Animals are the stars of the Super ad Bowl List

Smile! You’re the stars of the Super ad Bowl

By Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY

Some of the biggest stars of this year’s Super Bowl won’t be decked out in helmets and shoulder pads. They may be wearing flea collars.

The NFL’s season finale is not just the Super Bowl. It’s the Commercial Bowl, too. Keep in mind: 14% of those viewing the Super Bowl will be watching just for the ads, according to a survey of 1,000 adults conducted last week by Eisner Communications.

Some say this ad competition is looking more and more like the Animal Bowl. Nearly one in five Super Bowl commercials over the past decade has featured an animal of some variety.

That’s why one real star from Sunday’s game might not be an Oakland Raider or a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. It might be an aging zebra recruited by Anheuser-Busch’s hyper-aggressive marketing team, whose Super Bowl game plan each year is to win the Monday morning water cooler chat-a-thon.

In real life, the 30-year-old zebra, Ty, is a feisty critter that likes to munch animal pellets. During Anheuser-Busch’s lead commercial on Super Bowl Sunday – in a visual gag that has been kept supersecret until now – the zebra (you could see this coming) wears his stripes in an official capacity. He’s called upon to make the call on a crucial instant replay during a gritty, gridiron battle played by A-B’s Clydesdale horses.

The zebra is a study in calm as he sticks his head into the curtained instant replay box and studies the monitor, just like real NFL officials – men in stripes sometimes referred to as, yes, zebras.

When it comes to the rest of the Super Bowl’s 61 ad slots this year – each of which will fetch a cool $2.2 million per 30 seconds – animals rule the kingdom. And they have for decades.

Animals are hard to forget – and easy to love. Don’t think Madison Avenue isn’t wise to that furry fact. Besides zebras and horses, everything from dogs to baboons to squirrels will be featured in splashy Super Bowl spots Sunday. Hollywood’s top trainers claw at the chance to make their dog, duck or dolphin the next Super Bowl celebrity critter.

Never mind that ads with live animals can take twice as long to film. That adds to production costs.

Then, again, animals rarely have agents. And many can be rented for just $300 a day.

“They’re a lot cheaper than Britney Spears – and probably more effective,” says Anne Gordon, who has trained animals for television and Hollywood for 20 years.

Over the years, Anheuser-Busch has used dogs, horses, falcons, mice, lizards, frogs and even a lobster in its Super Bowl spots. “We haven’t used wildebeests yet,” says Bob Lachky, global creative director, “but don’t rule it out.”

It’s all about eyeballs. The Super Bowl advertiser who attracts, keeps and delights the most viewers stands to win a lot more than a football game. It can be worth tens of millions of dollars in free publicity, bring in potentially millions of new customers and leave a fat chunk of the estimated 88 million, or so, Super Bowl viewers feeling good about the brand.

That’s why animals hold the key to the cage. “Americans want to feel loved unconditionally – even during a 30-second break to a football game,” says Carol Moog, a psychologist and marketing guru. “Nothing symbolizes unconditional love better than an animal.”

They also want to laugh. And it can be a lot easier to laugh at a furry critter than at ourselves.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Anheuser-Busch, the biggest Super Bowl advertiser this year, with 51/2 minutes of commercials during the broadcast.

Its timely zebra spot was shot in November – long before the controversial outcomes of two recent NFL games (one a playoff game) that were decided by officials’ calls. In one case, the NFL conceded that the officials made a wrong decision.

Pepsi, eager to get viewers to try its new Sierra Mist lemon-lime brand, will pitch it with a pair of ads featuring furry humor. One features two daredevil baboons that try to keep cool on a hot day at the zoo by catapulting one into the nearby polar bear pool.

At one point, Pepsi included two humans – actors playing park rangers – in the spot. But they were cut from the final version. “They just weren’t as interesting as the monkeys,” says Dave Burwick, chief marketing officer at Pepsi.

The other Sierra Mist commercial features a cute mutt out for a walk on a hot day. It stops at a fire hydrant and lifts a leg. But instead of doing its business, the overheated dog kicks off the cap of the hydrant, and a blast of cool water sends the dog – and its master – across the sidewalk.

Never mind that the dog, Slammer, who previously appeared in the movie Something About Mary, is actually a she. A trainer coaxed her into lifting her leg, “even though it’s counter to her DNA,” says Bill Bruce, the art director on the set from BBDO, the agency that created the ad.

Trident, in its first Super Bowl spot, will send an angry squirrel up the leg of a dentist who represents the one in five who doesn’t recommend sugarless gum for patients who chew.

