Hailed by Ad Age as one of the top 10 Coca-Cola ads of all time, McCann-Erickson’s famous commercial shows Pittsburgh Steeler “Mean” Joe Greene limping toward the locker room after an injury, only to be approached by a starry-eyed young fan, played by nine-year-old Tommy Okon. The boy shyly offers the intimidating player his Coke, which Greene reluctantly accepts but then guzzles enthusiastically. Coke’s classic jingle, “Have a Coke and a smile,” kicks in as Greene’s menacing demeanor melts.
The spot, which was officially titled “Early Showers,” aired first not during the Super Bowl but on Monday Night Football in October 1979, prior to its big-game debut the following year and return in 1981. It was art directed by Roger Mosconi and written by Penny Hawkey, who gave some background in a post on Coca-Cola’s corporate blog:
We wanted a boy and an intimidating man -- someone who needs and someone who rejects -- and to have plenty of tension and relief when the Coke was handed over … 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 effect at the time. The letters we got were full of gratitude and excitement.
The commercial was shot at a municipal stadium in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in May 1979. Technical hurdles and weather stretched a half-day shoot over three days. And Greene had to chug about 2.25 gallons of Coke before he arrived on the perfect take.
Greene said the ad had lasting repercussions on his life. It transformed him from brute to teddy bear seemingly overnight and during an interview also featured on the Coke site, he recalled:
It wasn’t uncommon for me to go on the road and see this very grotesque looking figure, you know, painted on boards, placards -- “Mean Joe.' But all of that flipped. I was approachable, whereas before I wasn’t … Little kids, they were not afraid of me. They would all offer me Coke.
The ad proved to have enduring entertainment value. TV shows including “The Simpsons,” “Sesame Street,” “Newhart” and “The Family Guy” paid homage to the ad with their own takes. Two years after it aired, It inspired a made-for-TV movie, starring Greene and little-known child actor Henry Thomas (later to star in "E.T.") In 2009, Coke Zero adapted it ("Mean Troy"). And in 2015, Coca-Cola brought the ad back to TV for a Nascar broadcast.