The Super Bowl Ad That Got Away
I’m a big NFL fan. And like everyone else in the country, I watched the Super Bowl last night. Of course, my team, the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t even make the post-season this year. So, I wasn’t emotionally invested in the game.
But, I always love watching the ads. During the years I worked in the ad business, I never produced an ad that aired in the Super Bowl. However, I did work on one ad that was supposed to run in the game.
It was back in 2006. I was at Euro RSCG New York working on Advair, an asthma drug manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline. We were doing a campaign to promote asthma awareness and Jerome Bettis (also known as “The Bus) was our spokesperson. At the time, Jerome was the running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers and it was his last season before retirement. I had been pestering my clients that we had to run a Super Bowl ad featuring Jerome if the Steelers made it all the way.
I remember watching the AFC championship game that year. The Steelers vs. the Colts. The Colts were the favorite to win it all. But, the Steelers pulled the upset.
So, I texted my client: “Jerome will be the star of the most watched event of the year. Should we buy a Super Bowl ad?”
It was really a joke. I didn’t expect much. But, he texted me back a few minutes later and said, “Let’s do it”.
Wow. We just got approval to buy a Super Bowl ad. The only problem — we didn’t have an ad to run.
So, the next morning I talked to Rich Russo, our creative director. Rich is one of the best guys I’ve worked with in my career. Amazing creative talent, highly strategic, a strong manger/leader and great with clients. I told him we had to produce a Super Bowl ad.
You have to realize that most companies spend a full year working on Super Bowl ads. We had less than two weeks.
Rich spent a few hours coming up with ideas. In the afternoon, he walked into my office and said, “I got it!” He showed me a script for an ad that was a take-off of the classic Coke Super Bowl ad with Mean Joe Green from 1979. It was very appropriate because Bettis was a Steeler just like Mean Joe. You can see the original ad below:
We pitched the idea to our client. They loved it and we were off to the races.
In just a few days, we cast the spot, found a location, booked Jerome, got a director. We also bought the media placement so there was no going back. Interesting note, the ad cost about $750,000 because we had committed significant media dollars to ABC Network that year and they had available inventory in the game. Very few advertisers ever pay the full rate card for a Super Bowl ad.
We shot the ad at Carnegie Mellon University on their football field. It ended up being a snowy day which added a nice visual effect to the ad.
In the end, we were able to get it done. Right before we were going to ship the ad to the network, I got a call from my client. We had to pull the ad.
There had just been some backlash about pharmaceutical advertising in the press and the senior executives at GSK were concerned about doing an ad in such a high profile venue. It was a reasonable decision to make but we were all devastated, including my clients. Advertising is a tough business and requires a lot of resiliency. We all moved on to the next project. We didn’t get our money back for the Super Bowl ad, but we were able to reallocate those dollars into other ABC programming.
You can watch the final “Jerome and Kid” ad below. It turned out a bit schmaltzy. Originally, we had a humorous ending where the kid throws Bettis the jersey, then shakes his head and says, “Super Bowl ads”. But, after a lot of debate with our client, we ended up going for a more emotional ending. I still like the ad a lot and would have loved to see it run in the big game. Maybe next time.
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