It’s often said of the Super Bowl that the ads are better than the game.
“Well,” Tim Ellis said, “I’m never going to agree with that.”
How could he? Ellis is the NFL’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. And the ad he helmed for the league won USA TODAY’s Ad Meter, a ranking of Super Bowl ads by consumer rating.
The commercial, a salute to the NFL’s upcoming 100th season, is a tour de force of famous faces and smashing tables at a banquet where a football falling off a giant cake leads to a riotous romp through generations of NFL history.
Peter Berg, the ad’s director, said whether it’s for a movie or a commercial, “you need a really good simple core idea that works, that can be distilled to one line.”
Berg’s simple line for this one: “Tackle football game breaks out at an awards show.”
Glenn Cole, founder and co-creative chair of 72andSunny, the ad agency that came up with the idea, puts his one-line summation a bit differently: “It’s a love letter to football, authored by the greatest players, past and present, at a 100 gala.”
Berg loved the idea the moment he heard it. “They brought it to me, and I just laughed,” he said. “I’m, like, ‘Well, yeah, we can do it, but I don’t believe you’ll get all those players here.’ ”
The idea was born in November, approved in December and the NFL didn’t start calling stars until the week before Christmas. Production started in Los Angeles on Jan. 12 and the ad was filmed over three days.
Almost all of the stars came to L.A. for the shoot, though film crews also visited New England (to get players such as Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, plus Baker Mayfield, who flew in), New Orleans (to get players such as Drew Brees) and the Pro Bowl in Orlando (to get players such as Patrick Mahomes).
Ellis said some stars, such as Peyton Manning, reworked their schedules to be there. Because, really, how could they not?
“They all wanted to have their own sentence in this love letter to football,” Cole said.
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The who’s who nature of the two-minute spot invites multiple viewings to catch things you might have missed the first time. Ultimately the reason it resonates is this: Many of these guys gather only for dignified Hall of Fame ceremonies. Here was a chance for old men to act like kids again.
“I mean, we’re on this giant sound stage, and whenever we weren’t shooting, they’re just playing catch and laughing and going out for passes and trying to beat each other,” Berg said. “It really was a return to, like, old-school pickup football.”
Still, for all of the high spirits and low comedy, Berg said beneath it all was an underlying sense of emotional awe.
“I think everyone was surprised,” he said, “by the emotion of being in that room and seeing Jim Brown,” who’s 82, next to Saquon Barkley, who’ll turn 22 on Thursday.
Brown gets one of the best lines. “Boy, this is a great party,” he says amid the mayhem.
Ellis said that line, among several others, was ad-libbed, and that many of the players wore their own formal attire – and that some of the hits were the real thing.
“The players got so excited that at times we had to kind of get them to cool their jets a little bit,” he said.
The challenge, according to Cole, was to make sure the ad was not just a brawl, but that it told a coherent story that honors the game.
Directing is not unlike coaching, Berg said. Stars don’t tolerate fools. You have to be confident in manner and clear in direction.
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And Berg had a big night. His other ad, for Verizon, finished fifth in Ad Meter. That one told the story of how first responders saved the life of Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn in 2005 when he was struck by a speeding car.
“They’re very different,” Berg said, “and I was thrilled that we could have two such different spots performing well in the Super Bowl.”
And what about the idea that the ads were better than the game?
“It was not the most exciting Super Bowl I can remember seeing,” Berg said. “And so if people enjoyed the commercials a little bit more, so be it.”
Follow Erik Brady on Twitter.