“It took a number of shots to get that right,” admits Stephen McCullough, senior marketing manager for Trident. Trident had three squirrels and three squirrel trainers on the set. All for that one shot.

But, of course, it was worth it.

“Animals are a safe way to poke fun at ourselves,” says Gordon, the trainer. “You can laugh at an animal without upsetting anybody.”

Unless you’re with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Fear of PETA is a key reason why most production companies keep an outside animal welfare specialist on the set – often from the local Humane Society – when filming ads with live animals.

But PETA officials insist they can be fans of animal ads, too. They mainly object to commercials featuring chimps or elephants, which PETA Vice President Lisa Lange claims typically suffer physical abuse or food deprivation to perform tricks on cue.

Animal trainers say that’s hogwash. They say they encourage animals verbally and with food treats.

“We treat our animals well,” says Steve Martin (not the actor), owner of one of Hollywood’s most successful animal training operations, Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife. “It’s all in the training.”

In the Clydesdale football game ad, it was just a bowl of tasty pellets that nudged the zebra to stick his head behind the curtain and appear to review the instant replay tape, Martin says.

But it took some extra coaxing to convince the zebra to get along with the Clydesdales, Lachky says.

How to make a baboon grin

As for those two baboons in the Sierra Mist ad, Martin located them and helped link them up with the Sierra Mist ad.

To make the baboons smile in the ad, he says, “You gently push their lips and reward them when they do it on their own.” Oh, and that’s not really Sierra Mist the baboon appears to drink out of the can at the end. It’s plain water.

Pepsi has racked up a series of top Super Bowl ads with animals.

There was the Pepsi-drinking chimp that broke out of a laboratory and partied on the beach in 1994. In 1997, grizzly bears appeared to dance in line to the Village People’s song YMCA. And in 1998, a guy appears to go sky surfing with a lone goose. An ad for Pepsi’s Sierra Mist will feature baboons trying to cool off.

“There’s no law that says we have to put animals in Super Bowl ads,” says Burwick, the Pepsi marketing chief. “Animals just happen to score well.”

Especially fake animals.

That flying goose was computer generated. So were Anheuser-Busch’s talking lizards and frogs. And last year, when Blockbuster set “Carl” the rabbit and “Ray” the guinea pig dancing, it was done on a computer. No live animals.

“They exist only in binary bits of code in a hard drive in California,” explains Scott Parks, vice president of advertising at Blockbuster.

The shoot was very predictable, he boasts. “We used empty cages.”

But life can get more interesting when real animals are removed from their cages – or natural environments – and plopped onto commercial production sets:

* Going ape. It may have appeared in that Pepsi ad 10 years ago that only three beautiful women in skimpy swimsuits were in the Jeep driven down the beach by a Pepsi-drinking ape.

But trainer Greg Lille was there, too, hidden on the floor of the car. From there, he directed the chimp. “I’m not sure who had more fun,” he says, “the chimp or me.”

* Look out for the cheetah. Three years ago, Mountain Dew featured a cheetah in its Super Bowl ad. An angry mountain biker appears to race down the cheetah that ran off with his can of Dew.

“Bad cheetah,” he shouts, as he appears to reach down the cat’s throat and take out the can.

Two look-alike cheetahs were used interchangeably in the ad. They were lured to sprint at nearly 70 miles per hour by a tennis ball rigged on a motorized cable, recalls trainer Hayden Rosenaur, owner of Serengeti Ranch.

A robotic head was used at the end of the ad, when the biker appears to reach down the cheetah’s throat to retrieve the can.

The commercial, which cost an estimated $2 million to make, required three days to shoot.

“I’m still dumbfounded every time I see that ad,” says Rosenaur, who also is a stuntman in the ad with his cheetahs. “It looks so real.”

It also earned the trainer a pretty penny. Since making its debut on the Super Bowl, the ad has aired worldwide and earned Rosenaur upward of $30,000.

* Squirrels R Us. Squirrels might not seem like Super Bowl fodder. But two years ago, EDS broadcast a Super Bowl spot that humorously substituted a pack of squirrels for cattle in the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

The squirrels were shot in a studio, not in Spain. Even then, it wasn’t easy. While only eight squirrels were used, squirrels can be very difficult to train and are extremely unpredictable.

“Squirrels are aggressive little critters,” recalls Dean Hanson, art director at ad agency Fallon-McElligott who was at the shoot. “I knew exactly which chair I was going to jump up on when they let the squirrels lose.”

Special effects were used to make it looks as if hundreds of squirrels were running down the street. Even then, a pair of crewmembers were attacked by the squirrels and needed stitches.

Final score: Squirrels 2, Humans 0.