Last week, legendary ad man Bill Backer passed away at the age of 89 in Virginia. Backer was the creative director at advertising agency McCann Erickson for over twenty years, from 1953 to 1979. Backer was known for his ability to go beyond product-touting to connecting brands with real human emotions.
Backer served on several accounts while at McCann, but he was perhaps best known for the famous Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial. Considered one of the best ads in history, it was first released as a radio ad and following its success, McCann produced the hilltop creative in 1971.
Recently thrust back into the limelight, “Hilltop” was featured prominently in the series finale of AMC’s “Mad Man.” In the final scene, Don Draper is inspired to create the commercial after a meditation retreat on top of cliffs overlooking the ocean.
In real life, Atlanta-born Backer was inspired after being stranded at an Irish airport. After seeing a group of his fellow travelers of all different nationalities sharing stories around bottles of coke, he jotted down on an envelope, “I’ve got to teach the world to sing. I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,” laying the foundation for the now-iconic radio jingle.
The jingle became so popular that radio DJs began receiving requests to play the jingle – the original audio of the commercial hit number 13 on the charts. After seeing the success of the single, Coca-Cola and Backer had the New Seekers record the song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” which peaked the Billboard Hot 100 at number seven.
Following the success of the radio ad, Coke and Backer set out to create a TV commercial. After two failed attempts to shoot the spot, one over the cliffs of Dover in the UK and one in Rome, the crew finally saw success with the third shoot and after $250,000 in production costs, a huge number at the time.
Bill Backer went on to co-found his own agency, Backer & Spielvogel in 1979, which was eventually bought by Saatchi & Saatchi in 1986. After four decades in the advertising realm, Backer retired to Virginia served as president of the Piedmont Foundation, which manages funds for environmental efforts.