Penny Hawkey set out to write the Great American Novel. Instead, she ended up writing the Great American Ad.

“What does a great novel have to do with a great ad?" you ask.

They both have the same DNA, the stuff of great storytelling.

The Making of the 'Mean' Joe Greene Ad

Watch a 2009 Coca-Cola interview with Joe Greene on the making of the iconic ad.

The 60-second commercial aired during the 1980 Big Game. If you were watching that day – along with tens of millions of other Americans – you saw "Mean" Joe Greene, a menacing defenseman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, leave the field and head for the locker room only to encounter a sweet, nine-year-old boy, who offers him his own bottle of Coca-Cola. Joe refuses, relents, drinks the Coke, is refreshed, then turns away from the kid, who registers disappointment.

Is his idol not even going to thank him?

Each year, the Ultimate American Sporting Event makes legends of a few advertisers, and nitwits out of many. But among the legends, Coca-Cola’s “Mean Joe” commercial is widely regarded as the game’s all-time reigning champion. Greene and the Pittsburgh Steelers went on to trample the Los Angeles Rams 31-19 in that game. Since then, viewers have consistently ranked it among the top Big Game ads.

If you ask them why, many fumble around with an answer. Some like the “fuzzy feeling” they get watching it through their television screen. Others feel “inspired.” And still others like “the message,” though they can’t say what, exactly, the message is.  

So if you’re wondering why the commercial still resonates with the public 33 years after its first appearance, here’s the simple answer: It’s a great ad because it’s a great narrative. It contains all the magical storytelling elements found in a Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or the classic folk stories of Hans Christian Anderson or Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey.

“It’s the only ad that’s ever moved me to tears,” says Bill Ford, who spent 30 years in the trenches of advertising and now teaches it at the University of North Texas, Greene’s alma mater. “And I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

An Emotional Tug

Penny says she’ll never forget the day she and her creative team were showing the first rough cut of “Mean Joe” to one of Coca-Cola’s top executives. “He got tears in his eyes, and then we all began tearing up,” she recalls. “I had never seen an executive for any company cry before over an ad.”

Penny Hawkey

Penny Hawkey, who wrote "Mean Joe," sports Greene's helmet on the set of the 1979 commercial shoot.

But if you think that emotional tug in the ad was created through serendipity, think again. The commercial is constructed out of the same classic narrative form recommended in Aristotle’s fourth century Poetics, carried along by dramatic characters facing conflict, dilemma, misery or peril, and make choices that either move them toward a resolution of their problem or make matters worse.

The acclaimed American scholar, Joseph Campbell, identified the DNA found in all great narratives.

An archetype, known as The Hero, embarks on some kind of quest to achieve some lofty ambition. Shortly after his or her call to leave their ordinary world, the hero moves through a series of stages – refusing, out of fear, their call, and facing various tests and ordeals. But finally, the hero overcomes his fears and enters the cave, tunnel, dungeon, rough sea or some other terrifying place, moving him closer to his quest. Along the way, the hero often faces a world of misery. But he keeps moving toward a resolution or a reward, empowered by an elixir that transforms him or his adversaries.

Sounds like the “Mean Joe” story, doesn’t it?

Asked if she was well-schooled in these storytelling models when she wrote her Great American Ad, Penny laughs aloud. “A commercial is just a commercial,” she says. “It’s not Hemingway.”

No one in her ad agency, McCann Erickson, or at Coca-Cola, she says, could have imagined that the ad would receive the acclaim it did – winning such prestigious awards as a Cannes “Gold Lion” and the Clio, the advertising world’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, and becoming one of the most popular and enduring ads in American history. The ad even inspired a made-for-TV movie.

Mean Joe ad

"Mean Joe" won a Cannes “Gold Lion” and the Clio, the advertising world’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.

No wonder. It’s a story of almost mythic appeal. The stadium is packed. Fans are screaming. A security guard has his hands full trying to control the crowd milling around him. A middle-age woman tries to sneak past the guard into the tunnel. The guard grabs her and escorts her back into the stadium. But the boy quietly sneaks behind the security guard, with a big bottle of Coke in his right hand, trailing his hero down the dimly-lit tunnel.

Greene, battle-scarred and broken, hobbles down the other side of the tunnel toward the locker room. His head stooped, he carries his scuffed-up helmet in his hand.

Boy: “Mr. Greene? Mr. Greene? You need any help?”  

Mean Joe: "Uh. Uh."

Visual: Mean Joe looks back at the boy dismissively, as if to say, Go away.

Boy: “I just want you to know.” He stammers. “I think.” Stammers. “I think. You’re the best ever.”

Visual: Mean Joe turns his head back over his left shoulder toward the boy.

Mean Joe: “Ya, sure.”

Visual: Boy holds up his Coke and offers it to Joe. We can see that it’s his one and only Coke.

Boy: “Want my Coke?” 

Visual: The boy holds up his hefty bottle as an offering once again. 

Visual: Mean Joe looks back at the boy with a scowl. He doesn’t answer his question.

Visual: The boy again offers Mean Joe his Coke.

Boy: “Really, you can have it” – his voice almost pleading.

Visual: Joe sighs and shakes his head, but stoops over and reaches his arm out to accept the boy’s Coke.

Mean Joe: “Okay. Okay.”

Visual: A smile surfaces on Joe’s face as he lifts the 20-ounce bottle of Coke to his lips, and starts guzzling.

