From zero to hero in 30 seconds flat

Bruce Horovitz


There might be just one thing sexier than starring in the Super Bowl game: starring in a Super Bowl commercial.

Or having a handprint on one.

It’s the superfast track to superstardom. It’s a national barometer of what’s hip. And it gets advertisers face time with 130 million viewers. But at an enormous price. Each of the 32 advertisers on Sunday’s Super Bowl has plunked down an average of $1.9 million for 30 seconds of airtime on Fox. Some, such as Anheuser-Busch, will spend upward of $10 million.

For what? Well, how about cultural immortality?

A single Super Bowl commercial can change the way society talks. Consider: A nation of frog lovers jointly croaking “Bud-wei-ser.”

It can change what makes us laugh. Consider: A grinning monkey clapping its hands for E-Trade. It can change what consumers buy. Consider: Apple’s Macintosh computers virtually sold out the day after the computer maker’s famous “1984” commercial made its debut during a Super Bowl.

And it can change what makes us feel good. Consider: When “Mean” Joe Green tossed his jersey to the Coca-Cola-carting kid in 1980, America’s collective heart fluttered.

But Super Bowl ads don’t just change those who watch them. They can instantly change the lives of those who create them. Or direct them. Or star in them.

Perhaps nobody knows that better than actress Ali Landry.

Two years after winning the Miss USA title, she was still a virtual unknown. Then she was cast for a Doritos commercial that aired on the 1998 Super Bowl. In the ad, filmed in a Laundromat, she plays a sexy customer who catches Doritos chips in her mouth as they come flying helter-skelter.

“That one Super Bowl ad changed everything,” says Landry. “It’s the best thing that ever happened in my career — and that includes becoming Miss USA.”

The day after the Doritos ad ran, studio chiefs at Disney and Fox summoned her. She was offered a record deal, she says, “even though I can’t sing.”

Hollywood has come calling. She has the title role in the upcoming film Repli-Kate from the producers of American Pie. And she co-starred in the film Beautiful with Minnie Driver.

The success of her first Doritos spot also landed her a three-year contract with Frito-Lay. Wherever she goes, Landry says, people call her “The Doritos Girl.” She doesn’t mind. The ad made her famous, wealthy — and, yes, influential. “People tell me that they eat Doritos because of me,” she says.

Even five-star celebrities jockey to get their mugs into Super Bowl spots. And why not? The best ads get more buzz than the game itself.

Michael Jordan has been in nearly a dozen. Cindy Crawford has been in a handful. And next Sunday, Britney Spears wiggles her way into a flashy, 90-second Super Bowl commercial for Pepsi.

No one appears in a Super Bowl ad and walks away unaffected.

“It’s the advertising Olympics,” says Carol Moog, an ad psychologist. “It’s the Big Stage where careers are blessed — or cursed.”

For Bo Jackson, memories of his Super Bowl ad for Lipton tea linger. Jackson was a dual-sport hero — a star running back for the Los Angeles Raiders and outfielder for the Kansas City Royals. In the ad, which ran in 1994, Jackson appears to race down a staircase to the bottom of a skyscraper just in time to catch a can of Lipton that he dropped off the roof.

Recently, an adoring but gullible fan asked Jackson how he accomplished that feat. “I was younger and faster then,” Jackson told her. She believed him.

Jackson recalls one thing most about that Super Bowl spot: It changed his family life. “My kids began to realize that ‘Daddy’ was Bo Jackson,” says Jackson, who now is majority owner of a company that makes Bo Jackson’s Better Bar, a nutrition bar. “I had a lot of explaining to do.”

For Bob Dole, the fallout from appearing in two Super Bowl spots — one for Visa and one for Pepsi — has been humbling.

Dole thought he was best known as a senator. Or as a presidential candidate. But that isn’t true among the younger set. When Dole appeared with President Bush at a high school in Maryland, Dole saw a student point to him, then overheard him telling his buddy, “That’s the guy from the Pepsi commercial.”

The Pepsi spot was a spoof of the Viagra ads that Dole had made.

The Visa spot also was self-mocking. In it, he returns to his hometown after losing the election and can’t cash a check because nobody recognizes him.

When he did that ad, Dole had no idea what a big deal a Super Bowl commercial was. “Then I got to the studio and saw 80 people on the scene — and a trailer sitting there just for me. I said to myself, ‘This must be the Big Time.’ ”

Dole won’t say what he made from the spots. But analysts estimate more than $1 million between the two. “I wish I had one this year,” Dole says.

But it’s not just the name-brand celebrities who lust for the Super Bowl limelight. For unknowns, it can make the difference between waiting on tables and riding in limos.

Just ask Shelley Malil. You probably know him better as the guy who starred in one of Budweiser’s Super Bowl spots last year. But instead of uttering the familiar, hip “Whassup?!” phrase, he and his yuppie buddies politely chirped, “What are you doing?”

The ad was a hit. He’s since been offered a deal to co-star in a new sitcom on Fox. And with the wealth he’s amassed, he’s looking for a new home. “As an actor, you hope to do one thing that will make you stand out,” says Malil. “I’m still amazed at the weight a Super Bowl ad can carry.”

