Behind a ’71 Coke Jingle, a Man Who Wasn’t Mad

19 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Behind a ’71 Coke Jingle, a Man Who Wasn’t Mad.

Mad Men fans have made much of the show’s final moments on Sunday night, with many agreeing that Don Draper had a moment of meditative clarity that led to the iconic Coca-Cola jingle “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” Jon Hamm weighed in on his character Monday in an interview with the New York Times, and it sounds like he agrees with that interpretation. that, with TV product placement that was not only choice but also reportedly free, the series finale of AMC’s “Mad Men” Sunday night returned the work of century-old ad agency McCann Erickson to pop culture’s center spotlight.He has been Don Draper, the singularly suave advertising executive of the 1960s (and early 1970s), whose cool and in-control exterior hid an insecure man unsure of his place in a rapidly changing world. Though the writers of “Mad Men” didn’t make it explicit, there was a strong suggestion that Don, whose days as a creative advertising genius seemed far behind him, got the idea from a spiritual retreat in California. When [thar be spoilers] our reeling alpha-male Don Draper/Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm) is ditched at an Esalen-like California retreat, left to chant in his khakis as the bell of mindfulness gives way to a wide, satisfied smile, we are fairly led to believe that this fictional McCann ad-man has just hit upon the idea for what, back in the real world, became one of the most iconic TV spots, and culturally resonant sales-jingle-to-hit-single tunes, in advertising history.

And he has been Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute mother and an alcoholic father, who saw a chance to create a new life for himself by stealing the identity of another man he accidentally killed in the Korean War. But I think, like most stories that we go back to, that it’s a little bit ambiguous.” In his interpretation, Hamm says Don wakes up the day after his emotional group therapy session and “has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is.

The show’s ending thrust back into the limelight the actual creator of the ad, Bill Backer, one-time creative director on the Coca-Cola account for McCann Erickson (which happens to be the ad giant that bought Mr. Don’s creative spark for the Coke ad seemed to derive from finding inner peace at a Big Sur retreat, but Backer’s real-life inspiration came from watching stranded airline passengers bond over bottles of Coca-Cola. My friend and fellow critic Todd VanDerWerff theorized that the series might end with this spot last week, so it was already on my mind when I watched “Person to Person.” But even though he predicted the spot would close out the show, the how of it still completely surprised me.

The “Hilltop” spot, featuring hundreds of young hires on a verdant Italian slope, spoke to a Vietnam era in search of something — love and peace, or wake-of-Woodstock community, perhaps even hopeful person-to-person connection — after a decade of turmoil and violence, of assassinations and persistent Cold War threats. Don closes his eyes to engage in some hippie meditation yoinked from a third-world religion, allowing a soft, almost imperceptible smile to cross his face. And by capping his series with that one commercial, “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner evoked, aside from character narrative, the sense of transition as cultural transaction, as Madison Avenue caught up with the shifting mood of much of a nation. He also pointed out, contrary to some of the episode’s critics, that the happy endings for certain characters shouldn’t be interpreted as sappy: “No one is suggesting that Stan and Peggy live happily ever after,” he said, “or that Joan’s business is a rousing success, or that Roger and Marie come back from Paris together … these aren’t the last moments of any of these characters’ lives.”

For me, though, the ad also reflected what how much success Coca-Cola, as represented by McCann, had already had in the ’60s — as the business of peddling pop tapped into pop culture. With a final ding, the screen cut to the 1971 Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial — a sign that, depending on how you read it, either Draper had found the enlightenment this famous ad was trying to commodify, or was responsible for creating the ad himself. Now, it’s worth noting that ever since its 1912 inception, McCann (which two decades later would merge with Erickson) had a particular appreciation of cartoon art. Or maybe, when he finishes, he gets up to spend another day living a new, possibly purer life, as neither Don Draper nor Dick Whitman but whatever he is that is underneath both of those costumes. But he said that if he had actually followed Don Draper’s lifestyle—which he described as “bedding a different girl every night”—he wouldn’t have had time to make ads.

Nast Jr. was also a gifted illustrator, and at the firm’s launch, he designed the logo for what’s hailed as the world’s first advertising trademark: “Truth Told Well.” For at least a decade, the agency also employed a young Theodor Seuss Geisel, who honed his distinctive character types and animal drawings for such clients as Ford and Flit, GE and NBC, Schaefer Beer and Standard Oil — before he fully embarked on his career as children’s author “Dr. Those last few moments of the episode, and that transition from Draper’s bliss to the Coke commercial, has raised many questions about what it means.

Neither path feels particularly triumphant—each is its own kind of pathetic failure—but we, the audience, do get our pick. “Mad Men’s” finale borrowed a lot of pages straight from “The Sopranos” playbook: Ambiguity, a ritualistic bell, a seemingly tangential set of adventures, and did I mention ambiguity? I didn’t expect much better from the finale (nor do I expect a ton from any finale, really) but closure, whatever that might look like, was not really on the table for Don Draper.

Mendelson, a lifelong San Franciscan, had won a Peabody Award for a documentary on his native city’s history, which led him to make a much-lauded early-’60s TV documentary about future Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Don’s in Big Sur to find himself, but he got there because that’s where Stephanie was going, not because he intended to go himself. (Remember Stephanie? She’s Anna Draper’s niece in California who went all-out hippie, and we haven’t seen her since she showed up pregnant at Megan’s house in the canyons. Backer saw passengers exchanging stories and getting along while sharing Cokes, a scene of multi-cultural harmony that inspired the ad, according to an account on Coca-Cola’s website.

Mendelson’s dozens of animated specials with Schulz and Melendez have attracted generations of fans — ahead of the first “Peanuts” feature film (due out in November). She’s about as messed up as she was then, but in a different way.) He finally finds out that Betty is dying, only to discover that none of them—Betty, Sally, Bobby, Gene—want him around for the inevitable denouement of lung cancer. That wasn’t the last time Mendelson and his production company would work with the agency, whose creative director was Neil Reagan — brother of the future president. “A year later, we called McCann and Coca-Cola again and said we had the rights to do John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley,’ starring Henry Fonda,” Mendelson remembers. “They sponsored that as well, and it got an Emmy nomination.

So as the world was buying Coke, the soft-drink firm was also buying in to the worlds of others — sponsoring creative content that helped define the culture. The inclusion of the so-called Hilltop commercial — which features a multicultural cast singing on a hillside — had some wondering if “Mad Men” had simply been one long advertisement.

Joan starts her own business, at the expense of her relationship; Peggy starts a lifelong relationship, at the expense of becoming a partner in that business. KO -0.48 % said the company didn’t pay for the ad, though it did give the show permission to use it. “We’ve had limited awareness around the brand’s role in the series’ final episodes, and what a rich story they decided to tell,” Coca-Cola said.

When we find Don in that place, and this stranger relates this story of not being heard or seen or understood or appreciated, the resonance for Don was total in that moment. These days, the company’s chief executive describes the macroeconomic climate as challenging, with weak sales in Europe, China, Mexico and other foreign markets partly to blame for 2014 results that missed annual profit targets for the first time in several years. We see him in an incredibly vulnerable place, surrounded by strangers, and he reaches out to the only person he can at that moment, and it’s this stranger. The grand expectations of the ‘60s give way to the disillusioned cynicism of the ‘70s—Charles Manson has people scared of hitchhikers, smoking can kill you, and the American-made car on the salt flats?

Was it odd to be shooting these scenes away from your co-stars January Jones, Kiernan Shipka and Elisabeth Moss, and disconnected from the cast members you’d worked with for so long? And the guy whose job it is to sell us the machine—to convince us that it’s fulfilling our dreams, even when we can see it’s falling apart—he’s not doing a very good job of convincing himself, let alone the rest of us. To be set adrift for the last few weeks, really experiencing that aloneness, that self-exile that Don was experiencing, it was very disorienting, which hopefully played. So he’s responding by drinking the Kool-Aid of the upcoming era—chanting oms, of all things, like he has any comprehension of the Hindu ideal of all-encompassing, divine peace. There’s also a part of me that doesn’t believe it could be that simple—surely “Mad Men” is not so naive as to be wholly credulous of the hippie, New Age spin on Eastern philosophy, even if Don Draper might be?

Weiner had used, called the ending “a love letter for a brand.” (Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” got a similar jolt of attention after it was featured in the final seconds of “The Sopranos” in 2007.) Coca-Cola is not planning to run the Hilltop ad as a paid, stand-alone commercial in the near future, Ms. It’s also a book that articulates the really awful truths underpinning “Mad Men.” Don Draper didn’t write that advertisement because someone named Bob Backer did; Don didn’t believe in his meditation at Big Sur because, among other things, he never existed. Everybody picks up and thinks, oh, that’s too bad — that guy had a nervous breakdown. [With January Jones and Kiernan Shipka], we shot those on set. So you can actually have the person sitting right off camera, reading the lines to you. [For Elisabeth Moss], we were three and a half hours up the [California] coast, on the edge of a cliff.

But that’s just because we’ve all learned our lessons too well—if there is something true or pure or beautiful in the world, then someone has made it into an advertisement to sell a product. Above all, he remembered feeling pressure to come up with ideas for ads. “We had to have some material,” he said. “I wanted to keep my job.” The next day, Mr. Disappointed for this narrative of settling for the modern world—which, along with its many perks, like lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy, comes with a horrifying feeling of emptiness from time to time, as we all seem to strive to live an existence that is not great or searing but just OK, just fine, just good enough to get by.

I’m sure there are other takes of that scene where I’m much more emotional, and Matthew chose to use the ones that are a little more confused and restrained. Most of us in the first world don’t go to bed hungry anymore—but as Peggy observed to the Burger Chef executives, “You’re starving, and not just for dinner.” Don and Peggy and Joan and Sally can’t really flame out beautifully in “Mad Men” because they are modeled to be people just like we are people, and yes, it is disappointing.

I liked the misdirection of Joan striking off on her own and inviting Peggy to come along and Peggy having the confidence to say, “That’s what you want to do, not what I want to do.” Selfishly, I think if she took anything away from being mentored by my character, it was that — her confidence in her ability to say, “There’s something better out there for me, and I’m going to stick it out here and try to find it.” The romantic stuff with Stan is nice and warm and fuzzy, but to me, Peggy’s larger resolution was in the penultimate episode when she walks into McCann, the cock of the walk, and takes what’s hers. The almost-nameless man in group therapy who starts sobbing while articulating the awful loneliness inside of him describes his life as a failed attempt to feel love: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it. We have also settled for our fantasies to be nothing more than fantasies, for our fondest hopes to be merely strings within us that can be tugged by TV writers and corporate advertisers. You said on Sunday, at a Television Academy event, that after “Mad Men” and after Don Draper, you will “fade into nothingness and no one will remember me.” Do you really think that? [chuckles knowingly] I think every actor thinks that when they end a job.

Is my melancholy seeping through enough? [laughs] In a much more healthy sense, we all put this show to bed quite some time ago, and said our goodbyes and cried our tears.

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