The final episode of Mad Men is perhaps the greatest finale in the history of television, a last episode that works on a character level - we see all these characters we love coming to a places of happiness that leave us satisfied - and that works on a thematic level, a final bit that wraps up so much of what Matthew Weiner has been saying all along… and still leaves us with deep, and sort of endless, questions.
There’s a lot to write about the meaning of the end of the show (I’m even starting to wonder if the final shots are more metaphorical than literal, if the show transcends reality to merge the character of Don Draper with the history of American advertising in a profound way), but the first thing worth talking about is how well it simply works. The transition from Don, seated lotus position at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, smiling, to the iconic “Hilltop” Coca-Cola ad is a beautiful punchline, a great joke. But it’s more than that - so much more than that.
Over the course of seven seasons Mad Men has wrestled with the changing face of America, with the way our 1950s Leave It To Beaver world gave way to a complex, fragmented and violent new order. It did it through the lens of advertising, which in and of itself is a reflection of the way the society sees itself. Our ads reflect us, and Mad Men has used those ads to examine a decade of America (and by proxy the world in which we live today). It isn’t just the characters who have grown and changes over the course of the series - the very world itself has as well.
That’s always been one of the fundamental hooks of the show - it doesn’t take place in a phony past, it takes place in the real past and uses brand names that we recognize and know. It’s always played with the frisson of crossing the line between fantasy and reality, of injecting true events and true ads into the fiction. Don Draper came up with Lucky Strike’s slogan “It’s Toasted,” which was the real slogan for the cigarette. The final bit of the last episode, that “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” ad, is simply that, writ large. It’s the biggest ad ever, and it’s what everything has been building towards.
That ad is iconic in a way few others ever have been, and it truly changed the face of advertising forever. It, in many ways, represents the future towards which Mad Men has been hurtling for its whole run, a future in which advertising is something more insidious and invasive and hidden than Don Draper ever could have imagined. At least that he couldn’t have imagined until he did, in fact, imagine it. And create it.
Coca-Cola’s history has always been tied deeply with advertising, and through that Coca-Cola has heavily impacted our culture. The modern version of Santa Claus? Invented by the Coca-Cola Company. That’s the level of cultural impact we’re talking about here. And the Hilltop ad would have that sort of impact again.
For Coke, like Don and like America, the times were changing. Coke had long been a white people soft drink; this history began when it was available only at segregated soda fountains in Atlanta and it continued on through the 1950s as Coke assiduously ignored black customers. Rival Pepsi tried to take up the slack and advertised towards the black community, but they eventually gave it up after their product ended being racially defined - Coke was a drink for white people, Pepsi for blacks.
Coke’s whole advertising world was based on whiteness, with Norman Rockwell-ish images of white teens sitting at soda shop counters. That image began to fracture during the Civil Rights era - black protesters sitting in at lunch counters would often be doing so in front of very obvious Coca-Cola signage. By the end of the 60s that image was simply out of date - something new was needed.
The true story of Hilltop doesn’t begin at Esalen, it begins in Ireland, as a McCann Erickson creative director Bill Backer was trapped at the airport in heavy fog. He heard his fellow passengers talking about getting a Coke together, and he realized this ritual had meaning deeper than simply getting a drink. Backer wrote in his memoir:
"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."
First came the song, which was a flop. Next came the ad, shot on a hillside near Rome. Released in July of 1971, the ad became a bigger hit than anyone could have imagined. The spot showed a diverse group of people - all ages, all races, all creeds - standing together and singing together and holding bottles of Coke with the logo in different languages. The whites only vision of Coke had fallen away, replaced with the idea of Coke as the drink for every single living human being. That was Coke’s market: every person who lived.
People wrote in to their local Coke bottling plants to say how much they loved the spot. They called in to radio stations and asked to have the song played on the air. It was such a hit that a second version of the song, without references to Coke, was recorded; at one point both versions were on the charts, only spots apart. The sheet music for I’d Like to Buy The World A Coke was the best-selling sheet music of the previous ten years.
The spot was a global hit. Coke had been a global brand since WWII, but this cemented it. And the imagery - the hippy dippy people on a pastoral hill, singing together - was exactly what the world needed to see as the Vietnam War dragged on and as revolutions exploded around the globe. In the United States the Hilltop ad wasn’t just a commercial - it was a vision of a better America. It was a healing moment that played on the TV in between news programs showing dead bodies in Vietnam.
