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The Yalie who taught the world to sing

Warning: this post contains spoilers for the final episode of Mad Men.

If you caught the series finale of the TV drama Mad Men, you saw how the life story of Don Draper—a self-made man who put himself through night school and became a wealthy advertising executive—culminated in a near-breakdown followed by a Madison Avenue approximation of enlightenment. Meditating, cross-legged, high above the ocean at Big Sur, he seems to find both inner peace and the idea for one of the most memorable commercials in advertising history: Coca-Cola’s 1971 “I'd like to teach the world to sing” spot, sung by a multicultural chorus on a hillside in Italy.

The commercial is real, but the origin story, of course, is not. The man credited with the campaign is actually Yale grad Bill Backer ’50, who was, like Don Draper, a creative director at the advertising agency McCann Erickson. But in an interview with Slate, Backer says the similarities ended there. “I didn’t spend as much time wining and dining clients and wives and ex wives as Don Draper does,” Backer says. “And neither did the other creative directors of my day. You’re too young to remember. But I definitely did not look like Don Draper or dress like Don Draper. Don is a martini-drinking suave character. Most of the creative directors had a little more ink stain on their hands. They did the actual writing and working. They were a different breed, I thought, than Don Draper.”

But if Backer—a product of a Virginia prep school, a World War II Navy vet, and a member of St. Anthony Hall and the Yale Record staff—has little in common with Don Draper, he does have a colorful story about how the Coke commercial came about. As he told Slate:

See, my moment came out of truth and emergency. I had to come up with a commercial, we were getting sent to record in London and were stuck in an airport in Ireland.

I had a studio rented and paid for, lots of actors and producers. I looked around people were sitting there together having a coke. So I wrote that on the back of a napkin: “I’ve got to teach the world to sing. I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.” That’s what the product was doing at the time. It just felt like I heard a voice from somewhere saying, “I’d like to be able to do this for the whole world.”

The Mad Men finale left viewers to argue about whether it was a happy ending (Don finds peace after years of troubled, self-destructive behavior) or a cynical one (Don dabbles just enough in the counterculture to learn how to exploit it). But Backer’s feelings about the commercial are not all that complicated. “If I may say so myself, it’s a wonderful song that became a hit all over the world, and it all came together in that commercial,” he told Slate. “It’s not phony. The product itself is a product that brings people together.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Mad Men, advertising, Class of 1950
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