Under the Fizz: Why Coca‑Cola Supports Equality


As the 1960s blazed into the 1970s, five hundred young people found themselves on a hill outside Rome. They were there for one thing: to sing.

Rain threatened but never fell. A holidaying British governess was hastily hired to play the lead role. The crew were forced to shoot around power cables and telephone lines.

But their efforts paid off when Coca‑Cola released their newest ad, “Hilltop”, and the song “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” was an instant hit. A pop version of the song from the ad with its multicultural theme became requested on radio stations around the world.

The ad still resonates today. Sure, the 1970s fashions haven’t stood the test of time, but the sentiment is still relevant. Mad Men creator and director Matthew Weiner put it in context, noting just a few years prior to the ad screening that “black people and white people couldn’t even be in an ad together.”

Sharing a Coke and seeing Santa are two cheeky ways Coca‑Cola has continued to inspire moments of happiness across the world. But there’s always more worth striving for. From the heady days of the American Civil Rights movement to the modern day fight for marriage equality, we take a look under the fizz. 

The night Atlanta came to dinner with Martin Luther King

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the honour was a tremendous source of pride for the black community in his hometown of Atlanta. The majority of the city’s white community, however, was unimpressed.

Excuses were made to decline invitations to a dinner in Martin’s honour. But Atlanta Mayor Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr wasn’t having it. Together with Coca‑Cola’s former president Robert Woodruff and then-president Paul Austin, he galvanised the city elite and sold out the dinner.

The letter they wrote to other local businesses, not-so-gently requesting their support, still has pride of place at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta.

It all changed on a “Hilltop”

The idea of bringing people together is a strong theme not only in business, but also in Coca‑Cola’s advertising. The company’s first truly global television ad featured people from all around the world, holding bottles with labels in multiple languages.  The "Hilltop" ad first screened in July, 1971, after being filmed on a hill in Manziana, Italy.

Co-creator William Backer was inspired to create the ad when his flight was stuck in Ireland. Delayed passengers were initially cranky but William watched as they began to relax with Coca‑Cola and a chat.

“In that moment [I] saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light,” he said. “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.”

Holding up half the sky

Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans was only 34 when her husband died suddenly of pneumonia.   

It was 1906 and Lettie was a mother of two. History didn’t record Lettie in her own words, so it would be poetic licence to imagine how shocked and possibly scared she was. But history does record that she took over the running of her husband’s real estate interests, and his share of a Coca‑Cola bottling business.

The first half of the twentieth century saw the Coca‑Cola system expand hugely, and with 80 bottling plants to her name, we can assume Lettie’s business skills expanded too. In 1934, she sold her Atlanta-based company to Coca‑Cola and was appointed to Coca‑Cola’s board of directors, a position she held for almost two decades.

Strong female leadership has remained a feature at Coca‑Cola, not only within the business but also in communities around the world. In Australia, mentoring programs for young women aim to increase education opportunities, while in Kenya, farming assistance helps small providers grow their businesses.

All in all, the project aims to enable the economic empowerment of 5 million women around the world by the year 2020.

Flying the rainbow flag

At the turn of the century, Marcus Wade was like any other employee during the early days of a new job: excited. But part of Marcus’ excitement stemmed from the fact that his new employer was home to a network of LGBTQIA people, many of whom were out at work. For Marcus, it was a milestone.

“I witnessed these colleagues talk about their lives and shared their experiences with others while on the job,” Marcus said in 2012 while working as Coca‑Cola vice president of leadership and internal communications.

“On any given Friday, when the inevitable question of “got plans for the weekend?” would come up, I listened as these men and women talked openly and honestly about first dates, gatherings with family that included their boyfriends or girlfriends, and weekend getaways with their partners. This network of LGBT colleagues and allies and a welcoming work environment gave me the courage to come out to my family and friends,” he said.

This is only one story of the kinds of policies that Coca‑Cola champions. There are many more from around the world, and they extend far beyond the office.  

In Australia, Sydney celebrated one of the world’s greatest, gayest cities by decking out the Kings Cross Coke billboard in all the colours of the rainbow.

From the glory of the International Gay Games to the difficult Sochi Olympics, sporting events are considered large-scale opportunities to bring people together under one banner.

This history is reflected in Coca‑Cola’s campaigns. There’s an ongoing desire to reflect the world as we, and customers, want it to be: saturated in colour, quick with a smile, and always inspiring a moment of happiness.

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