And this is how the ad changed advertising. Coca-Cola isn’t even mentioned in the first six lines of the song. You don’t hear the word “Coke” for the first 25 seconds of the one minute spot. Nobody in the commercial drinks a Coke. They don’t enjoy the product. They just hold it as they sing about bringing the world together.
This is an ad designed to make you like the brand, not to get you to buy the product. This is an ad that is all about rewiring your brain in a way that changes the association of Coke from capitalist, imperialist sugar water to a force for good. It’s designed to make you feel like you’re being a part of making the world a better place by simply buying and enjoying a Coke. This is the ultimate culmination of Don’s speech about the Kodak Carousel way back in the first season finale - you’re not selling the product, you’re selling a feeling.
No other commercial in history did it as well. The ad hit at a time when cynicism towards marketing was high, but the faux-sincerity of the spot broke through those barriers. It was a bunker buster, a big idea that exploded into the global consciousness and changed forever the way things are sold. Next time you see that car commercial where the little kid is dressed like Darth Vader and is using the Force to unlock the Volkswagen doors, know that you’re watching the descendent of Hilltop. These are ads that allow you to lower your defenses because they’re not technically selling you anything, they’re just making you feel nice. But that nice feeling becomes associated with the product - it’s absolutely insidious. It wasn’t a new concept in 1971, but Hilltop perfected it. Coke has tried to go back to it a number of times over the years, including a restaging of the Hilltop ad and a controversial spot where people of all nationalities sing America the Beautiful.
That’s vital for understanding the use of Hilltop at the end of Mad Men. The episode follows Don Draper as he finishes his pilgrimage out west, shedding his advertising persona and trying to figure out if he’s Dick Whitman or Don Draper or what. He shows up in the west with a vague sense of hope and an heirloom, a half-baked plan to maybe marry Stephanie to replace the lost Anna, and he ends up getting stranded at Esalen. He has the breakdown that this whole season has been building towards, the moment of absolute rock bottom where he no longer knows who he is or what his role is. He laments that he has stolen another man’s name and has made nothing of it.
And then he goes to an encounter group meeting. And at first it seems like Don has a breakthrough, an emotional understanding that leads to him hugging another man tightly after hearing his evocative tale of being nobody, of being alone, of being ignored. It seems like this is a whole new Don, a changed man, a man who has broken through.
I don’t think Matthew Weiner is that sentimental.
No, that man and his story rekindled the dead spark within Don. Don sat there and absorbed that guy’s story, his dream, like a killer pitch. The Esalen retreat is populated by people who would show up in that Hilltop ad (although likely not literally - this i part of why I suspect the finale melts into metaphor). Don’s version of self-help is getting not just an idea, not just a big idea, but THE big idea.
This is the question that the show leaves us with - is Don redeemed? Has Don had a breakthrough that led him to his greatest work? Or is it all a black joke - not just the punchline of the Coke ad but the very idea that by looking deep into himself, by hitting rock bottom and coming out the other side Don Draper was able to redeem himself by… coming up with the most successful way ever of selling people tooth-rotting, fattening sugar water? That’s what Dick Whitman made of Don Draper’s name? But at the same time, does it matter what the ad was in service of if it made people feel good? Is it okay to sell people garbage if the sales technique makes them a little better and more aware of their place in the world?
Over the course of the series Mad Men has explored the growing social justice movements of its era, mostly focusing on women's rights but also touching on racial issues along the way. Don Draper is first introduced talking to a black man in a bar, a black man whose boss thinks shouldn't be bothering the nice white guy. Don is okay with talking to the man, but it isn't out of kindness - he's looking for an answer to an advertising problem. Over the course of the series the world has seismically shifted, to the point where even Pete Campbell tells Peggy that the future is heading towards a scenario where women are in charge; the finale has two women who started the series as secretaries being incredibly successful, one with her own production company. Things looked better - more dapper, sleeker, more stylish - in season one, but by the end of season seven the inequalities were getting slightly less inequal; we can chart the progress.
And that all ends with Hilltop, the diverse group coming together to make a statement about that hippie ideal of world peace, a concept Don would have laughed out of the room in season one. But is this ending about the triumph of diversity and progressive thought, or an example of the way the system - and Don Draper is, if anything, the system - co-opts it? Is Don changed by his slow march through the 60s, or has he just learned how to grab ahold of the new status quo to make more money? And does it really matter?
The Hilltop ad redefined Coke and it redefined advertising. It seems it also redefined Don Draper. The answer to how is up to us. In the end Mad Men isn't telling us, it's reflecting us. Just as the ads do.