One of the first e-mails I received this morning included a link to an obituary for Bill Backer. As I read the story, I was sad for his passing. I felt that one of my last links to an era of Coca-Cola advertising was gone. But I was also very appreciative of all that Mr. Backer (I never could get myself to call him “Bill”) taught me over the years.
I first met Backer and Billy Davis (music director for McCann) as I was writing the history of Coke’s iconic 1971 “Hilltop” ad for the Library of Congress as we prepared to donate all our advertising to that organization. Between my conversations with the two men, I felt that I earned a Master’s degree in advertising. They explained not only how the finished ads were produced, but also the “why” and the strategy behind them. Mixed in were a number of fascinating and often hilarious stories. I’ve worn out my copy of Backer’s book, The Care and Feeding of Ideas.
When Davis died in 2004, the first of my advertising mentors was gone, but I still kept in touch with Backer. I was fortunate when he agreed to let me conduct an oral history a few years later. I traveled to his farm in The Plains, Va., and we did a six-hour interview about his time in the advertising field and his work for both Coca-Cola and other advertisers. As we talked about the “Hilltop” commercial, Mr. Backer moved over to the piano and began to play the song and tell his stories. It was a moving moment, and I'm so happy we were able to catch it on film.
One of my favorite Backer stories was when he discussed Deloney Sledge, Coke’s longtime advertising head. Backer relayed the tale of showing Sledge a description of the taste of Coca-Cola that he had written. Backer chuckled and said that Sledge told him that many writers had tried to describe the taste and all had failed and that Bill would fail, too. He then quoted Sledge as saying, “It was best to know that it was the greatest taste ever invented by man… or God.” Then he walked out of the room.
I knew the punchline because Backer included it in his book, but to hear him tell me the story in the soft, Southern drawl he never lost was priceless.
The advertising industry lost one of its giants. The Coca-Cola Company lost one of its advertising leaders. And I feel like I’ve lost a friend and mentor.
Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company.
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