It's bigger than "Frosty the Snowman." It's bigger than Perry Como in the Holy Land. It is infinitely bigger than the Mac Davis holiday special.
And it's probably the world's most expensive Christmas card -- an estimated $500,000 production that takes only 30 seconds of air time. Well what's money when you're whipping up a masterpiece? For TV viewers, the holiday season is often signaled in ways not terribly felicitous -- oh no, it's the "Toys-R-Us" ads again, Christmas must be coming. But some companies, like Coca-Cola, have so much money they can sink a bundle on an ad that doesn't make a single direct pitch, just offers up the warm milk of public relations instead.
Hence, the 1980 Coke holiday commercial: "Season's Greetings from Your Coca-Cola Bottler."
Oh, the warmth of it, the catchiness, the neat little goose-pimpler at the end, when Tinkerbell flicks her wand and the big Christmas tree lights up. Would they could make TV shows this good. One can be as cynical as one wants about the commercialism of Christmas and still get just the tingle that's craftily intended out of goodwill corporate messages as beautifully produced as this one.
Beautifully -- and lavishly. The commercial has a cast of 115 and was filmed in early November at Disneyland; this was not so much a standard shoot as a massive assault. Essentially, the commercial is an extravagant, snazzy update of a much-admired 1974 spot that introduced the song "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)." This time the setting is not a pacific hilltop but Disneyland, that materialistic mecca, where a crowd of children and adults are joined in their candle-lighting by such luninaries as Mickey Mouse and Goofy, who help decorate a 45-foot-tall Christmas tree, which Tinkerbell lights up with a wave of her wand.
Wow! You have to see it, and oh boy, you will; Coke estimates the commercial will make "1.2 billion viewer impressions" before it's put to rest for the year on Christmas Day.
A bigger production than many TV shows, the commercial required months of planning and two days of filming at Disneyland while the park was closed briefly to the public. It was 85 degrees in Anaheim, Calif., that day, but 120 tons of ice, ooshes and gooshes of carbonic foam, and wind machines blowing styrofoam flakes made it snow like crazy on Disneyland's Main Street for the shootng.
"It was like the landing at Normandy," says Tony Tortorici, Coca-Cola spokesman, from corporate headquarters in Atlanta. The Coke commercial is in one of the better traditions of American merchandising; a few other firms, including Budweiser and Miller beers, run similar seasonal ads that momentarily abandon the push-cum-shove approach for a little euphoric national apple-polishing. It certainly can't hurt, and it brightens up the gray walls of that great K-Mart of the air, television.
One troubling difference between the original Coke ad and the new 1980 version, however, is that the first seemed much more noticeably international in its cast than the new one does. Could it be America is in a less global mood now than it was then, back when the economy seemed less threatened by foreign competition and ayatollahs knew their place.
"In the final editing, it may be that the featured faces in the close-ups were not necessarily Oriental or black or definable as being 'international,'" says Tortorici, "but I can assure you that we had a cross-section of the U.S. population, which by definition relfects the world with its various races."
Tortorici would not say how much it cost to produce the commercial, except to say the tab went "well into six figures." But a knowledgeable advertising insider says, "There's no way they could have made that spot for under $500,000," and another says the cost could have gone as high as $600,000. (Tortorici won't say how much Coke spends annually on advertising, either, but when asked, "Is it more than Pepsi?" tersely and almost haughtily replies, "Yes.")
Of course, when you're dealing with a production of this scale, you expect to shell out a lot of money. The limited shooting schedule meant lots of overtime for cast and crew; the California Department of Labor had to grant a special dispensation so children in the cast could work past their usual quitting hour.
And there were technological problems as well, including, according to Coke publicity, " a remote-controlled Luma camera mounted atop a 20-foot platform for the climactic, zooming seven-second close which took five hours to set up." While great pains were taken to make it snow, weather insurance was taken out just in case of the unthinkable, a California down-pour.
The rain didn't come, but the snow almost didn't arrive, either. Andy Evans, the special effects man in charge of snow, grew noticeably restless when a truck needed to spread the carbonic foam failed to arrive on time. It was stuck in traffic on an L.A. freeway and delayed shooting for two hours. Tortorici calls it "a cute kind of crisis" and says that's about the worst snafu of the whole colossal project.
The ad was produced for Coke by its agency, McCann-Erickson, in New York, and by the same team -- Jean-Claude Kaufman and Roger Mosconi -- that, Coke proudly points out, came up with Coke's Mean Joe Greene commercial. That's the one where the Pittsburgh steeler gives his jersey to a young fan in return for a few well-glugged slugs from the kid's Coke bottle.
Oh what a wonderful world it would be if we could just give each other Cokes and flash each other smiles and sing each other songs and -- well, yes, these commercials are very persuasive. And if and when the 21st century rolls around, somebody is going to look back on them and call them works of art.