Brian Kamenetzky and Andrew Kamenetzky
Special to Page 3
You don't fly a motorcycle out of the Irwindale Speedway on a whim.
But stunt driver Mike "Mouse" McCoy found himself doing just that earlier this month on the desert outskirts of suburban L.A., the chopper he rode launched above the speedway by, well, a chopper. The flying kind.
"There are so many forces," McCoy said. "Wind. Controlling the helicopter. There's a spotter on the ground, gauging the cable. I'm fighting to keep the bike straight and run the motor. All of this has to happen in a clear, concise way. It was really hairy."
Originally, McCoy was supposed to jump the bike over a few cement mixers.
Please. Like that would impress anyone watching a Super Bowl commercial.
The magnitude of "The Super Bowl Commercial" requires companies to think big and spend bigger. Producing a 30-second spot for the Super Bowl costs, on average, about $400,000. Buying a slot during the broadcast can cost north of $2 million.
This year's big thinkers and free spenders might be AOL, who couldn't be more tied into Super Bowl advertising if they had slapped yellow running men on the Carolina Panthers' helmets. Their $10 million campaign includes sponsorship of the halftime show, three 30-second ads spread throughout the broadcast, TV teasers promoting the show, radio ads and a predictably large presence on the Web.
The media blitz, AOL execs hopes, will help energize an image in danger of flatlining.
"We want to put ourselves at the center of big events to let people know we're changing our product so loudly and overwhelmingly that we own the field," says Len Short, AOL's executive vice president of brand marketing.
The Internet service provider is shouting from the mountaintop, and the Super Bowl is Everest. With so much at stake, if a helicopter might make the difference between an average commercial and a hit, then somebody better get a whirlybird.
At the center of AOL's Super Bowl campaign are the Teutuls (Paul Sr. and brothers Paul Jr. and Mikey) of Orange County Choppers and the Discovery Channel's "American Chopper."
Perhaps America's most surprising new stars, AOL is hoping to capitalize on their burgeoning celebrity. "The Teutuls are like the guys from 'Queer Eye' a year ago," Short notes. "A lot of people are going to discover them through this."
But it's more calculated than simply latching on to the next big thing. AOL trusts they have found pitchmen with Middle America, blue-collar appeal. These guys, after all, build motorcycles. And look like it.
With fear there could be consumer backlash against companies that use celebrities in advertising, using the Teutuls, with their sleeveless T-shirts and greasy jeans, could garner potentially greater benefits for AOL, Short said. AOL can, if execs choose, run the commercials with the Teutuls for a full year for a fraction of the cost of "A-List" stars like Sharon Stone, whom they had hired for spots during the 2003 Academy Awards.
Stone was far more expensive to secure, and only allowed the commercials to run for 10 days. (Fortunate, perhaps, since the ads received many negative reviews.) AOL hopes smaller, Average Joe stars like the Teutuls will allow it to have their celebrity and affordable pitchmen, too.
The Teutuls, who would surely bristle at being compared to the "Queer Eye" cast, hope they get that year.
Though the commercials make no mention of "American Chopper," Paul Sr. said he believes "it'll draw that many more people to the show." An estimated 85 million people are expected to watch the Super Bowl, and the continuing AOL campaign will expose them to far more people than the Discovery Channel alone ever could.
Paul Jr. seems almost embarrassed by the attention: "We're iron workers; this whole industry is new to us. Then we do this Super Bowl thing. I think it's going to be really astronomical."
While the Teutuls are in a win-win situation, the pressure is ratcheted up for those behind the scenes. A successful Super Bowl commercial can launch careers.
Hank Perlman, a six-year veteran of commercial directing, had never directed a Super Bowl ad before the AOL spots, and is understandably excited. "When you direct TV commercials, getting one in the Super Bowl is the pinnacle." Though shooting a Super Bowl ad doesn't pay more -- commercial directors are paid a standard daily rate -- "In the long run it can open more doors," Perlman said.
