In the early-1960s, some of the biggest names in pop music at the time recorded and released versions of the Things Go Better with Coke jingle– it was an ahead-of-its-time, radio campaign that delighted music fans and transformed a popular slogan into a series of hit songs.
In 1962, the late Bill Backer, then a rising advertising executive with McCann Erickson, heard Freddy Cannon’s hit song “Palisades Park” and noticed the chorus was essentially a celebration of the simple joy that is eating a hot dog at an amusement park. Backer — who would go on to devise some of the most memorable jingles and slogans of all time during his storied career, including “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” Miller Beer’s “Tastes Great, Less Filling”, and Campbell’s Soup’s “Soup is Good Food” — had been recruited back to McCann from Young and Rubicam to assist with two of their “problem” accounts— Nabisco and Coca-Cola.
The Advertising Hall of Famer was convinced Things Go Better with Coke was more than a mere slogan but rather could be a campaign all to itself. The phrase was a simple promise of what the product could do: hamburgers, studying, life – and even love – could all go better with Coke. Backer penned the initial jingle then had the folk music group The Limelighters record it as a demo at a shabby makeshift recording studio on 57th street in New York City. The acoustics were simply terrible leading to several audible defects that carried on throughout the recording.
Today it’s almost comical to think that Coca-Cola, home to some of the most memorable advertisements in history, ran a jingle for over six years that was nothing more than the spliced-together remains of a handful of takes. But, the slogan was introduced in 1963 and in the end, Backer was correct: the ad had that “it” factor and remains one of the most popular jingles Coke has ever produced.
So what does Freddy Cannon and Palisades Park have to do with the story? The song made Backer think, if a song featuring eating hot dogs could climb the charts, why not Coca-Cola?
With this in mind, he worked to convince Coca-Cola advertising executive Delony Sledge to allow him to let popular musicians record the jingle referencing Coca-Cola in the same way Cannon sung about hot dogs and Ferris wheels.
Sledge was head of the advertising department for The Coca-Cola Company and was known to be a little old-fashioned. He had tremendous feel for how Coca-Cola should be advertised and depicted, however he was completely uncomfortable with the radio or television medium.
Aretha Franklin was among the stars who 'Swang the Jingle' with Coca-Cola.
By 1965, Sledge had been convinced by Backer that radio offered an incredible new way to reach the youth audience and so the campaign was set. When it was time to record the ads, Backer wanted to break out of the jingle mold.
He told the performers they would be recording songs for a record, not a jingle.
“The ads were popular because they did sound like the records,” Backer told me. “They didn't sound like jingles. We were doing many songs that were 60, 30 and 90 seconds. And they came out and we produced them exactly like the recordings were being done. We used a lot of the same musicians and arrangers, and the same studios. So it wasn't like Madison Avenue jingle house music, and they loved the idea of it.”
The artists were asked to produce up to 15 versions of each song, which Backer explained was necessary as most records had at least 15 songs, only one of which might become a success.
On March 15, 1965, a special announcement was sent to Coca-Cola bottlers letting them know that the company was embarking on a new way of advertising on radio. The days of the traditional jingle were over as the first batch of ads featuring The Four Seasons, Jan and Dean, The Shirelles and John Bubbles were broadcast.
Participating artists would go out, compose and record songs in their own styles. Using one of their big hits as an inspiration generally, stars would be asked to try and feature the Things Go Better with Coke slogan in the tune. By following this formula, the songs produced sounded very much like any of the pop music teens would have encountered on their radios; one example was the Jan and Dean track which led into a modified version of “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” which had just leapt up to No. 3 on the Billboard charts a few months earlier.
The campaign was a runaway success. Ads featuring the Shirelles and John Bubbles even managed to crack the Top 40 on an Augusta, Georgia radio station, and DJs across the country were inundated with listener requests to play the Coca-Cola commercials. “Swing the Jingle” records, as they came to be known, were produced and distributed by Coca-Cola bottlers.
Additional names were quickly added to the roster, including Roy Orbison, Tom Jones, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Petula Clark, The Coasters, and The Supremes.
The lineup of artists grew again in 1966 as the format continued to build momentum. Backer remembered the song produced by one of his favourite performers. “Ray Charles wrote the one that he did,” he said. In between the crying and the heartaches, in between the sad songs that I sing all night long, I'm so glad to leave the show, have a Coke don't you know, it makes me feel better before the next show goes on.’ That's perfectly natural, nothing forced, you know.”
The Ray Charles ad won the 1966 Golden Spike Award by the Hollywood Radio and Television Society for the best 60-second radio spot.
By 1968, with the campaign in full swing, Backer recruited Billy Davis to serve as the musical director at McCann Erickson. A Detroit native, he was active in the Motown scene from the beginning. Davis and Berry Gordy wrote many of Jackie Wilson’s early hits, and Davis later headed up the A&R section at Chess Records, where he wrote and produced for a number of acts, including Etta James and Fontella Bass, whose song, “Rescue Me” was his biggest pop hit at the time.
Together the two men produced some of the most astounding commercials ever done by Coca-Cola. The Supremes and Ray Charles were amongst the first of the musical acts to be signed. Once the campaign was in full force, musicians even began to approach Backer’s team at McCann. In addition to being amongst the first in a revolutionary new form of advertising, the artists were also very interested in the amount of airtime that producing a successful “pop” commercial might guarantee.
James Brown recorded a pop format jingle for the It's the Real Thing campaign.
Perhaps the most interesting duet was when Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles came in to record a song together. Interestingly the version of the jingle they performed was written by another well-known singer: Neil Diamond.
The campaign was such a success that the concept eventually spread to Coca-Cola offices around the globe. Ads were produced using local pop artists including The Four Leaves in Japan, The Fortunes in Germany, and La Joven Guardia in Argentina, among others. One of the most exciting international acts to participate was The Who, they recorded an extended version of the song that was used for a TV commercial filmed in the famed Biba’s Boutique on London’s Kensington Church Street. The band used a variation of the ad as bumper music on their album, The Who Sell Out. In fact, if you listen all the way through the song "Glittering Girl," the last 20 seconds feature a version of the radio ad.
The pop format of radio ads peaked in the early 1970s, with “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” by The New Seekers (1971) and “Country Sunshine” by Dottie West (1973) which became hits on popular radio. By the mid-1970s however Coca-Cola was moving away from the format as slogans changed to Coke Adds Life and Have a Coke and a Smile. Although pop artists were still featured in ads from time to time, they were no longer the main focus of a campaign.
Was the new format a success? Documentation from the time reveals a resounding “yes.” A 1968 radio industry publication cited a 40 percent increase in awareness of Coca-Cola among teens and noted that the Coca-Cola ads regularly hit the top 40 request list of most stations. Hundreds of thousands of promotional records were distributed via radio contests and remain popular collectors’ items today.
Perhaps the most telling sign of success is that Backer and Davis said popular artists were approaching Coca-Cola to record their versions of the song – a sign that the brand had become relevant with kids again.
Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company.