Social decades tend not to align perfectly with calendar decades. The social upheavals of the Revolutionary ’60s continued well into the Me Decade ’70s, for example. The chasm dividing the counter culture and the establishment, or the left and right as we would label that battle today, remained enormous. A beleaguered president sulked in the Oval Office and an inexplicable and seemingly endless war waged overseas; environmental concerns, economic uncertainty, global trade issues, and social change threatened the status quo. Don’t let the date fool you: 1969 didn’t mark the end of the ’60s.
And it wasn’t just academic: Those rifts were still spilling over into the streets. I can still picture vividly a huge fight between hippies and straights, fists and long hair flying while I watched from the safety of our family station wagon. I couldn’t have been more than four years old.
Those rifts spilled over into quiet homes in suburban neighborhoods, too. My mother was only in her twenties when the ’60s overlapped with the ’70s. If she had been made of different stuff she would have fit right in age-wise with the second wave feminists, but much like decades social generations tend not to align perfectly with chronological demarcations. “The women’s libbers say I should be free to be whatever I want, but when I tell them I just want to be a wife and mother they tell me I’m wrong. It makes me so sad,” she’d say.
The chronological ’60s were over, but the tribalism and divisiveness of the era persisted.
Enter Bill Backer, an advertising executive at McCann Erickson. The story goes that Backer and some other McCann suits were trapped in an Irish airport courtesy of an unplanned layover. The McMann men sipped Coke, which was one of their big accounts, while fellow passengers raged about the delay. “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” Backer scribbled on a cocktail napkin, and the rest is advertising history:
Coke’s “Hilltop” commercial, or “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing,” may have as its origin a bunch of tired, grouchy travelers, but the spot’s message captured the zeitgeist. All of the hostility and tribalism, the fights and protests, the families splintered by opposing worldviews–what if we could make it all go away with a Coke and a song? Maybe my mother could offer those feminists a refreshing Coke and everything would be okay. Maybe I could jump out of the station wagon and into the melee with a six-pack of cola in my tiny hand and stop the fighting.
More socially conscious advertising followed, from Iron Eyes Cody tearing up at the sight of litter to Woodsy Owl imploring us to help keep America looking good, but Coke’s Hilltop ad was the stickiest of the bunch. The song had a lot to do with that, of course–the New Seekers’ version alone sold 12 million copies–but I suspect that something more was at work. In the wake of the Hilltop ad, holding a Coke bottle in public was a bit like sporting an ideological sandwich board. In other words, identifying oneself as a Coke drinker was to identify oneself as a person who would “like to build the world a home and furnish it with love.” That had to feel good.
The Hilltop ad didn’t market a product. At no point during the commercial was reference made to Coke’s virtues. The soda wasn’t delicious, good for you, refreshing, a great deal, or a quick pick me up. What was being marketed were the virtues of Coke drinkers, those caring people who want to bring the world together rather than divide it. To buy Coke was to purchase an identity, or at the very least to signal to others what you stood for.
Coke was neither the first nor the only company to focus on branding. Companies who deal in vice have long sold their products as identities. While the Hilltop ad was running, Virginia Slims reminded the women who smoked them that they had “come a long way, baby.” Marlboro sold their cancer sticks while mounted on horseback: Shove one of these between your yellowed lips and you aren’t a chain smoker. You’re a rugged individualist.
Beer companies took branding to cartoony heights during the ’80s and ’90s, creating a neon universe where beer-gutted swill drinkers were the kinds of guys with whom men wanted to party and women wanted to sleep. Other companies during the era identified one as socially conscious (Benetton), motivated (Nike), or cool and/or wealthy (pretty much everything else). For the most part, that’s where we remained for the next 30 years. Sure, a few companies aligned themselves with principles, but most kept it vapid. “Buy our product and you’ll be this kind of person” translated to “you’ll be desirable in some shallow way.”
Forty-six years after Coke’s Hilltop ad, the U.S. finds itself back in familiar territory: a beleaguered president sulks in the Oval Office and an inexplicable and seemingly endless war wages overseas; environmental concerns, economic uncertainty, global trade issues, and social change threaten the status quo. As was true 50 years ago, these issues have divided us in a way that feels “like never before” to those not old enough to remember the last go ’round.
In 2017 Coke’s arch rival, Pepsi, saw an opportunity to recapture that “I’d like to teach the world to sing” spirit with a Black Lives Matter inspired spot starring Kendall Jenner. Pepsi was trying to brand themselves as a company that cares, or more appropriately they were trying to brand Pepsi drinkers as people who care. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Drink Pepsi, Get Woke” was batted around during the commercial’s brainstorming session.
Backlash to the commercial was fast and severe. One side screamed their dissatisfaction that the soft drink manufacturer aligned itself with a movement they despised. The other hollered about the optics of a pampered reality show star diffusing a tense situation by cracking open a Pepsi. Meanwhile, the name Pepsi ping-ponged around social media, cable news, and talk radio for days. In terms of brand awareness, Pepsi experienced a tremendous windfall simply by trying to rebrand the Pepsi Generation not as a bunch of bikini clad party kids but rather socially active empaths, albeit filthy rich ones who have their own reality shows.
Pepsi’s Black Lives Matter inspired ad ushered in a new era of socially conscious branding, a trend that most recently saw Gillette redefine the meaning of their “best a man can get” slogan.
Like Coke’s Hilltop ad, the Gillette spot tells us nothing about the company’s products. One will not learn why their razor blades are superior or why their antiperspirant lasts longer, but that wasn’t the point. The commercial’s objective was simply to align Gillette with what I’m confident their market research showed was a popular social trend. I’m equally confident that the company realized that the backlash they’d receive would result in millions of dollars in free publicity. Both mass and social media took the bait, repeating the company’s name millions of times over the the ensuing week. Whether you were typing “I’ll never buy another Gillette product” or “It’s Gillette all the way for me now” across your social media networks, you were repeating the company’s name. I’ve repeated it multiple times in this little essay without any compensation. You’re welcome, Gillette.
There will be more socially conscious branding in the near future. Fleischmann’s Yeast will solve the Middle East, and Preparation H will teach us not to be assholes. Whether these campaigns are successful depends entirely upon how much buzz they generate, particularly on social media. Eventually we will weary of this style of marketing, and ad agencies will return to convincing us that being attractive, wealthy, and desirable means buying Smucker’s grape jelly.
Are you a sucker for loving or hating the messages conveyed by these attempts at socially conscious branding? Of course not. We believe what we believe, and we like what we like.
But you are a sucker if you fall into the trap of believing that you are what you buy just because you agree with a commercial. There are many companies out there who are genuinely interested in making the world a better place. They engage in fair trade and behave in an environmentally conscious manner. They quietly give back to their local communities, ensure that their hiring practices are fair, and compensate their employees well. If you really want to vote with your dollars, find those companies and do business with them. Everything else is just some ad agency’s feel good fiction of a brand identity. Razor blades and bubbly sugar water don’t change the world any more than cruddy beer makes you sexy.
Enough of that. Here’s what a 12 million seller sounds like: