“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” is a pop song that originated as the jingle “Buy the World a Coke” in the groundbreaking 1971 “Hilltop” television commercial for Coca-Cola and sung by The Hillside Singers. “Buy the World a Coke” was produced by Billy Davis and portrayed a positive message of hope and love, featuring a multicultural collection of teenagers on top of a hill appearing to sing the song.
The popularity of the jingle led to it being re-recorded in two versions; one by The New Seekers and another by The Hillside Singers, as a full-length song, dropping references to Coca-Cola. The song became a hit record in the US and the UK.
The idea originally came to Bill Backer, an advertising executive working for McCann Erickson, the agency responsible for Coca-Cola. Backer, Roger Cook and Billy Davis were delayed at Shannon Airport in Ireland. After a forced layover with many hot tempers, they noticed their fellow travelers the next morning were talking and joking while drinking Coca-Cola.
Backer later wrote: “In that moment, (I) saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light… (I) began to see a bottle of Coca-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.’ …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…”
According to Bill Backer, the audience understood that Coca-Cola “could be a little social catalyst that can bring people together, talk things over, and sometimes communications get better if you’re just sitting over a bottle of Coke and looking people in the eye.”
Bad Weather Ruins Two Commercial Shoots
Phil Messina, the agency’s producer, planned the filming of Gabor’s visual concept on the cliffs of Dover. Hundreds of British schoolchildren and 65 principals were cast to lip-sync the song. Three days of continuous rain scrubbed the shoot. The crew moved to Rome.
New young people were cast and taught by Davis to lip-sync the song. The opening shot of the commercial had to have that “right” face, which was filled by a young lady on vacation in Rome from Mauritius.
The production was delayed by more rain. Finally, late in the day, the crew completed the climactic helicopter shot. The next day revealed that the young people looked as though they had really been in a rainstorm. The film was unusable, the budget was spent and the young people were released to go on their way.
Because of Bill Backer’s confidence in the hillside concept, Sid McAlister, the account supervisor on the Coke account, went to bat on another budget to re-shoot the spot, and McCann Erickson tried again. The new budget eventually topped $250,000, a staggering amount in that era.
Harvey Gabor directing the ‘Hilltop’ shoot in Rome, 1971.
Several Hundred Thousand Dollars Later, Success
Five hundred young people were hired for the chorus from embassies and schools in Rome. This was a substantial reduction from the original rained-out chorus. A British governess Davis and Gabor found pushing a baby carriage in the Piazza Navona was hired for the lead female role. The Italian film company Roma Film filmed the commercial and this time the weather cooperated. Close-ups of the young “leads” were actually filmed at a racetrack in Rome, separate from the larger chorus shots. Some of the distinctive camera angles were forced on the crew as they tried to avoid power and telephone lines.
“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” was released in the U.S. in July 1971 and immediately struck a responsive chord. The Coca-Cola Company and its bottlers received more than 100,000 letters about the commercial. Many listeners called radio stations begging to hear it.
A New Pop Version Is Recorded
Billy Davis wanted to produce a record version of the commercial with the New Seekers, but the group’s manager claimed they didn’t have time in their schedule to do so. Davis allowed a group of studio singers to record the new song lyric to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” They called themselves “The Hillside Singers” in order to identify with the TV image. Within two weeks of the release of the Hillside Singers recording, it was on the national charts. Two weeks after that, Davis was able to convince the New Seekers to find the time and record their version of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony),” the new title for the song version of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”
He took them to the studio on a Sunday and produced the record which became the Top 10 hit, followed by the Hillside Singers’ version as No. 13 on the pop charts. The song was recorded in a wide range of languages and sold more sheet music than any song in the previous 10 years.
The Coca-Cola Company donated the first $80,000 in royalties earned from the song by writers and publishers to UNICEF under an agreement with the writers.
“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” has had a lasting connection with the public. The commercial has consistently been voted one of the best of all time and the sheet music continues to sell today. The song version is being sung in school glee clubs and church choirs and played by high school bands all over the world. Thirty years after Bill Backer was stranded by fog, Coca-Cola is still more than a beverage. It is a common connection between the people of the world.