The McCann Time Capsule: Aretha Franklin
One of McCann’s greatest campaigns, certainly musically, was the late 1960s/ early 1970s “It’s the Real Thing” creative work for Coca-Cola. The famous and much-praised “Hilltop” commercial that ran in the final episode of “Mad Men” was part of this campaign, as were radio spots featuring many top performers, including the legendary Aretha Franklin, who sadly died today.
Shown in the accompanying 1971 photo from a McCann internal newsletter at the time are Aretha (right), her two sisters Caroline (second from left) and Erma, and Billy Davis, McCann’s AAF Adverting Hall of Fame music director, who had joined the agency in 1968 and has been featured in other McCann Time Capsule entries.
In the Coke radio commercials that were recorded during that session, there were two sung by Aretha herself, one sung each by Caroline and Erma, and then two more done as a trio. As a McCann newsletter said, “Although they have appeared live together, this is the first time Aretha and her sisters have done a recording together.” The arrangements themselves “all contain a heavy soul sound in keeping with Aretha’s personal song style.”
This was not the only time that Aretha Franklin recorded Coke commercials for McCann. A story on Coca-Cola’s website about how pop music was introduced into the brand’s advertising campaigns (“Pop Songs: How Coca-Cola Invited Music’s Biggest Starts to ‘Swing the Jingle’ in the 1960s”) notes that “One of the most interesting pairings was when Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles recorded as a duet. The version of the song they performed was written by another well-known singer: Neil Diamond.”
And speaking about the creative pairing of Bill Backer, McCann’s creative director at the time who also wrote the music for many agency campaigns, and Billy Davis, the Coke website article notes:
“The two men produced some of the most amazing commercials ever done by Coca-Cola. The Supremes and Charles were just the first of the musical acts to be signed. Once the campaign began, musicians approached McCann because they wanted to be included in this new form of advertising. They were also interested in the guaranteed airtime that came with producing a good ‘pop’ format commercial.”