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Bill Backer at the keyboard.
THE REAL THING

The creator of the iconic “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad has died

By Steve Mollman

A legend of US advertising has passed away. Bill Backer died at the age of 89 at a hospital in Virginia last week.

Backer worked for decades at McCann Erickson before co-founding what became Backer Spielvogel Bates, which grew into an industry titan, and where he served as vice chairman and worldwide creative director.

Also a jingle writer, Backer was especially famous for an ad and song he helped create for Coca-Cola in the early 1970s. In it, a multicultural chorus atop a grassy hill sang, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.”

The ad went viral—1970s-style. It was shown across the world, and many who saw it can still recall singing the cheerful ditty years later (“that’s the real thing” was also in the lyrics).

In a retrospective on the famous campaign, Backer recalled the reaction it generated. “They said something like 700 letters, or a thousand letters, were dumped on the desk of the president [of Coca-Cola]… People like to be liked, and they were being liked. So we were all very excited.”

Backer was hardly a one-hit wonder. He helped come up with “Soup is good food” for Campbell and the long-running “Tastes great, less filling” campaign for Miller Lite, among many other hits.

But the Coke ad was one for the ages. It was featured in the finale of Mad Men, with Don Draper supposedly coming up with the idea.

One way the ad worked was by staying true to the product. As Backer told Slate last year:

“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… 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.”

Marketers today would do well to learn from his words.