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The McCann Time Capsule: Our Super Bowl Classic for Coca-Cola

The McCann Time Capsule: Our Super Bowl Classic for Coca-Cola

Along with the probable debates about whether Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, this weekend’s Super Bowl LII is also likely to stir up conversation about whether any of the TV commercials are creative hall of fame worthy.  It’s an esteemed advertising category where McCann already has a prominent entry, one which is sometimes ranked as the No. 1 best Super Bowl commercial of all time, but in all cases has been described as great storytelling.

The commercial is the famous “Mean” Joe Greene spot that McCann New York created for Coca-Cola that starred the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle and a 9-year-old fan, and that some even say kicked off the phenomenon of the Super Bowl becoming the annual stage for super commercials. Known as “Hey kid, catch,” it originally ran in October 1979 and then was replayed during Super Bowl XIV in 1980. 

Coca-Cola, which has several stories about this commercial on its corporate website, describes the spot and one human-interest aspect of it this way:

“In the ad, Greene limps to the locker room after a hard-fought game when a starstruck boy offers him his Coca-Cola. After initially declining the offer, Greene accepts and downs the bottle in a single gulp before continuing down the tunnel. Just when it looks as if the boy will walk away empty-handed and heartbroken, his hero tosses over his #75 jersey and delivers the now-famous line: ‘Hey kid, catch!’  

“The commercial – which won both a Clio and a Cannes Gold Lion and has been consistently voted as one of the greatest Super Bowl ads of all time – reshaped Greene’s public persona and expanded his fan base. 

“Before it aired, people were intimidated by him. Afterwards, they wanted to hug him. 

“’I was suddenly approachable,’ Greene recalled during a presentation at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. ‘Little kids were no longer afraid of me, and older people – both women and men – would come up and offer me a Coke.’”

The popularity of the spot also inspired NBC the following year to create an hour-long TV movie based on it in which Greene adopts a 9-year-old boy. From a marketing point of view, the U.S. commercial led McCann and Coke to adapt it around the world using different athletes and young fans, including one with Argentina’s soccer star Diego Maradona.  

Penny Hawkey, the McCann copywriter who developed the original concept, feels that it struck a societal nerve with the public as well.  "While we didn't set out to make a great social or cultural statement, we certainly had one," she told Ad Age in 2015. "Joe was perhaps the first black male to appear in a national brand commercial, and it had a profound effect at the time. The letters we got were full of gratitude and excitement." 

The enduringly popular Coke spot has usually battled over the years with Apple’s Orwellian “1984” for the top spot in whatever publication is running its “Best Super Bowl Commercials of All Time” lists. 

USA Today’s Ad Meter poll of readers ranked the Coke commercial as No. 1 in 2016, noting that it was “widely considered the first truly blockbuster Super Bowl commercial.” Time magazine, however, last year ranked it as No. 3 on its list of “The 25 Most Influential Super Bowl Ads of All Time,” behind “1984” at No. 1 and Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” as runner-up.

But regardless of whether “Hey kid, catch” comes in at No. 1, 2, or 3, it has one distinction that the other commercials don’t, no matter how funny or dramatic they are.  As a Washington Post story about it two years ago proclaimed in its headline, “This Super Bowl Ad Still Makes Everyone Cry, Even 40 Years Later.”  And that includes even the so-called “Mean” Joe himself, who “still gets emotional when he sees it.” 

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