SBJ/January 26 - February 1, 2004/Special Report

Visa mixes snow and surf in new Super Bowl ad

Film crews turned a portion of Malibu coastline into a frozen volleyball court to film Visa’s Super Bowl spot, which will plug the Olympics.

America's top medal hopeful for the Athens Games has spent a lot of his life in the water, but after 90 minutes in the 58-degree Pacific off Malibu's Zuma Beach, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is thinking maybe he should switch sports.

"No human being should have to endure water that cold," says Phelps, chilled despite wearing two wet suits as protection against the January water — some 22 degrees cooler than the pools he uses for training and competition.

Despite the water temperature, there's no way Phelps would have forgone what he says is his first swim in water less than 75 degrees.

He's swimming alongside two rubber rafts packed with cameramen and other techies who, along with dozens of people on the shore, are crafting Visa's Super Bowl ad. It's about 2½ weeks before the broadcast that attracts the biggest TV audience of the year. Aside from the frigid water and the occasional friendly whale wandering into the shot, this is somewhere Phelps wants to be.

Many expect Phelps to threaten Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games.

"Phelps has no clue how big he's going to be," says Michael Lynch, Visa senior vice president of event and sponsorship marketing. It's Lynch's job to find promising Olympic-caliber athletes and sign them years before they win a medal.

For those used to dealing with the insouciance endemic to most pro athletes, Phelps' enthusiasm is welcome. He can't stop grinning.

"I can't say enough how sweet it is to be in a Super Bowl commercial," says Phelps, an 18-year-old Baltimore native whose name will be very familiar across America after the Summer Olympics. "The commercials are usually the reason half the people are watching and it's what — 10 million people or something?"

The actual number is more than 130 million Americans. Some estimates of the global audience run in excess of 800 million.

A concept is born

Since we're on the beach, it seems appropriate that Visa's Super Bowl ad should be a "fish out of water" story. It's a concept that grew out of weeks of brainstorming in the fall. It started with a handful of concepts that leveraged Visa's longtime Olympic sponsorship.

Pro volleyball players (from right) Misty May and Kerri Walsh warm their feet between takes.
"We sparked quickly to the idea of doing an Olympic ad on the Super Bowl," says Nancy Friedman, Visa advertising vice president. "It's different and we are one of very few brands that could do it."

Cutting through the clutter is the mantra of every marketer. By leveraging its Olympic sponsorship more than seven months before the Games, Visa is hoping its message will be more effective than those of fellow Olympic sponsors.

"There's going to be a lot of Olympic [marketing] noise out there," says Lynch. "If we raise awareness levels by going early, we raise brand perception and all that should amount to incremental volume. We don't do ads to support sponsorships; we do sponsorships to support the brand."

As for the genesis of the story line? "We batted it around for a couple of weeks and got hooked on the concept of a Summer Olympics moment in the middle of winter," says Liz Silver, Visa's senior vice president of advertising. She, like much of the crew, is barefoot during two days of shooting on the beach. "There you are in Green Bay or New York watching the Super Bowl in the dead of winter and we wanted to take a quintessential summer sport and show the contrast."

Beach volleyball, a sport combining the allure of the California lifestyle with the appeal of hard-bodied athletes competing in skimpy swimsuits, has been growing in popularity since it initially appeared as an Olympic sport at the 1996 Olympics. Visa is as obsessive as any brand about testing concepts and copy points, but it surely didn't hurt that Silver is a huge volleyball fan. "Using volleyball was Lynch's idea," she laughs, "but I'll admit my arm didn't have to be twisted."

Jimmy Siegel, BBDO vice chairman/senior executive creative director, says the idea reached storyboard form by mid-December. "Some commercials begin with weird thoughts," says Siegel. "For this one, I was thinking that snow and sand have similar properties. From there we hit on the notion of beach volleyball being played in the snow."

Snow on the beach

Accordingly, a quarter mile or so south from where Phelps is swimming for one scene in the commercial, a football field-sized area of the shore has been altered to make it look like a snowy beach. If you disregard the mid-70s temperatures, Westward Beach looks for all the world like a beach from the Land of the Midnight Sun (it's next to the beach that held the remains of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the original "Planet of the Apes.")

Local ice companies delivered the finishing touches to make the set a wintry beach.

Hundreds of gallons of foam have been sprayed over a white tarp. The volleyball court itself is covered in ice (foam would stick to the players' feet) courtesy of a bevy of trucks from local ice companies, some of the dozens of vehicles serving the shoot.

Completing the illusion are plastic "icicles" brushed onto the net and faux ice crystals painted into the hair of Misty May and Kerri Walsh — a dominant team on the AVP circuit and a pair likely to win a medal at the Athens Games.

"It blows me away how huge this is gonna be," says the bubbly 6-foot-3 Walsh. "Lots of people that don't know our sport yet are going to after watching the biggest football game of the year. That's pretty cool."

Film crews around Los Angeles are about as common as taxis in New York City, so Pierce Brosnan pedaling by draws more notice from locals than the shoot. Among those involved, does it feel any different plying their craft on advertising's biggest stage?

"From the very beginning of the process, we know it has to be different and special because the whole world is watching," says Silver. "It has to give you that little zing and be really funny; it can't just be cute."

BBDO's Siegel is hoping that the image of bikini-clad Olympians playing beach volleyball will be striking enough to cut through the cacophony of ads from the 50 or so other Super Bowl advertisers. This year's Visa spot will run in the first half of the game.

"Certain commercials may be very good, but they just

Also see:
aren't Super Bowl commercials," says Siegel, on the set of his 18th Super Bowl ad. "You don't want to be too serious. You'd like to have some sort of joke. It has to be visually arresting the first time you see it. To some degree, you want people to watch and know what's going on without hearing anything."

