Speed Reads

Rest in peace

Ad man who taught the world to sing about Coke and created 'Miller Time' is dead at 89

Bill Backer coined the phrase "Miller Time," proclaimed that Campbell's "soup is good food," and created ad campaigns for Fisher-Prince, Löwenbräu, Xerox, Quaker Foods, and cigarette brands. But the ad executive, who died at his home in Virginia on Friday at age 89, will be best remembered for his work with Coca-Cola. Backer and his team came up with the "Things go better with Coke" campaign and turned Coke into "the real thing," but Backer was also the driving force behind the legendary 1971 Coke commercial "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)," filmed on a hillside outside Rome with an international cast of young people:

The ad gained new fame after it was featured in the finale to Mad Men, dreamed up by fictional ad man Don Draper as he was meditating in California, but Backer explained that he got the idea during a forced layover in Ireland, when he saw fellow passengers who had been bickering the night before "making eye contact over a Coke, and they were keeping each other company." The song — written by Backer, Billy Davis, and Roger Cook — was a hit record for the New Seekers, reprised in a 1991 Super Bowl ad, and a publicity coup for Coke. Backer embraced that.

"Nobody out there has heard of J. Walter Thompson or Backer Spielvogel Bates," Backer told The New York Times in 1993, right before he retired to a Virginia thoroughbred horse farm and conservation work. "Those are temporal, self-aggrandizing entities. But if you come up with what's basically a little hymn to getting the world together, it's a contribution."

Backer was born in Manhattan in 1926, then moved to South Carolina with his mother when he was 6, after his father died. He wrote musicals in high school and, after serving in the Navy and attending Yale, wanted to become a songwriter. At the urging of his mother and stepfather, he went into real estate, then tried out writing jingles, and finally got a job in advertising. He rose through the ranks of Madison Avenue firm McCann Erickson, then founded Backer Spielvogel Bates in 1979. Below, you can watch Backer talk to Coke about his most enduring ad, and sing it, in 2007. Peter Weber