Growing up as a TV-obsessed Baby Boomer, I have to admit that there are countless jingles from the commercials of my childhood that have taken up permanent residence in my cerebral cortex. Whether the tunes urged me to fly the friendly skies, have my burger my way, think of my insurance company like a good neighbor, or get relief from indigestion with a “plop, plop, fizz, fizz,” these melodies are in my head for life and can be called up at the drop of a hat. But one commercial of my childhood stood out far above the rest. It wasn’t just advertising a commercial product (except it was), it was promoting a way of life — a glorious utopian vision for the future.
On a hilltop in Italy, we assembled young people from all over the world to bring you this message.
When my favorite series, Mad Men. chose to end its seven-season run in 2015 with an ingenious story in which Don Draper comes up with the idea for this iconic commercial, I thought it was the most brilliant ending of a show since Suzanne Pleshette woke up Bob Newhart from his eight-year dream of his second TV sitcom. There were so many elements of Mad Men that I related to over the course of the series (I basically was Bobby Draper) that I could barely contain my excitement over the idea of using that commercial to show Don Draper’s re-emergence as an advertising genius following his breakdown.
Of course the real commercial was written by Bill Backer, an advertising executive at McCann-Erickson who died last year. Looking at an article from 1972 about the phenomenally successful commercial (the song was later re-recorded without reference to Coke and became a hit record), I have to laugh at the concerns of the agency: “We were afraid that people might say we were a commercial product delving into an area where we really had no business, that we were trying to commercialize world peace.” You think? But, hey, it worked — at least for me. Cokes for everyone! The new Marshall Plan for World Unity!
When a friend of mine told me that she knew someone, a woman named Rosemarie Winters, who was actually in that all-important commercial, I jumped at the chance to talk to her.
Danny Miller: Rosemarie, I’m so happy to meet you! I can’t even describe the impact that commercial had on me as a kid. I guess my first question to you, knowing that it was shot in Italy, is how the hell you ended up in that commercial. Were you an actress or a singer?
Rosemarie Winters: Oh, no, not at all! I was a 22-year-old flight attendant for Eastern Airlines and I was just on vacation in Europe. I was with my roommate and we had just landed in Rome when these two guys came up to us at the airport and said, “Hi! We’re making a commercial and we want you two to be in it. You’ve got the look that we want.” We looked at each other and were like, “Are you kidding? Yeah, right!”
Ha, that sounds like a classic and very cheesy pick-up line!
Exactly. But they gave us their cards and said, “What can we do to convince you? Can we take you to dinner tonight?” So we thought, well, why not, we just got to Rome and we had each other so we could always leave. We ended up at this very exclusive club in Rome for drinks and appetizers —the kind of place that only movie stars went to. And, of course, the more we drank, the more convincing they got. (Laughs.)
So you agreed to be in the commercial?
Well, my friend had to go home before the shoot, she couldn’t extend her trip, but I was staying for a while longer so I agreed to do it once I realized that these guys were for real.
What was that day like?
We had to get up at five in the morning and I remember thinking, “Ugh, this better be worth it.” We all got paid $100 for the day which didn’t seem bad to me. We got on a bus at the hotel and we were taken about two hours outside of Rome, I have no idea where it was. First, they brought us to this barn at the foot of this hill to get us all dressed. I’m half-Italian and I remember they were trying to make me look like I was from Denmark, for some reason, with this peasant costume and the ribbons in my hair.
Oh, really? I thought that was just to make you all look like hippie flower children! You were chosen to be specific nationalities?
Yeah, the hippie thing was part of it, I mean, that was the era we were in so a lot of people dressed that way, but the concept was that we were all from different countries. And actually most of us were — we had people from dozens of countries that day, I have no idea how they found the others. Hanging around the airport? But maybe there was no one from Denmark, I don’t know. So then they ran us up to the top of the hill by bus and had us line up in rows. One of my biggest memories is that there was an American director and an Italian director and they were fighting nonstop! They couldn’t agree on where they wanted us to stand, what they wanted us to do, or anything, they just kept fighting back and forth.
Ha! So much for unity and world peace!
It was a really hot day, around 85 degrees, and there we were standing in the sun with all these crazy helicopter shots. I’m telling you, we were there for something like 12 hours!
