On last night’s Mad Men finale, an epic Don Draper brainstorm produced one of the most legendary commercials of the 20th century, in which a group of multicultural young people sing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” on a grassy hill. But the real-life ad man who came up with the Coca-Cola concept is now retired and in his late 80s: Bill Backer, formerly the creative director of McCann. In January of 1971, Backer was en route to London to meet up with the music director for the Coca-Cola account when a dense fog grounded him in Ireland. The airport was full of irritable, stranded travelers. But when Backer wandered into an airport café, as he tells it, he was amazed to see some of the crankiest passengers, from all around the globe, laughing and bonding over bottles of Coke. Thus the idea for “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” was born. So how does Backer feel about having his legacy borrowed by Don Draper? He spoke to Slate by phone from his farm in Virginia.
Do you watch Mad Men?
I haven’t watched for three or four years. At first I was very interested in it, because it was set in the business that I spent most of my life in.
What did you like about it in the beginning?
Back then, I thought it was a reasonably accurate portrayal of the industry in the days when I started. Overdramatized, but accurate. And then when it became more just the private life of Don Draper and his wives and girlfriends and problems, it just became an ordinary soap opera. Then I thought, I have better things to do. I don’t watch a lot of television anyway.
So you didn’t watch last night’s finale?
No, but I do know it ended up with “I’d like to buy the world a coke and keep it company.”
How do you feel about the fact that Don Draper basically co-opted your achievement?
[Laughs.] I’m certainly not Don Draper. In my day, Don Draper really would’ve been more of a contact man than a creative guy. The creative people in my day didn’t dress as elegantly as Don Draper, and they didn’t have nearly as much daily client contact. We had people, they were called contact men, that did the work of talking to the clients. Then I would present the advertising. But I didn’t spend as much time wining and dining clients and wives and ex wives as Don Draper does. And neither did the other creative directors of my day. You’re too young to remember. But I definitely did not look like Don Draper or dress like Don Draper.
Don is a martini-drinking suave character. Most of the creative directors had a little more ink stain on their hands. They did the actual writing and working. They were a different breed, I thought, than Don Draper.
In your long career in advertising, did you meet anyone who was actually like Don?
Oh a lot of them. Plenty. I won’t name names. But I’ve met many Dons.
If you weren’t a suave martini-drinking type, what were you like as an ad man? Is there any other character on the show you identified with more?
Oh, I don’t know! I worked very hard, and I always imagined that I was talking directly to the public. To the consumer. A lot of people were just trying to please the client. I never did that. I always imagined that I was sitting and talking to you directly.
I’m not sure how much you’ve heard about the finale, but basically, Don is doing yoga on a grassy cliff when the Coca-Cola idea comes to him.
See, my moment came out of truth and emergency. I had to come up with a commercial, we were getting sent to record in London and were stuck in an airport in Ireland.
I had a studio rented and paid for, lots of actors and producers. I looked around people were sitting there together having a coke. So I wrote that on the back of a napkin: “I’ve got to teach the world to sing. I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.” That’s what the product was doing at the time. It just felt like I heard a voice from somewhere saying, “I’d like to be able to do this for the whole world.”
Why do you think this specific commercial—the scene on the hillside, with everyone singing together—has resonated so much?
It’s different. It steps outside of the box. And if I may say so myself, it’s a wonderful song that became a hit all over the world, and it all came together in that commercial. It’s not phony. The product itself is a product that brings people together.
It was a simple observation of the product performing one of the functions it does so well: It’s a social catalyst. It’s one of the best ads I’ve ever written about the product answering a need.
What exactly was the need?
There’s a need all over the world for some kind of signal that says: Let’s go have a cup of coffee, let’s go have a coke. If you want to communicate with people, there’s nothing better than some simple liquid. It performs a little tiny service.
Is there any small part of you that resents the fact that your real-life success has been borrowed by Don Draper?
Oh no, no. I think it’s fine. No problem with that.
I imagine there are some people who would not appreciate being linked to a character as morally complicated as Don.
I don’t see myself that way at all, but in this world you’re what other people see you as. I guess to find out whether I am a morally tortured man you’d have to call up some people who worked with me. It’d be interesting. Call Harvey Gabor, the art director. You could call the director who shot the commercial, but I think he’s dead.
Are you planning to sit down and watch the finale now that you know you’re in some way tied to it?
I guess we will some evening, sure, probably.
Mad Men portrays Don’s epiphany as a classic light-bulb moment—there’s even a zen little “ding” when he comes up with the idea. Is that what it was like for you?
Correction, May 19, 2015: This post orirginally quoted Backer as saying “buy the world a coke and furnish it with love.” The correct lyric is “buy the world a home.”