Hilltop commercial has always been one of my favourites.

It was released 40 years ago in the summer of 1971 and was an instant hit in the US. Now, it’s remembered as one of Coca-Cola’s best-loved adverts and was ranked by ITV as one of the top 10 ads of all time.

A few years ago, I interviewed Bill Backer, who worked on the Coca-Cola account at advertising agency McCann Erickson (now McCann), when the Hilltop ad was made. He told me that Coca-Cola Europe originally rejected it for being ‘too American.’

Heavy fog + redirected plane = unlikely inspiration

Our story begins, as all good English tales should, with heavy fog in London. In January 1971, Bill was flying from New York to London, when his flight had to be diverted to Shannon in Ireland.

Bill told me that hotel rooms were scarce, so rerouted travellers had to share accommodation rooms or sleep at the airport. Many passengers were upset and frustrated, which led to a few raised voices. Bill saw some of the most vocal passengers from the night before laughing and sharing stories with their new friends over bottles of Cokes. He saw the bottle of Coke as a small moment of pleasure that allowed people to share happiness. Motivated by the scene, he picked up a napkin and wrote the line: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

Bill eventually made it to London where he met songwriters Billy Davis and Roger Cook in Suite 610 of the Savoy Hotel. He shared the line he had written on the napkin with them, and the team spent most of the night working on the song. They presented it the following afternoon to David Mackay, the musical arranger for folk group The New Seekers.

Film reel canister containing the classic 'I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke' commercial in 1971.

The group were asked to record ‘Buy the World a Coke’ as part of a series of commercials for The Coca-Cola Company. The recording sessions were held at Trident Studios in Soho, London (where The Beatles, Elton John and Queen have also recorded). It took several tries for the band to get the feeling just right.

The song was released to American radio stations on 12 February, but listeners did not have an overwhelmingly positive reaction and it seemed the song was destined to fail.

The ‘Hilltop’ advert is born

Bill Backer wanted to give the song a second chance and asked around the agency for a way to illustrate it on TV. Harvey Gabor, the art director at McCann Erickson, proposed that the song represented a ‘united world chorus’ and that it should be filmed with a large group of young people on the cliffs of Dover. The Coca-Cola Company approved the concept (and one of the biggest advertising budgets of the time).

Harvey Gabor directing the 'Hilltop' shoot in Rome, 1971.

Triumph against adversity

Casting went ahead and the scenes were due to be filmed in Dover on 8 April. Then it started to rain, and rain, and…. After three days of cancelled shoots, McCann decided to abandon the white cliffs of Dover for a hilltop in Italy.

But the setbacks didn’t end there. The advert’s female lead singer eloped during the production in Italy and had to be replaced. The advertising and casting agencies were looking for a new lead when they spotted British nanny Linda Neary pushing a stroller in Piazza Navona. She took some convincing but eventually the lead was cast.

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 US in July 1971 and immediately struck a 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

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 in 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 a top ten music chart hit, followed by the Hillside Singers’ version at number 13 in the pop charts.

‘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. Thirty years after Bill Backer was stranded by fog, Coca-Cola is still more than a drink. It is a common connection between the people of the world.

The next time I’m in London, I plan a pilgrimage to the Savoy Hotel and Trident Studios. So, if you see an American tourist looking wistfully at one of these buildings, offer him a Coke!