And I’m saying to myself, “Oh my God, what did I get myself into? I’m supposed to be on vacation!” And we kept having to take sips of Coke which was totally warm by that point. They kept yelling at us to make sure we were holding the bottles the right way.
Were you a Coke drinker?
No, I hated it! (Laughs.) I didn’t drink soda at all back then. And then, at the end of this incredibly long day, they said they didn’t get everything they needed and we had to come back the following day. And I’m thinking “But I’m on vacation.” So when someone said, “We’re not done filming,” I just said, “Well, I am. Bye!” I just could not handle the thought of doing that for one more day. I remember thinking, “My God, if it takes this long to do a commercial that lasts a minute, what must it be like to make a whole movie?”
And then you just went on your merry way, traveling around Europe.
Yeah, and I thought, “Well, that’s the last I’ll hear about that.” I assumed that because I didn’t come back the next day that they wouldn’t use me in the commercial. But then, about a month later, I was back home and the commercial started running, and there I was! I couldn’t believe it.
I don’t know the specifics, but I can’t remember any commercial in history having a longer lifespan.
Oh, it’s true, it played for years and years! And now it’s on permanent display at the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta. Who knew? Believe me, it was something I never expected!
Did you guys get compensated for all the times the commercial ran?
Oh God, no. We got $100 for the day and that was it. At some point later on I looked into that but I had signed a waiver so there was nothing I could do.
Yikes. I hope they at least fed you during that 12-hour day.
You know, I don’t even remember eating anything that day, to be honest with you. All we had was the warm Coke! (Laughs.) Of course, it’s been over 45 years now.
I read about Bill Backer, the guy who wrote the commercial, when he died last year. Do you know if he was there that day?
No, the only people I ever dealt with were those two fellas from McCann-Erickson who came up to us at the airport. I never even heard of Bill Backer until I saw the story on the news that he had passed away.
I don’t know if you were a Mad Men fan, but did you have any idea that the commercial was going to be worked into the series finale?
Oh, are you kidding, I loved Mad Men! I had no idea whatsoever but I was thrilled to see that and that I kind of got to be on the show.
I love how in the weeks leading up to that finale we see Don Draper trying to get his act together at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur and he keeps running into people there who subtly remind us of you guys — the way they’re dressed, the yarn in the braids, everything! So we end up seeing the whole commercial as coming from his experience.
And I heard the series creator, Matthew Weiner, say later that he had the idea for ending the show that way from the very beginning so there are all these little clues throughout the seasons.
Right, I remember when Don didn’t want to go to work for McCann-Erickson, those people were characters on the show, too.
And even in one of the flashback scenes when we see Betty Draper as a model, she’s working on a Coke campaign.
Yeah. My five minutes of fame, I guess! I never really told people about it either but some people found out over the years. It certainly wasn’t something I bragged about.
I still have the song on my iPhone and I’ve probably listened to it a thousand times. Even my eight-year-old son can sing it.
Wow, you really are obsessed! That’s really fascinating that it had such an effect on you.
Totally. As a young wannabe hippie, I wanted so badly to be on that hilltop singing about peace and love…and Coke! Were you at all a part of the hippie lifestyle back then?
I’d say yes, but not to the extent that some people were. In my work with Eastern Airlines, I had to dress pretty conservatively. But I definitely wore clothes like that in my off hours! It was definitely a different time. The Vietnam War was raging, there were protests everywhere, it was the “free love” era. You could walk down the streets of Manhattan smoking a joint and no one would think anything of it.
Were you in that reunion commercial Coke did in the early 1990s with the people from that commercial and their kids?
Oh, I do remember seeing some kind of callback in the paper and wondering if I should contact them. I forget what was going on in my life at the time but in the end I just thought, “Eh, why bother.” Did you see that commercial?
Yes, and I thought it was pretty moving to see some of those people and then to have the next generation come running out.
Standing there for hours drinking warm Coke and having them yell at us to “Smile! Smile!”
Someone should do a documentary about the lot of you. And if they do another reunion commercial, I hope you’ll be in it.
They should use my daughter — she looks just like how I looked then!
Well, I thank you for being an important part of my childhood.
Aw, that’s so sweet. Thank you!