"Mean Joe" Greene is returning to television tonight as Coca-Cola resurrects the 1979 ad featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers' former defensive tackle shedding his tough-guy vibe—all thanks to a kid and, of course, a Coke.
Arguably one of the most iconic commercials, the 60-second spot will air during the Nascar Darlington Southern 500 race in South Carolina.
Greene, a Hall of Famer and four-time Super Bowl champion, is shown in the ad limping back to the locker room after a game, when a young boy stops him and offers him a Coke. He first declines, then accepts the kid's offer and drinks it in a single gulp. He and the kid then turn away and walk in separate directions before Greene has a change of heart and throws the kid his jersey.
Talking with Adweek by phone from his home, Greene said he knew right away the ad was good but had no idea it would take on "a life of its own." Greene said his fame from the ad has, in some circles, even surpassed his fame from the football field. The spot also proved to many fans that he could actually be a really nice guy.
"Prior to the commercial I was known as a mean guy. Not just 'Mean Joe,' but as a mean guy," he said. "But afterward, I remember prior to a ball game, leaving a hotel on a road trip, a little kid came up to me and asked for an autograph. I tend not to give autographs, and I kind of snarled at him, and he just looked at me and smiled and said, "That's 'Mean Joe.'"
The ad—which first ran during the 1979 Major League Baseball playoffs and later during Super Bowl XIV—is yet another example of Coca-Cola's use of iconic advertisements in contextually relevant ways. Three decades later, that portrayal of an athlete connecting with a kid is still considered to be one of the most memorable moments in a TV commercial. And its concept has been replicated around the world in ads featuring various countries' own star athletes and fans.
"I have been told over the years that it was a pivotal point in bringing black athletes to the national forum," Greene added. "I wasn't aware of it, but I guess people in the business have said that, and if that's so, I think that's a good thing."
The ad ended up winning two Clio Awards in 1980, but because of scheduling conflicts, neither Greene nor the kid, Tommy Okon, were able to attend. Then in 2008, during a conversation with Coca-Cola about the ad, Greene mentioned he and Okon never did receive their award. A year later, Coca-Cola and Clio organizers worked together to present Greene and Okon their award at a Steelers game. (Adweek and the Clio Awards are both owned by affiliates of Mediabistro Holdings LLC.)
"I've been truly blessed to be a part of it," Greene said of the ad. "It's a good thing; it's not aggressive. I wouldn't say it's passive, but it's a conversation between a kid and and adult, a black man and a white kid during that time. It wasn't really about either of us, but about the product, and we just happened to be talking about it."