1979: Mean Joe Greene Sells Coke With His Sweaty Football Jersey
"Hey kid, catch." Those immortal words changed Mean Joe Greene from a bruising, merciless defensive tackle to an international super star and Coca-Cola spokesman. Thanks to this classic commercial, Greene was known worldwide by people who didn't even watch football. Instantly recognizable and seriously heartwarming, this commercial still brings a tear to our eye, it's just that powerful. The ad, which debuted on October 1, 1979 and aired during Super Bowl XIV, isn't just popular because it has a bunch of Coca-Cola money pumped into it. This early viral sensation uses storytelling and the idea that it is okay to meet your heroes to inspire viewers to buy the world a Coke. Here's how it came to be, and what it changed about the landscape of advertising.
"Hey Kid, Catch," is a big story in a small package
It seems like simple, but this commercial was tightly constructed by the advertising geniuses at McCann-Erickson (the same company behind Coca-Cola's "It's The Real Thing" spot), "Hey Kid, Catch" tells the story of a tired warrior who fails, and then succeeds at bringing joy to one of his fans.
Written by Penny Hawkey, the commercial shows Greene returning to the Steelers locker room to heal up for another game of roughneck football. He's tired, he looks like he's been in the fight of his life, and then some kid stops him to ask if he wants a Coke.
KID: I just want you to know, I think -- I think you're the best ever.
GREENE: Yeah, sure.
KID: Want my Coke?
No, he doesn't want a swig of Coke. He wants to sit in a hot tub and never think about slamming into 300 pound offensive linemen again. But after a few beats Greene relents and accepts the Coke, then drinks the whole thing in one swig while joyful Coke-touting music plays ("a Coke and a smile... makes me feel goo-o-ood"). The kid sighs, figuring he's out a whole Coke for no compensation, and says "See you around." At this point, it's a story of meeting your idol and being disappointed. I met Mean Joe Greene and all he did was drink my whole Coke.
The kid is trudging toward the stadium exit when Greene says, "Hey kid." Our young fan turns around and Greene, smiling from ear to ear, pulls the jersey from his shoulder and throws it to him.
KID: Wow, thanks Mean Joe!
The ad, which was made in a 60-second version and cut down to a 30-second one (with less dialogue), has everything that you want out of a good story: pathos, yearning, and a good message.
The ad doesn't work without Greene
Mean Joe Greene wasn't just a catchy name. Standing at 6’4″ and weighing in at 275 pounds he was a nightmare for anyone playing offense. And as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers he was a part of a lineage of gridiron beasts. At the time Greene wasn't a guy you wanted to bother on or off the field, but that's why this commercial works so well.
Greene was 11 years into his NFL career at this point, which is a long time to brutalize your body no matter what sport you're playing. His look of world-weary defeat in this Coca-Cola ad is real and audiences immediately picked up on that. Casting Greene in this role is essentially like casting the Rat Pack in Ocean's 11. The audience brings all of their knowledge about these people to the viewing experience, making it impossible to extricate the real person from the role they're playing.
At the time that the ad aired, Greene was nearing the end of his career, so seeing him bloodied and weary in a commercial wasn't even much of a stretch. And when he turns on that smile? It's like seeing a whole new side of the star player. The entire commercial is a masterclass in storytelling, but it's Greene that makes it pop. According to Hawkey, he knew Greene was the guy just because of his name. He told CBS:
We were asked to do an exploratory, that is to take the Coca-Cola brand and see where else it could go in its communications. The guys were sitting there saying, 'Who could we get? We could get Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene.' And I said, 'Wait, there's a guy named Mean Joe Greene? Is he mean?' And they said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well, that's perfect. We want the most intimidating human being we can find, and boy, did we get it.
Greene nearly quit the commercial
Filming this simple commercial proved to be touch and go for its star, even though things got off to a swell start. According to Tom Okon, the nine-year-old who plays opposite Greene in the ad, things on set were really laid back. He even got to pal around with the football star for a while before filming. He explained:
Of course, I had brought a football [to the set] and [I] went over to Joe and asked if he would throw the football around, and he said sure.
The two on-camera talents formed a bond that helped them create a commercial masterpiece, but there was some trouble when it came to actually drinking the Coke. In 1992 Greene told the Baltimore Sun:
Between me belching and going to the men’s room, it took three days to film it.
Supposedly Greene almost walked off the commercial because of his personal frustration, but after he and his lawyer had a sit-down the shooting continued and things went smoothly.
The commercial made Greene less mean
Greene is quick to point out that the widely-seen spot made him instantly recognizable thanks to his lack of helmet in the ad, but it also made him more approachable. He said that not only were people walking up to him on the street and offering him a Coke, but he was suddenly a major star in the world of the NFL. He told representatives from Coca-Cola that he realized the impact of the ad during the 1980 NFL Pro Bowl:
Typically, the guys who handle the ball – the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers – get all the attention. But as we were leaving the field, all these kids ran past great names like Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, OJ Simpson and Earl Campbell, and came up to me. They were carrying Coke bottles, saying, ‘Mean Joe, Mean Joe, will you sign my bottle?’ And I thought, my goodness, times have changed.
The commercial changed the face of advertising, literally
Aside from turning Greene into a star overnight and allowing him to transition from a player to an analyst for the NFL, this one Coca-Cola commercial put black men front and center in national advertising for the first time ever. Hawkey is quick to say that no one at McCann-Erickson planned the sea change, but they're happy it happened. He said:
While we didn’t set out to make a great social or cultural statement, we certainly had one. Joe was perhaps the first black male to appear in a national brand commercial, and it had a profound affect at the time. The letters we got were full of gratitude and excitement.
No matter who you are or where you're from, this ad for Coca-Cola is more than just a commercial, it's a story of kindness and hope that just so happens to feature a crisp, refreshing cola.