Malil can’t go anywhere without being recognized — even the sauna. Recently, Malil was sitting buck naked in a Los Angeles steam room — along with nine strangers — when one of them recognized him. Before he left the steam room, all nine of the men were volleying, “What are you doing?”

Then, there’s Madison Avenue’s take on the Super Bowl.

For top agency executives, it can be almost like the Ego Bowl. Directing Super Bowl spots has become a calling card for a handful of top directors. And for ad agency writers and creative directors, the Super Bowl has become like a societal Big Screen TV.

Here’s how a handful of agency workers — from grunts to CEOs — have won Super Bowl fame:

The writer

Two years ago, 25-year-old Ian Kalman was on about the lowest rung at the San Francisco ad agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. He was a so-called “creative assistant” who ran errands for agency staff.

On a lark last year, he approached agency CEO Jeff Goodby with an idea he had to take Budweiser’s popular “Whassup?!” campaign to the next level. Kalman created the now-famous “What are you doing?” line.

It changed his life. He got a fat bonus. And a new title. He went from sitting in a cubicle to his own office with a view of the San Francisco coastline. “I had headhunters calling me for the next month,” he says.

The director

Joe Pytka has directed more Super Bowl spots than anyone, by his estimate, nearly 40.

Among them, the famous McDonald’s “Nothing But Net” spot with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird shooting “h-o-r-s-e” for a Big Mac. Pytka also has directed nearly a dozen of Pepsi’s Super Bowl ads, including the Britney Spears commercial that Pepsi will air during this year’s game.

One Super Bowl commercial that Pytka directed — featuring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny — became the basis for the live/animated feature film hit Space Jam. Pytka was called in to direct that, too. He shut down his production company for six months to focus on the film.

“Do something good once on the Super Bowl,” he warns, “and it’s expected all the time.”

The ad execs

* The “1984” guy. Perhaps fame came to Steve Hayden too easily.

One moment he was an ad agency hack. The next, he was heralded for writing the wildly popular “1984” ad for Apple computer, featuring a female runner who heaves a sledgehammer through a video screen on which a “Big Brother” figure is speaking.

The commercial is widely regarded as the one that transformed the Super Bowl from a football game to a showcase for Madison Avenue’s best work.

By some accounts, that commercial also helped kick off the computer revolution. At the time, Hayden says, “Having your own computer was like having your own cruise missile.”

Hayden, now vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, jokes, “I’ve been riding on the fumes of that ad ever since,”

* Steven Spielberg calling. Jim Ferguson had a simple idea: create a Super Bowl spot for McDonald’s using Pee Wee Football as a theme.

One day after the ad ran in Super Bowl in 1995, Ferguson received an unexpected call. It was Steven Spielberg. He’d seen the ad — and loved it. And he wanted Ferguson to write a screenplay based on it. Within days, Ferguson was in Hollywood meeting with Spielberg. And within a year, Ferguson had written the film Little Giants.

“To say the Super Bowl changed my life is an understatement,” says Ferguson. “I did a McDonald’s commercial that was seen by the greatest director of all time. Next thing you know, I got a movie made.”

* The clown prince. Jeff Goodby knows how to keep Super Bowl viewers laughing.

His agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, is the Super Bowl’s unofficial comic relief. It created the Bud “lizard” ads that ran during three consecutive Super Bowls. Each year, the agency submits about 25 Super Bowl ideas to Anheuser-Busch, hoping that one is tapped.

Goodby also created the ad for E-Trade with the chimpanzee clapping hands to music above this headline: “We Just Wasted $2 million on a Super Bowl commercial. What are you doing with your money?”

Only humor works during the Super Bowl, says Goodby. “For us ad guys,” says Goodby, “it’s your one chance to make a diving catch in the end zone.”

* Mr. Super Bowl. On Madison Avenue, Ted Sann is known as “Mr. Super Bowl.” Never mind that he has never attended a football game — let alone a Super Bowl.

As the chief creative officer at BBDO Worldwide, he’s supervised the creation of 30 Super Bowl spots, nearly half for Pepsi. That includes the ad with the Pepsi and Coke deliverymen duking it out in a diner over a can of Pepsi.

He remembers best the Super Bowl campaign that wasn’t. Pepsi planned a toll-free call-in stunt for the 1991 Super Bowl during the Gulf War. Callers would have heard Ray Charles singing with his famous “Uh-Huh” Girls. But at the last moment, the federal government stepped in and made them drop the 800-number from the ad. Reason: Concern it would jam phone switchboards nationwide during a time of war.

The failed star

Then, there’s Phil Sokolof.

Few remember his name. Even fewer remember his face.

But there he was two years ago, smack in the middle of the Super Bowl. At the last minute, Sokolof, a retired steel industry millionaire turned activist, plunked down $2 million to buy 30 seconds to promote his group, National Heart Savers Association. It advocates the use of cholesterol-reducing drugs to prevent heart disease.

His big mistake: He didn’t hire an ad agency. He wrote the ad himself.

In USA TODAY’s Ad Meter survey, the ad ranked next-to-last in popularity. “I can’t say I’m proud of that,” he says. “It was a downer.”

Sokolof, 80, who had his first heart attack at 43, says he has no plans to buy time on Sunday’s Super Bowl.

He’s not sure his heart could take it.