As Joe guzzles, viewers hear a Coca-Cola jingle: 

A Coke and a smile
Makes me feel good
Makes me feel nice
That’s the way it should be
I like to see
The whole world smiling at me.
Coca-Cola adds life
Have a Coke and a smile

Visual: Joe is still guzzling the boy’s Coke. Camera turns to the boy, who is looking up at Joe, slack jawed, watching his Coke disappear. The boy shrugs, sighs, and waves goodbye to Mean Joe. “See ya around,” the boy says, dejectedly, and turns to walk back up the tunnel.

Visual: As Joe finishes the boy’s Coke, he pulls his sweaty jersey off his right shoulder.

Mean Joe: “Hey kid.” He smiles and tosses the boy his jersey. “Catch.”

Visual: The boy catches the jersey in both arms, like a wide receiver cradling a football, looking as if he had just caught the game-winning touchdown.

Boy: “Wow, thanks Mean Joe.”

Visual: Mean Joe’s smile is now as wide as the tunnel.

Coca-Cola’s jingle captures the mood: “Have a Coke and a smile.”

Visual: The boy turns and heads back up the tunnel toward the stadium. Mean Joe, still smiling, turns and heads back into the locker room.

Music with voiceover: “Have a Coke and a smile”

Despite the tears of the Coca-Cola executive, the ad didn’t test well with sample audiences. So Penny and her creative team had their hands full trying to persuade Coca-Cola’s management to compete in the Slugfest of Champions.

During one presentation, Penny, a tall blonde who once aspired to be an actress, jumped up on the conference table and employed all the theatrical skills she could muster to persuade the executives that her ad should be a Big Game contender. But she must have forgotten, at least momentarily, that she was pregnant and nursing. Suddenly, her milk started pouring out of her blouse to the astonishment of the men surrounding her in pin-striped three-piece suits. “That was the story of my life,” says Penny. “I was always pregnant and surrounded by men.”

Penny says she just knew the ad would connect emotionally – as all great stories do – with just about everyone. How did she know? From reading the script aloud and acting out the scenes in front of her 8 year old son. He connected to it on such a deep emotional level, she says, “that to this day, he thinks he wrote it.”

Penny learned the art of storytelling sitting at her family’s dining table. “I came from an old Irish family that told great yarns filled with romance, larger-than-life characters and heavy doses of humor,” Penny says. “A shaggy dog joke might go on for 15 minutes.” What she remembers most about these funny, feel-good tales is not the content, but the delivery. The storyteller’s “rhythm and delivery is what made them entertaining,” she says.

Those lessons weren’t lost on Penny when, years later, she sat down to write ad copy for her clients, including the “Mean Joe” spot. Instead of employing a lot of exposition and description in her scripts (like many journalists do), “I’m more inclined toward a story that moves along using dialogue.”

From the storytellers in her family and from reading great literature as a child, “I understood, intuitively, the Hero’s Journey,” she says, without any formal instruction in the narrative craft. So when she began to storyboard “Mean Joe,” she instinctively constructed the narrative from the same models as Joseph Campbell. “The ordinary world, conflict, the cave (or tunnel), the elixir, resolution, redemption” – were all woven into the creation of the 60-second commercial, Penny says.

At the time, the ad was both innovative and daring in its use of dialogue and two characters that normally wouldn’t belong in the same room – a fearsome black man (best known for crunching players on the field) and a sweet white boy who worshipped him – to tell a story that would resonate, emotionally, with consumers. In fact, Coca-Cola’s executives wanted to feature Terry Bradshaw or Roger Staubach – until McCann Erickson’s creative director, Roger Marconi, convinced Coca-Cola to go with “Mean Joe.”

Screengrab from Mirage ad

A cowboy from this year's Big Game ad eyes the "mirage' of an ice-cold Coke in the distance.

In breaking with tradition, Coca-Cola also changed its culture. Today, storytelling is the heart of the company’s brand, driving every phase of its advertising and marketing campaigns. To appreciate that, viewers have to look no further than this year’s Big Game ads featuring a bizarre cast of characters – a desert nomad and his camel, a busload of dazzling showgirls, a band of dusty, hard-riding cowboys and a pack of Badlanders in hulking contraptions – all riding across a desert on a quest to get their hands on a towering bottle of Coke that appears in the distance like a water tower.

Along the way, these larger-than-life characters face every manner of difficulty – from cannon fire to sabotage – to satisfy their thirst. But there’s a twist in this year’s tale: Coca-Cola is allowing fans to decide how the storyline ends. They vote online who they think will get to the Coke first, and find out during Sunday’s game.

Penny Hawkey

Penny Hawkey today.

How the storyline ends for Penny Hawkey, now 70, is also yet to be determined. She’s spending her retirement years raising grandchildren, perennials and organic vegetables at her farm, 45 miles from New York City. But she’s also still hard at work each day creating stories – through photography, screen plays and a memoir she just started titled, “Now That I’m Dead. Part One.”

Despite the title, Penny can’t imagine living a day without laying words down on the page. “I’m a writer,” she says. “And writers are persistent.”

Like the little boy in the “Mean Joe” ad. 

 George Getschow, director and writer-in-residence of the nationally acclaimed Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, spent 16 years at The Wall Street Journal as a reporter, editor and bureau chief. At the Journal, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Robert F. Kennedy Award for “distinguished writing” about the underprivileged. In 2010, he was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for “distinctive literary achievement." Today, he is a principal lecturer and writing coach at the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton.