With ‘Mad Men’ now in a “fade out” resting place like other critically acclaimed shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Sopranos,” we examine a key piece of real advertisement which could explain the fate of Don Draper.
Fans and critics bid adieu to another critically acclaimed television program from AMC when Mad Men – which first debuted back in July of 2007 – ended its successful 8 year run last night. While finales are arguably the hardest thing for a creator/showrunner and his writing staff to pull off, Mad Men managed to give the viewers several solid character arcs for favorites like Peggy, Roger, Pete and Joan – while also playing with the ambiguity of our often-flawed creative director, Don Draper.
While no one would point to this finale as having as much confusion and open-endedness as The Sopranos – which creator David Chase still refuses to definitely answer, “did Tony Soprano die” – Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, did leave behind major questions and only one piece of evidence for diehard fans to examine further.
As Don Draper sits on a beach in California – waves crashing and “om’s” spilling from between the lips of those wanting deeper meaning to life through meditation – Matthew Weiner chose to leave the audience on footage of a real Coca-Cola advertisement, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” which debuted the same year the finale of the show took place; 1971. Given Don’s surroundings and the sound effect that could best be described as a “light bulb moment,” viewers have been urged to believe that Draper himself returned to advertising to pen the iconic Coke spot.
As for the real origins of the commercial, according to Coke’s official website, Bill Backer, creative director on the Coca-Cola account for the McCann Erickson advertising agency (the same agency Draper left), was flying to London to meet up with Billy Davis, the music director on the Coca-Cola account, to write radio commercials with two successful British songwriters, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, to be recorded by the New Seekers, a popular British singing group. The heavy fog in London forced the plane to land in Shannon, Ireland. Passengers had to remain near the airport in case the fog lifted. Some of them were furious about their accommodations. By the next day, Backer saw some of the most irate passengers in the airport cafe. Brought together by a common experience, many were now laughing and sharing stories over snacks and bottles of Coca-Cola. Backer wrote of the scene: “In that moment [I] saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light… [I] began to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as more than a drink that refreshed a hundred million people a day in almost every corner of the globe. So [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 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.
Mad Men has occasionally played with the notion that their fictional characters had real impacts on the advertising world. Notable examples include Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted,” Right Guard, and Volkswagen. In the case of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” there were several pieces of imagery used in the lead up to the finale – like Don fixing a Coke machine in the penultimate episode – which could be viewed as easter eggs for the final shot of the series and Don’s ultimate surrender to what he is and what he does.
Draper’s run-in with the hippie community in Los Angeles has a striking similarity to the style of dress and people in the Coke ad. In a real world context, art director Harvey Gabor was the person who pitched a concept called “The First United Chorus of the World” – and featured a diverse group of young people singing the jingle together on a hillside. Singing lines like, “what the world wants today, Is the real thing,” it feels like the finale’s interpretation depends on what we know of Don and his years of deflecting what his “real thing” was. Having spent numerous seasons coming to grips with his past as Dick Whitman – and the fact that “truth” is what advertisers tell you to believe – sharing a Coke with the world was perhaps the last good deed Draper could do before he inevitably got back to his self-destructive ways.