I'd like to teach the world to sing

Something to think about next time your flight is delayed. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Our story today starts with bad weather in England half a century ago (January 18, 1971, to be exact) and a passenger jet from New York City that was headed to London but got diverted to Shannon, Ireland, as a result.

Everyone got off and slogged into the airport. The weather could lift at any time, so the passengers couldn’t stray far from the terminal…but the delay dragged on.

Nobody was happy.

Among the group that day was Bill Backer, a 45-year-old executive at the advertising agency McCann Erickson. He took a philosophical view: annoyed, but resigned. And eventually, as he later recalled, the mood lightened.

Backer watched some of the passengers who’d been the most irate at first; now they sat in the airport café, laughing at their shared predicament, eating snacks and drinking from glass bottles of Coca-Cola.

This turned into the moment of a lifetime for Backer. His job at McCann? Creative director on the Coca-Cola account. He’d been en route to London to link up with a music director and some songwriters to work on radio ads.

The experience of watching his fellow passengers drinking bottles of his client’s soda gave him an idea:

"In that moment [I] saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light...

[I] began to see the familiar words, 'Let's have a Coke,' as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment. They were actually a subtle way of saying, 'Let's keep each other company for a little while.'

And [I] knew they were being said all over the world as [I] sat there in Ireland.

So that was the basic idea: to see Coke … as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes."

He started writing notes on 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…"

These details come from official Coca-Cola Company mythology on the subject, so factor that in, but you know where it’s going, I’m sure.

By February 1971, McCann’s contract singers had recorded a song: “I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke.” It proved so popular that radio DJs reported getting listener requests to play the ad over and over.

So the agency then flew a group of young people to a hilltop in Italy to lip-synch the song and record the iconic TV version.

It’s been called the most influential TV commercial of all time, and it made its debut 50 years ago next month. (The group that recorded the commercial then recorded a second version of the song, which sold 12 million copies globally.)

Now, would I have thought to write about this today if the TV show Mad Men hadn’t incorporated this ad into its 2015 finale, implying that lead character Don Draper dreamed up the commercial at a California retreat, instead of Backer in the airport in Ireland? Maybe not.

But they did, so I did, so here we are. Think about it next time your flight is delayed.

(Backer died in 2016 at age 89. He said at one point that he didn’t like to be called the creator of the ad, so much as its co-creator.)

So do you remember this ad? If you’re not of the right era to have seen it originally…do you know it at all? Also, what do you do with your time when you’re stuck somewhere unexpectedly?

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Understandably Live

Thanks to everyone who participated in yesterday’s interview, during which I introduced the newest member of Team Understandably: Kate Sullivan.

The video is now on YouTube, if you’d like to check it out.

I’m going to do one more Understandably Live interview this week. On Friday, I’ll be talking with Andrew Hutton, who is the founder and CEO of Day One — which, as those of you on our free plan will know, has been sponsoring Understandably this week.

Andrew and I had a really good talk the other day about startups and community. In the middle of it, I had one of my “wait, we should have this conversation in front of an audience” moments.

(It’s #sponsored, but I wouldn’t suggest tuning in if I didn’t think he had an interesting model to share!)

When: Friday, June 25 at 11 a.m. ET (note the earlier time)

Where: On Zoom. (Sign up here for an invitation and details.)

Understandably Live


7 other things worth your time

  • The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Pennsylvania public school wrongly suspended a student from cheerleading over a vulgar social media post she made after she didn’t qualify for the varsity team. The court voted 8-1 in favor of Brandi Levy, who was a 14-year-old high school freshman when she expressed her disappointment over not making the varsity cheerleading squad with a string of curse words and a raised middle finger on Snapchat. (AP)

  • Britney Spears made a rare statement on her own behalf in a Los Angeles court hearing Wednesday, requesting that the conservatorship that has taken her finances and lifestyle out of her own control for more than a decade be terminated. Spears, speaking quickly and at times breathlessly, told the judge she had been “traumatized” by the 13-year arrangement. (WashPost)

  • Steven Spielberg, who a couple of years ago supposedly drew a clear line between theatrically released films and streamer films, has a new deal with Netflix that will “co-exist side-by-side with the one [he and his company] have at Universal Pictures. Neither will have first shot… Spielberg will make some films for Universal, and others [will] be made for Netflix. (Deadline)

  • A new report out of the London School of Economics says “mediocre male managers” are blocking women's development in the finance world because they are better at office politics. "We've made a lot of progress since the overt sexism of the 1980s and 1990s. But the problem today is cronyism." (BBC)

  • A lab test commissioned by the New York Times failed to identify any tuna DNA in a series of Subway tuna sandwiches. A reporter acquired “more than 60 inches worth of Subway tuna sandwiches” from three Los Angeles storefronts, then engaged a specialized fish-testing lab. Researchers were unable to pinpoint a species. “There’s two conclusions,” a lab spokesperson told the Times. “One, it’s so heavily processed that whatever we could pull out, we couldn’t make an identification.” (NYT, but via The Guardian)

  • John McAfee, the creator of the popular McAfee antivirus software, was found dead in his jail cell near Barcelona in an apparent suicide Wednesday, hours after a Spanish court approved his extradition to the United States to face tax charges punishable by decades in prison, authorities said. (AP)

  • LEGO has revealed a prototype brick made from recycled plastic bottles in the company's latest bid to become more sustainable. "The biggest challenge on our sustainability journey is rethinking and innovating new materials that are as durable, strong, and high quality as our existing bricks—and fit with LEGO elements made over the past 60 years," Tim Brooks, LEGO’s vice president of environmental responsibility, said in a statement. (Mashable)

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