In 1962, Bill Backer, a young advertising executive with McCann Erickson, heard Freddy Cannon sing “Palisades Park” and noted how the lyrics celebrated the simple joy of eating a hot dog at an amusement park. Backer – who penned some of the most memorable jingles and taglines of all time during his storied career, including “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” “Tastes Great, Less Filling” for Miller Beer, and “Soup is Good Food” for Campbell’s Soup – had been recruited back to McCann from Young and Rubicam to work on the National Biscuit account and another “problem” account – Coca-Cola.
The Advertising Hall of Famer believed Things Go Better with Coke was more than a slogan. It could be a complete campaign, he thought. The phrase was a simple statement and promise of what the product could do: hamburgers, studying, life – and even love – could all go better with Coke. Backer wrote the initial jingle and had the folk music group The Limelighters record it as a demo at a rundown recording studio in an apartment on 57th street in New York. The acoustics were awful, and several flaws could be heard in the recording.
It’s humorous to think of Coca-Cola, one of the world’s greatest advertising companies, running a jingle for six years that was the spliced-together remains of just a few takes. But, the ad slogan was introduced in 1963 and in the end, Backer was correct: the ad had that certain “it” factor and remains one of the most popular jingles Coke has ever produced.
You might be wondering what Freddy Cannon and Palisades Park have to do with the story. When Backer heard the song, he thought that if hot dogs could have a place in a popular song, why not Coca-Cola? And if Coke could be in a pop song, could a jingle be made to sound like a pop song?
With this in mind, he worked to convince Coca-Cola advertising executive Delony Sledge to allow him to let popular musicians record the jingle referencing Coca-Cola in the same way Cannon sung about hot dogs and Ferris wheels.
Sledge headed the advertising department for The Coca-Cola Company and was a bit of a throwback. Backer described him as a “print guy” who knew good copy but was not as comfortable with radio or television. He had tremendous feel for how Coca-Cola should be advertised and depicted, however.
Aretha Franklin was among the stars who 'Swang the Jingle' with Coca-Cola.
By 1965, Backer had convinced Sledge that radio offered a tremendous new way to reach the youth audience… and the campaign was set. When it was time to record the ads, Backer wanted to break out of the jingle mold.
He told the performers they would not be recording songs for a record, not a jingle.
“The ads were popular because they did sound like the records,” Backer told me. “They didn't sound like jingles. We were doing many songs that were 60, 30 and 90 seconds. And they came out and we produced them exactly like the recordings were being done. We used a lot of the same musicians and arrangers, and the same studios. So it wasn't like Madison Avenue jingle house music, and they loved the idea of it.”
Backer had the acts perform up to 15 versions of each song, explaining that most records had at least 15 songs but might only produce one hit.
On March 15, 1965, a special announcement was sent to Coca-Cola bottlers letting them know that the company was embarking on a new way of advertising on radio. The days of the traditional jingle were over. The first flight of ads featured The Four Seasons, Jan and Dean, The Shirelles and John Bubbles.
Artists composed and recorded songs in their own styles. Stars were asked to incorporate the Things Go Better with Coke slogan into a song, which was generally inspired by one of their big hits. All of the songs sounded like music any teen would have heard on the radio; the Jan and Dean version segued into a modified version of “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” which hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts only a few months before the release of the ad.
The campaign was an immediate success. The ads featuring the Shirelles and John Bubbles cracked the Top 40 on an Augusta, Ga. radio station, and DJs across the country received listener requests to play the Coca-Cola commercials. “Swing the Jingle” records were produced and distributed by Coca-Cola bottlers.
New groups were quickly added, including Roy Orbison, Tom Jones, Wayne Fontanta and the Mindbenders, Petula Clark, The Coasters, and The Supremes.
Additions to the roster continued in 1966 as the format gained momentum. Backer recalled the contribution of one of his favorite performers. “Ray Charles wrote the one that he did,” he said. In between the crying and the heartaches, in between the sad songs that I sing all night long, I'm so glad to leave the show, have a Coke don't you know, it makes me feel better before the next show goes on.’ That's perfectly natural, nothing forced, you know.”
The Ray Charles ad won the 1966 Golden Spike Award by the Hollywood Radio and Television Society for the best 60-second radio spot.
By 1968, with the campaign in full swing, Backer recruited Billy Davis to serve as the musical director at McCann Erickson. A Detroit native, he was active in the Motown scene from the beginning. Davis and Berry Gordy wrote many of Jackie Wilson’s early hits, and Davis later headed up the A&R section at Chess Records, where he wrote and produced for a number of acts, including Etta James and Fontella Bass, whose song, “Rescue Me” was his biggest pop hit at the time.
The two men produced some of the most amazing commercials ever done by Coca-Cola. The Supremes and Charles were just the first of the musical acts to be signed. Once the campaign began, musicians approached McCann because they wanted to be included in this new form of advertising. They were also interested in the guaranteed airtime that came with producing a good “pop” format commercial.
More than 100 musicians from around the world eventually recorded their version of the jingle.
James Brown recorded a pop format jingle for the It's the Real Thing campaign.
One of the most interesting pairings was when Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles recorded as a duet. The version of the song they performed was written by another well-known singer: Neil Diamond.
The concept of the popular song ad spread to Coca-Cola offices around the world. Spots were created using local artists including The Four Leaves in Japan, The Fortunes in Germany, and La Joven Guardia in Argentina, among others. The Who recorded an extended version of the song that was used as the backing track for a TV commercial filmed in the famed Biba’s Boutique on London’s Kensington Church Street. The band used a variation of the ad as bumper music on their album, The Who Sell Out. In fact, if you listen all the way through the song "Glittering Girl," the last 20 seconds feature a version of the radio ad.
The musical expression of radio ads hit its zenith in the early 1970s, as “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” by The New Seekers (1971) and Country Sunshine by Dottie West (1973) became hits on popular radio. However by the mid-1970s, Coca-Cola was moving away from the format as slogans changed to Coke Adds Life and Have a Coke and a Smile. While popular recording artists were still occasionally used in ads, they were no longer part of a concentrated campaign.
Was the new format a success? Documentation from the time reveals a resounding “yes.” A 1968 radio industry publication cited a 40 percent increase in awareness of Coca-Cola among teens and noted that the Coca-Cola ads regularly hit the top 40 request list of most stations. Hundreds of thousands of promotional records were distributed via radio contests and remain popular collectors’ items today.
Perhaps the most telling sign of success is that Backer and Davis said popular artists were approaching Coca-Cola to record their versions of the song – a sign that the brand had become relevant with kids again.
And the concept lives on. The program inspired Coke’s current "52 Songs of Happiness” project, which invites unsigned artists to write and contribute tracks based on the theme of discovering and sharing music in their favorite places as part of the Coca-Cola Placelists social music app powered by Spotify.
"We wanted to refresh the concept from the ‘60s and ‘70s for today,” explains Joe Belliotti, director of entertainment marketing at Coca-Cola.
Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company.
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