'American Chopper' stars climb aboard AOL


By Theresa Howard, USA TODAY

The Teutul family – Paul Sr., Paul Jr. (Paulie) and Mikey – and their $40,000 one-of-a-kind “choppers” have already gained renown as the subjects of Discovery Channel’s hit reality series American Chopper.

The show’s popularity and the Teutuls’ reputation for screaming-fast machines are what attracted AOL. The ads, by Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., kick off a critical AOL campaign to promote TopSpeed, an “accelerator” built into AOL 9.0 that the company hopes will help stem subscriber losses by quickening dial-up and broadband Internet access. “No matter what you have, it makes it faster,” says Len Short, AOL’s executive vice president, brand marketing.

In the ads, the Teutuls try to install TopSpeed in a car, a radio-controlled airplane and, of course, a motorcycle. Ultimately Mikey (or a life-size replica) is propelled at “top speed” on one of the vehicles.

Shooting the Super Bowl ads was actually more elaborate than filming their cable show. “Our crew here is about five people,” Mikey says. “It was really scary filming in front of 30 people.”

In filming for the show last week, Paulie was putting finishing touches on a Statue of Liberty bike, which will tour the country to help raise $7 million to re-open the statue, closed since 9/11. The bike, clad in copper removed in the statue’s 1984 rehabilitation and sporting a torch-topped carburetor, is an example of the creations that draw 3 million viewers to one of Discovery’s top-rated shows.

“It’s a family show. And people have the same struggles we do, and they identify with it,” says the beefy Paul Sr., who at 54 can still bench-press 405 pounds.

AOL has a lot riding on the new campaign, as it tries to establish that it can survive in the broadband era. The Internet dial-up leader, with a 50% share, lost about 1.8 million customers in 2003, most to broadband services. The company spent about $6 million to reach the Super Bowl’s 88 million viewers. In addition to game ads, AOL has the halftime sponsorship and will get in-game plugs by the sportscasters for a Super Bowl-themed site at www.aol.com. The site, free from Jan. 26 to Feb. 3, aims to show off TopSpeed’s capabilities with interactive features and streaming video of bowl highlights, ads and party footage.

“AOL has made a very subtle but important shift in how they view themselves and how they want to be viewed,” says Boyd Peterson, vice president, consumer technology and services at tech consultancy The Yankee Group. “Now, they are trying to be more like a magazine or program on TV.”

The transition is critical as more consumers hang up on dial-up. Broadband usage is expected to grow 80% to 29 million homes this year while dial-up shrinks 12% to 48 million, says The Yankee Group. Broadband will pass dial-up in 2006, it says.

The Teutuls, who now have AOL service for life, say they had fun making the ad, which they hope leads to more endorsements.

But, says Paulie, “We won’t endorse something just for the money. We’re pretty particular about what we do and how we present ourselves.

“We try to keep a really clean image except for his mouth,” he says, pointing to his dad. “But you can’t do anything about that.”