Despite all the attention surrounding Super Bowl advertising, not every commercial seen during the game is a "Super Bowl Commercial," seeking to win online polls and the water cooler accolades. Gillette, for example, will return to the Super Bowl broadcast after a 10-year absence with a 60-second spot in the third quarter. Those who are expecting six jealous sheepdogs bemoaning their lack of opposable thumbs after watching their masters wield their Mach 3 Turbo razors will be disappointed. (Think that's a stupid idea? Spots using any combination of comedy and animals often take the polls.)
"We didn't produce the spot for the Super Bowl; we're using the Super Bowl to launch the campaign," Gillette exec Eric Kraus said. "We're not looking for the shock factor."
What they are looking for is an estimated 55 million men who will tune in on Sunday.
In contrast to AOL, the Gillette spot is quick-cutting and visually driven, "based on aspirational and emotional connections that guys have," Kraus says. While it will feature the Mach 3 Turbo, it is really designed to connect men to the Gillette brand, promoting an association between masculinity, high performance and its products. While Gillette fully intends to deliver an entertaining, slick and visually interesting ad, its corporate execs understand the spot probably won't win any online polls. They just want their message delivered.
The AOL spots, shot on two coasts over six days of taping, were substantial by commercial standards, but creating Gillette's commercial was an even more massive undertaking. The bulk of its shoot took place over two weeks, in Australia and the U.S. But not before concepts and images underwent extensive testing, helping Gillette fine tune the message. The resulting commercial will air worldwide for many months to come. "The campaign restates the company for the next 20 years," says the spot's creative director, Al Merrin of BBDO Worldwide.
While Gillette respects the importance of the Super Bowl and the advertising phenomenon it represents, the pressure for those on the Gillette set comes from the massive campaign rather than the venue of its debut. Its commercial would have been made even if the Super Bowl didn't exist.
Gillette was equally unafraid to bring in talent, hiring Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson and NBA star Corey Maggette to film sequences for the ad.
Unlike AOL's featured role for the Teutuls, neither Johnson nor Maggette will be on screen for more than a few seconds, nor will their names appear anywhere on screen. In fact, depending on what shots make the final edit, they may not even be recognizable.
"We're using them for their athletic prowess. We're not looking to have a star-studded campaign of athletes," Gillette's Kraus said.
But what seems like unnecessary extravagance on the part of AOL and Gillette actually has a purpose. The agreement AOL reached with the NFL to sponsor the Super Bowl halftime show included the three commercials during the game. When combined with the exposure of the halftime show, radio ads, and teaser spots that debuted two weeks ago during the AFC Championship game, AOL execs feel they're getting a great deal for their $10 million.
By consolidating a worldwide campaign into one shoot, Gillette and BBDO believe they have, in the long run, made for a cost effective commercial. Because they shot more images than they needed, Kraus notes they'll have flexibility to adjust the spot to promote different products or meet the advertising tastes of a particular nation. Considering the size and scope of the campaign, trading the added expense of Johnson and Maggette for an increased level of perfection isn't at all outrageous.
And AOL's helicopter? Why spend $10 million, then get chintzy in the end?
"We could have done it a number of cheap ways, but we wouldn't have gotten the same effect," McCoy said. "It went off flawlessly, and I think you'll be able to see that it in the final cut. It's just hilarious, because it looks so real."
Ironically, despite all the hoopla, pressure and financial stakes riding on the campaigns, the shoots themselves are incredibly slow, tedious exercises. The AOL helicopter stunt required hours of preparation for a moment of excitement. Simpler sequences still required long stretches of equipment adjustment. The Teutuls were asked to repeat lines over and over again, to make sure every possible delivery was available for the final edit.
It was no different with Gillette. To create one sequence for its ad, it shot a giant replica of the Mach 3 Turbo.
No people, no music.
Just a giant razor.
The shoots were days of "hurry up and wait" that the two companies hope become 30- and 60-second chunks of entertaining and effective advertising. Reputations and big, big money are at stake.
"That's one thing about this business," a smiling Merrin said. "You can always make a big mistake real quick."