Before they could make the magic that they hope will have millions of Americans buzzing on Sunday night, the men and women behind one of Super Bowl LII’s potential hits had to build a road.
They had to take dynamite to a hill, extend a dirt trail, and haul hundreds of humans and equipment to a stunning 2,000-acre ranch in Middleofnowhere, New Zealand. They wove through verdant mountains, their WiFi and cell service evaporating as they did. Their destination was a picturesque valley replete with rock formations that, from afar, could have passed for bulging blocks of Styrofoam.
They were there, thousands of miles away from home, because of two silly words. Or rather one, repeated twice, whose popularity is almost inexplicable.
They were there, a short distance away from the site of a “Hobbit” shoot, for 90 seconds of film that will roll across TV screens Sunday. As they rehash the trip a month later, they acknowledge its epic absurdity. But it’s the type of grandiosity that America’s biggest sporting event calls for. This is what Super Bowl advertising – one of the many games surrounding the game – has come to.
“I have 90 seconds during 3½ hours to reach and touch 115 million people,” says Andy Goeler, the vice president of marketing at Bud Light, which commissioned the New Zealand expedition. “It kind of boggles your mind when you think about it.”
That’s why the anatomies of the 30- and 60-second spots that aim to captivate and amuse you on Sunday night are so complex. They span months and many meetings. They undergo scientific tests and intense scrutiny. In the case of Bud Light, the evolution can be traced back from New Zealand to a church basement on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the offices of Wieden + Kennedy in New York. There, last summer, NJ Placentra and Alex Ledford were in search of a catchy substitute for “huzzah.” They toyed with several phrases. And then one of them uttered the words that birthed a Super Bowl commercial.
“The Super Bowl is such an important advertising moment that you’re kind of always thinking about it.”
Those are the words of Brandon Henderson, a creative director at Wieden + Kennedy, the ad agency that teamed up with Bud Light and several other brands for their 30 seconds in the sun. And he’s not the only one whose mind is always wandering to early February. For every 30 seconds, there are dozens of people like him.
“We’ve been planning for the beginning of this year since last summer,” says Azania Andrews, the VP of marketing at Michelob Ultra. Her brand, like Bud Light, will run two Super Bowl ads. “There is a long and involved creative development process. … We put together a brief for the agency, and then we ideate for several months across a variety of different ideas before we land on the ideas we ultimately pursue.”
Many agencies will employ two-person teams that concoct scripts, which are then passed up the chain of command. “Nine scripts hit the floor for every one that even gets to [my partner] and I,” Henderson says. The creative directors narrow the selection down even more. Eventually, scripts reach the clients – the companies whose products the scripts will sell.
Clients and agencies then go back and forth, back and forth. There are presentations, critical feedback, informal discussions, meetings of all kinds. “There are several rounds like that until we get to things that we’re excited about,” Andrews says.
Meanwhile, she and her colleagues are testing the various concepts with consumers whom the commercial will eventually hope to entice. They speak with focus groups. They commission surveys and other online research.
The goal is to create something that will be more than a commercial; something that will be the centerpiece of a campaign. Michelob Ultra’s two spots, which both feature movie star Chris Pratt, will be launching pads – “a beginning stage,” as Andrews puts it. “And we’ll continue to bring pieces of these ideas to life throughout the year.”
That’s why the Super Bowl spots won’t just be TV commercials. They’ve already been released digitally, and pushed on social channels .
— Michelob ULTRA (@MichelobULTRA) January 29, 2018
“I would love for it to find its way onto people’s Spotify workout playlists,” Andrews says.
The dream, in other words, is to do what Bud Light and its partners have already done.
By November, Super Bowl brainstorming at Wieden + Kennedy and Bud Light was in full swing. But so was something else. So was the toast-turned-catchphrase and cultural phenomenon that they had almost accidentally conspired to coin.
It had first been uttered months ago. Placentra and Ledford, an art director and copywriter, aren’t sure which one of them pioneered it. “Originally, Dilly Dilly was only in the script once. It wasn’t really the joke,” Placentra explains. But when their script arrived at the desk of Henderson and fellow creative director John Parker, Henderson started laughing. “It came so out of left field,” he recalls. “And when you have teams of people whose only job is to present you with funny scripts, and one catches you by surprise, you know you kind of have something special.”
Still, though, they didn’t know they had something this special. Not even when they started to hear approving chatter about the phrase from co-workers and clients. Not even when the original “Dilly Dilly” commercial, “Banquet,” first aired in August. They didn’t know they had something that would begin to appear on “College GameDay” signs and customized jerseys . They didn’t know they had something that would turn into a Ben Roethlisberger audible.
Around that time, Wieden and Bud Light, after considering other Super Bowl possibilities, came to a conclusion that Parker succinctly sums up: “We’d be stupid to not embrace this.”
And – with a Super-sized budget, an eight-figure sum already spent on time during Sunday’s game, and millions of eyes expectant – they’d have been stupid to keep the final sequels confined to a Manhattan church basement.
The flight to New Zealand was an epic in itself. It was 18 grueling hours that can feel like two days. Jason Edmonds was one of the first from the production team to make it. His stay would last nearly a month.
He and Jim Jenkins, the Dilly Dilly director since summer, had been in search of the setting for a medieval battle. They had ruled out the Northern Hemisphere because of weather and limited daylight, but scoured the Southern one. They dispatched a location scout to South America and South Africa as well.
They settled on this vast expanse of rolling hills, greenery and charcoal-colored cliffs about 20 minutes outside of Te Kuiti, a remote town 2½ hours south of Auckland whose claim to fame is sheep shearing capital of the world.
In fact, with an approximately a 170-person crew assembled, 200 extras hired, their weapons and armored costumes built from scratch, and the recently constructed road providing better access, team members initially arrived at their chosen farm to find … sheep. Hundreds of them.
“They were everywhere. And they are so loud,” recalls Henderson, who realized they’d interfere with dialogue recording.
To the rescue came the farmer who has owned the land for decades.
Oh, you don’t want those sheep there? he said in his Kiwi drawl. I’ll have ‘em out tomorrow.
“And the dude went on a little four-wheeler, with three collies, and he cleared the mountains of sheep overnight,” Henderson says. “When we got there the next morning, they were gone. It was amazing.”
The shoot lasted six days. Six days that would provide material for long weeks of post-production editing, visual effects and computer enhancements. And eventually, of course, 90 seconds of film that will air on Sunday, 30 for “Ye Olde Pep Talk ” during the first quarter, 60 for “Bud Knight” during the second.
It was six days of alternative lines, slight tweaks, variation within scenes and stumbles. The first time John Hoogenakker, the actor who played the king, yelled “Dilly Dilly” as his war cry, his horse reared back on its hind legs and nearly tossed him from the saddle.
It was six days without access to text messages or Internet on set, save for a tiny antenna attached to a nearby wooden pole that offered one bar of service at best. Six days of four-wheel drive bus trips up and down mountains. More than six days, actually, of designing and building a convenience store that the farmer enthusiastically agreed to keep on his land.
“All that,” Placentra says, “because of a really dumb commercial.”