According to Bill Backer: “As far as I know, the commercial ran in almost every country in the world that speaks English. And they all understood it: A product saying that we can be a little social catalyst that can bring people together to talk things over.”
Pop Song: I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing
Inspired by the public’s response, Backer converted the lyrics of the 60-second ‘Hilltop’ commercial into a 2 minute and 20 second pop song titled: “I’d like to Teach the World to Sing.”
The song was recorded by multiple artists. The New Seekers’ version of the song sold 12 million records, reaching #7 on the pop charts in the United States and #1 in the UK.
Extending the commercial’s lyrics for a pop song gave Bill Backer the chance to further explain the concept of a United Chorus of the World. Here is that new verse:
I’d like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace throughout the land
Though direct references to Coke were removed from the pop song, the subliminal advertising value is obvious. Without revealing specific revenue figures, Backer confirmed: “You could see on a sales curve the effect that the combination of the commercial and the song had on sales.”
Bill Backer provides a first-hand account about the development of ‘Hilltop’ in his excellent 1993 book titled The Care and Feeding of Ideas.
Or, if you prefer podcasts, the fascinating behind-the-scenes story is featured in Meaningful Impact’s podcast episode: Coca-Cola’s Hilltop Ad: Behind-the-Scenes of ‘Perfect Harmony’.
The Bill Backer / Don Draper Connection
Fans of the TV series Mad Men may have noticed the connection between the real-life of Bill Backer and the fictional life of Don Draper. Both worked for the McCann-Erickson advertising agency and both Bill Backer and Don Draper are credited with creating Coke’s iconic ‘Hilltop’ ad.
Bill Backer died in 2016 at age 89. He lived long enough to experience the resurgence of interest in the ‘Hilltop’ ad generated by the Mad Men finale.
Bill Backer’s Pioneering Contribution to Cause Marketing… in Hindsight
Bill Backer pioneered and popularized cause marketing twelve years before there was even a name for the tactic.
In 1983, American Express was the first to use the term Cause-Related Marketing. American Express famously spent $6 million on an ad campaign which raised $1.7 million for the Ellis Island Foundation. The contributions were used to help restore the Statue of Liberty. During the fourth quarter of 1983, American Express donated:
- one cent each time a cardmember used their Amex card to charge a purchase
- one dollar for each new Amex card issued
The campaign yielded a 28% increase in American Express card usage compared to the same period the year before.
Though perhaps less well-known, earlier cited examples of cause marketing include:
- 1976: Marriott Corporation generated extensive free media coverage of the opening of their family entertainment complex, Marriott’s Great America, by partnering with March of the Dimes to raise $2.4 million in donations to help prevent birth-defects.
- 1973: 7-Eleven raised $250,000 for the National Wildfile Federation to purchase a Bald Eagle habitat. To raise that money, 7-Eleven donated one cent each time a Slurpee was sold in prominently branded ‘Endangered Species Cups’.
These early cause-related marketing examples were implemented in the style of ‘You buy. We’ll give.‘ However, more recent definitions of cause marketing have expanded to include instances where a for-profit company promotes a cause whether or not a non-profit partner is involved.
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
In hindsight, then, Bill Backer’s 1971 ‘Buy the World a Coke’ and ‘Hilltop’ ads for Coca-Cola could be viewed as the first global cause marketing campaign, which served as a seminal inspiration for future cause marketers.
About the Meaningful ImpactTM Paragon Laureate Commendation
The highest honor bestowed by Meaningful Impact is the Paragon Laureate commendation, which grants automatic entry into the Meaningful Impact Hall of Fame.
Meaningful Impact offers an award program for purpose-driven leaders who go well beyond the requirements of their job to leverage their ordinary role to make an extraordinary difference, like an ordinary creative director at an ad agency who increased Coca-Cola sales by promoting harmony.
The evaluation process for award entries is selective. Depending on the scoring, winning entrants receive a Meaningful Impact recognition at one of the following levels: Goodwill Award, Leadership Award, and Paragon Award.
The Meaningful Impact TM Paragon Award is reserved for projects which are an exemplary demonstration of the highest achievement in mutually-beneficial corporate citizenship. Occasionally, a project which wins a Paragon Award is so influential that the nominee is further considered for a special commendation — such as the Paragon Laureate commendation — when extraordinary social good is achieved by creating and sharing new best practices in corporate citizenship.