Coke ‘Hilltop’ and the Tension That Leads to Powerful Advertising

Deutsch's Pete Favat picks his 3 favorite ads

Headshot of Tim Nudd

McCann-Erickson’s classic 1971 “Hilltop” spot for Coca-Cola became part of a new narrative two years ago today—on May 17, 2015—when Matthew Weiner memorably used it as a key plot point in wrapping up Mad Men.

But the ad’s nonfictional history is just as compelling, as Pete Favat reminds us in our latest “Best Ads Ever” video.

Deutsch’s North American chief creative officer puts “Hilltop” at the top of his list of favorite commercials, and for reasons that might not be immediately obvious to audiences today. Favat values tension in advertising, he told us—and while the tension surrounding “Hilltop” has faded with time, it was plenty potent in the moment.

“There’s a lot of things about that piece of communication that people don’t really understand,” Favat says. “It was a terrible time in culture. It was extremely negative. There was violence everywhere. And then this piece of film comes on TV. And basically it was a bunch of these kids singing on a hilltop about sharing a Coke.

“That one piece of advertising made the world stop and say, I’ll quote Rodney King a little bit, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ … The tension they used was the culture itself, what was going on in the world.”

Favat doesn’t mince words in talking about the ad’s legacy. “It is, in my mind, the most powerful piece of advertising ever done,” he says. “I haven’t seen anything that even comes close to that.”

See the spot here:

Coke’s official history of “Hilltop” backs up Favat’s point. It explains how Bill Backer got the idea for the ad when a flight he was on to London was diverted to Ireland due to fog, and the passengers—initially angry at the inconvenience—ended up laughing and sharing stories over bottles of Coke.

“That was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be—a liquid refresher—but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.”

Billy Davis, McCann’s music director on the Coca-Cola account, brought a dose of reality to Backer’s utopian vision, introducing the cultural tension.

“If I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke,” Davis told Backer when presented with the idea.

“What would you do?” Backer responded.

“I’d buy everyone a home first, and share with them in peace and love,” Davis said.

“OK, that sounds good,” Backer said. “Let’s write that, and I’ll show you how Coke fits right into the concept.”

And thus, the legendary ad was born.

Among his other favorite ads, Favat first chose Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken,” the 2004 website by CP+B and The Barbarian Group that featured a human-size chicken dressed in garters that could seemingly obey any command users typed in—playing off the “Have it your way” strategy.

“When that came out, I think all of us in the industry were blown back a bit,” Favat says. “It made us reassess what needs to happen. Like, ‘Oh my God, this is a whole completely new outlet for us.'”

The way the site spread by word-of-mouth with almost no BK branding—it got 20 million visits in the first week—was astounding.

“And then also, the ability to control a piece of film by using a keyboard, to me was mind-boggling,” Favat says. “It opened up a whole new world for my creative head, and for a lot of others. … I looked at it and I saw the future.”

Finally, Favat chose Honda “Grrr” by Wieden + Kennedy London, also from 2004, as another of his favorite ads. It’s a popular pick—he’s the fourth person in our “Best Ads Ever” series to choose it.

Don't miss the Disability Inclusion Summit, a live virtual summit on Sept. 30. Hear from leaders with disabilities on how we can better welcome, involve, and advance people with disabilities. Register now.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.