“Mad Men” closed forever (shut the door, had a seat?) on the hint of a smile. It’s the most content we’ve seen Don Draper as he quietly births an advertising renaissance through, of all things, the noncommercial practice of meditation. That’s what happens when Don opens his mind: epiphanies to market Coca-Cola.
Despite the ending’s alleged ambiguity, series creator Matthew Weiner suggests that Draper left the capitalist-hippie dream at Big Sur, returned to New York, and funneled his experience into “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” sparking a seismic change in the ad game. I wasn’t around in ’71, so I’m probably talking out of school, but this may have marked the first time a saleable product was in sync with the zeitgeist and acknowledged concepts beyond itself — i.e., global unity, which had nothing and everything to do with Coke, a universal brand. Wry Weiner cynicism? Maybe. It’s easy to imagine the commercial as profit-happy pandering, and “apple trees and honeybees and snow-white turtledoves” DOES resemble Aquarian naivete served on a skewer, but I think Draper’s transformation was genuine. Still an ad man but maybe a better man.
As for the real campaign, conceived by Bill Backer of McCann-Erickson, it was a resonant stroke so perfect, so in tune with its time, that subsequent attempts to revive it have largely stiffed. It also resulted in a hit single, rerecorded as “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)” by The Hillside Singers and The New Seekers.
The competition had no choice but to follow in ersatz appropriation. Traces of its effects lingered even a decade or so later, coinciding with my first clear memories as a budding consumer. Like I said, I was too young to have ever seen the iconic “hillside” spot in its original context (although we kids were still learning “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” in elementary school a good 10 years after the spot first aired, probably because our music teachers were ex-counterculturists now lodged firmly in hippie-yuppie limbo), but I do remember the mid- to late-’70s spots hailing the ever-youthful Pepsi Generation in rollicking vignettes.
One that sticks out is a “dog wash” in a city park, all buckets and suds and mutts and chuckles and sun-ringed tugs o’ sugar. “Catch that Pepsi spirit!” beseeched a toothsome chorus, lifted from the hillside and eventually used to sell everything from airline seats (“Fly the friendly skies!”) to Time magazine (“Time flies / and you are there / Time cries / and lets you care / You understand / the world we share”).”Drink it in! Drink it in! Drink it in!” If Coke was earnest and hopeful, Pepsi was FUN. Later, Dr. Pepper encouraged individualism, albeit through Stepford acclimation (“I’m a Pepper / she’s a Pepper / he’s a Pepper / we’re a Pepper / wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?”), themes still prevalent in the advertising present, when everything’s sold as extensions of the self.
But it started with the self-proclaimed “Real Thing,” which, of course, ain’t “real” at all. Culture’s had its fun with the slogan ever since. U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing” knocked it on 1991’s “Achtung Baby,” which, fates be sweet, signaled a rejuvenation in the flagging band’s creative formula (U2’s New Coke, in a sense). Faith No More named its first album with Mike Patton “The Real Thing” (1990) — the title track clocks in at 8 minutes and 13 seconds of sultry salesmanship (“I know the feeling / It is the real thing / You can’t refuse the embrace / It’s like the pattern below the skin”). Live sets were spiced with the odd jingle earworm, like “Nestle’s makes the very best / N-E-S-T-L-E-S.” (Trivia: Coca-Cola and Nestle began collaborating in 1991 on lines of ready-to-drink chocolate, coffee and tea. Also, Faith No More released its first album in almost 18 years two days after the “Mad Men” finale. Coincidence? Of course not! (Maybe.))
“Mad Men” ends at the beginning — before the language was too familiar, the strategy too vanilla — flowering in the tranquility of Don Draper’s brain. He’d retreated cross-country to find himself, or to become someone else, only to realize he was everywhere he went. The man who was once Dick Whitman was Don Draper (or the Draper he’d built over a near-20-year period), after all. He was Dick Whitman, too, but he’d reconciled both into a single whole — one couldn’t exist without the other — the Real Thing, a deliberate enigma no more.