Of course in the case of the Super Bowl, one of America's leading secular holidays, that's often the case.

As the storyboard comes to life, one scene at a time, it's building toward this: a desolate snowy beach in the midst of winter. A long, establishing shot shows four figures shrouded in snow gear, crunching across the frozen beach. They stop, unzip their cold-weather garb and the "reveal shot" shows May and Walsh wearing USA bikinis. They proceed to play a vicious game of beach volleyball on the snow-laden court against another two-woman team.

May and Walsh are no more thrilled about playing on ice shavings than Phelps is about swimming in water more suited to his new whale friend.

"As long as we were playing, it was fine, though there's not a lot of traction on ice," May says. "Whenever we stopped, it was like 'Oh my God, can I even feel my feet?' "

After a few takes, they switch to sneakers; there's sufficient footage of barefoot play now in the can.

Post production will add things like visible breathing. Electronic matting will combine the ocean off Malibu with the snowy vistas of Mammoth Mountain, where the final day of filming takes place.

Music and a voice-over will be added. Ed Grover, for nearly 20 years the voice heard in Visa's ads, will read: "Just a reminder, in the dead of winter, that the Summer Olympics are right around the corner, including the U.S. Beach Volleyball team. But if you want to see them, grab your Visa card."

That's a wrap

Before that takes place, the ending has to be filmed. There are a few versions and Siegel is unsure which one will stick, but it will go something like this: after a spike, the ball bounces into the water, beyond the women's reach. Phelps, who just happens to be training in the ocean, swims by and retrieves the lost volleyball. Or it may be rescued by the half-dozen or so members of an itinerant polar bear club who have been watching the women with perhaps more of an interest in their bodies than the sport. As cameras in and out of the ocean roll, the half-dozen or so 50-something polar bear swimmers with physiques akin to baked potatoes run into the ocean yelling "I got it. I got it." — each hoping to curry favor with the eye-catching volleyball players.

From the very beginning of the process, we know it has to be different and special because the whole world is watching.

Liz Silver, Visa
The final ending will likely be an amalgam of the two scenes, but, as Siegel advises, what looks like Shakespeare at the shoot can flop under the critical light of the editing studio. "Sometimes, we'll be laughing hysterically at the shoot and then you're putting it together and everyone goes 'Huh?' And sometimes on the shoot you're thinking there is nothing there and when you put it together, it's wonderful."

Keeping au courant with various Olympic athletes is part of Lynch's charge. May, Walsh and Phelps are in Visa's Gold Medal Athletes Program. Lynch already has some athletes under contract who are likely to participate in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. He's starting to think about the 2008 Games in Beijing, especially after Octagon's Peter Carlisle advises him that Phelps has "a couple of [Olympic] Games in him." The initial steps toward a renewal of Phelps' Visa agreement have been set in motion.

Anyone who'll listen can hear Lynch's tale of the three prior Olympic ads that presaged gold medals by the participants: the 1998 ad for the U.S. women's hockey team, the 2000 ad for women's pole vault team, and the 2002 spot featuring women's bobsledders.

"It validates our Olympic sponsorship, because we know how to pick them," says Friedman. "Part of this whole exercise is asserting the brand leadership, so you don't want to end up doing Dan and Dave." (Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson were two decathletes highlighted in a 1992 Reebok campaign that cratered after O'Brien failed to qualify for the U.S. team.)

While any shoot involves a lot of waiting, for the volleyball scene Siegel wants to delay the filming until late afternoon, hoping to get the diffused light reminiscent of northern climes in winter. Sure enough, a cloud bank over the Pacific horizon makes the effect even more dramatic. Behind some monitors on the beach, Visa's marketers nod in approval; it looks even more realistic through the camera's eye.

The Southern California sun disappears quickly in January and by 6 p.m. it's a wrap for the day. What scarce light remained has vanished. After the trek to Mammoth Mountain, Siegel's fellow creatives will be ensconced in the editing studio (Cosmo Street in New York) Sunday through Tuesday, hoping to deliver a spot close to completion by Jan. 21, 11 days before the Super Bowl. A spot polished enough that Visa's marketers can show it internally should be delivered by a few days before game time. Then, like archetypal Broadway producers, they just have to wait for the reviews.

"We care about what America thinks, but the reaction we get from our internal constituency is usually a good barometer," Silver says.

When do you know it's a good ad? Depends on whom you ask.

"You really don't know until there's a finished product," Friedman says, "but it also has to be seen in the context of the competitive arena, because there is so much good work on the Super Bowl."

While acknowledging its influence, many marketers find USA Today's venerable ad meter lacking as a valid metric. Siegel says you never know whether a Super Bowl ad works until the broadcast itself. Even afterward, the spot may have endurance its competition lacks.

"I don't particularly relish waking up the next morning and looking at USA Today,

Visa’s mission is to pick stars in the making, such as swimmer Michael Phelps.
because it [the ad meter] hardly meets the rigors of science," says Siegel, who lists the Visa ads for Bob Dole (1997) and Synchronized Swimming (2000), along with last year's Ozzy Osbourne spot for Pepsi Twist, as the best Super Bowl ads he's created. "I've had ads that scored in the top three that I wouldn't include on my personal reel and I've had commercials they ranked 17th that won awards at Cannes."

Humor and celebrities are staples in Super Bowl spots, but surprise and scale are the common denominators of nearly every winning ad, from Apple's takedown of IBM in Super Bowl XVIII, to Larry Bird and Michael Jordan squaring off in an epic game of H-O-R-S-E for McDonald's in Super Bowl XXVII.

"You have to entertain in a different way and be even a little more surprising," Friedman says. "There's a high level of expectation in terms of entertainment value, production value and even talk value. They all have to be good; this one has to be great."

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