Bringing in the celebrity big guns for Super Bowl LIV ads

A record 26 VCU Brandcenter alumni worked on ads — featuring the likes of Rick and Morty, Sam Elliott and Lil Nas X — that aired during this year’s game. Here, a few discuss how the graduate program prepared them for the big leagues.

A still from a Pringles ad featuring Rick and Morty.
A still from the Pringles ad featuring Rick and Morty that aired during the Super Bowl. VCU Brandcenter alumni had a hand in a host of commercials that ran during the broadcast of the game.

When something is declared the “best thing since sliced bread,” where does that leave the bread? 

That’s the premise behind Little Caesars’ first Super Bowl ad, which aired last night. The spot features Rainn Wilson as an executive at Sliced Bread Headquarters who is distraught over Little Caesars’ new delivery service being compared to his product.

“Sliced bread is toast,” exclaims a newscaster to Wilson’s chagrin.

While the creatives at McKinney Durham deserve the credit for developing and creating the ad, it wouldn’t have been possible if Little Caesars hadn’t been all in, said Will Dean, the ad’s co-creative director with Lyle Yetman, with whom he often partnered as Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter classmates.

“Our clients at Little Caesars were some of the smartest and best people to work with because they take risks,” Dean said. “We're just really proud to have them as a client. They enable us to do our best work because we're aligned with them really well.”

If people think the ad is good, Dean said, it’s because the ad started with a good idea and was executed with good craft — fundamentals that he learned at the Brandcenter. 

“And I think that those principles have served me well,” he said. “Those [professors] taught us the importance of that: having a good idea — simple, clear — and then make it as good as you possibly can when you produce it. 

“I had very good relationships with all of my teachers. I learned a lot from them and I felt like I was really, really well-prepared to come out and do what I'm doing now.”

Pringle Rick!

Shannon Smith’s goal for Grey NYC’s Pringles ad was for viewers to take away one thing: “You can stack different Pringles to make new flavor combinations.” 

The ad nails it — with the help of cosmic adventurers Rick and Morty (and Summer). When a bevy of Mortybots — stacking various flavors of chips — suddenly descends on them, Rick and Summer realize they are trapped in a Pringles commercial. (Not at all unusual. In fact, Rick isn’t surprised: “They warned me this would happen, and I didn't listen,” he says.)

“It’s a ‘Rick and Morty’ episode, but also a Pringles commercial,” said Smith, a 2016 Brandcenter grad.

Adult Swim, the Cartoon Network programming block that airs “Rick and Morty,” had done brand collaborations in the past, but Smith, the spot’s art director, and her team didn’t know if the network would even green light the idea as they developed the ad. 

“But that didn’t really influence anything because if it worked, it worked,” said Smith, who learned at the Brandcenter to stand by your ideas if you think they’re good even if no one else likes them.

“I have to be careful to never present ‘safe’ ideas, as they are easy bait for the client to buy,” she said. “And then I'd be stuck with that lame idea. I always make sure anything I present I'd be excited to make.

“The reason the Pringles commercial worked is because it remains true to the show. It wasn’t like, ‘We‘re “Rick and Morty” fans, let’s make them sell Pringles.’ It was ‘Pringles wants people to buy three times the amount of Pringles in the name of “flavor stacking?”’ Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.”

 "I have to be careful to never present ‘safe’ ideas, as they are easy bait for the client to buy. And then I'd be stuck with that lame idea. I always make sure anything I present I'd be excited to make."

It’s only worth it if you enjoy it

Not only did Melissa Jackson’s first Super Bowl commercial run last night, her second one aired too. 

“To say it’s exciting is an understatement – to see not one but two Super Bowl spots I worked on finally air to the whole country feels amazing,” said Jackson, a senior strategic planner at FCB Chicago. “The client and the FCB teams worked so hard on these commercials, and it’s so rewarding and exciting to see them on the big screen.”

Both ads were for Michelob products: Michelob ULTRA and Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold, the brand’s USDA Certified Organic beer.

The Pure Gold spot features a simple but strong call to action paired with bold visuals. It highlights the surprising stat that less than 1% of U.S. farmland is organic. Although many farmers want to transition to organic, they face big challenges. 

The Michelob ULTRA spot brings to life the idea that it’s only worth it if you enjoy it. The fast-paced spot features Jimmy Fallon who, like many people, has said he hates working out. 

Throughout the commercial, John Cena helps Jimmy learn to have fun while exercising. When they drink ice cold Michelob ULTRAs at the bar post-workout, it emphasizes the fact that the beer complements an active lifestyle.

“Throughout the process of creating these Super Bowl spots, there were tons of team meetings, both internally and with the client,” Jackson said. “Many people were involved in the creation of both commercials. As the ideas were developed, it was important to think about what Michelob ULTRA and Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold wanted to convey, and stay on brand in everything we did. 

“Similarly, projects at the VCU Brandcenter involved teamwork, brainstorming, creative thinking and hard work. Learning to think differently at the Brandcenter and push the limits to get to great work was perfect practice for working on Super Bowl spots,” Jackson said. 

All hands on deck

Perfume for dogs and adult diapers prepared Emily Hudson for her Super Bowl ad debut.

When Hudson was placed on the Super Bowl ad account for the Toyota Highlander, she was so new at Saatchi & Saatchi that she didn’t even know where to find the good coffee.

“On my third day on the job, my boss pulled me into a conference room and said that, due to some new circumstances, we'd need to help the team come up with a kick-ass Super Bowl idea under a condensed timeline,” she said. “It was all hands on deck. So I had to jump in and immediately familiarize myself with the work that had been done so far on the target audience and the rest of the vehicle launch strategy.”

As a strategist, Hudson’s role was to help bring the target audience to life for the creative teams and to help them write stories that would inspire and connect with that audience — on a scale as large as the Super Bowl. The strategic objective for the Highlander spot was to shatter the stereotypes associated with midsize SUVs as traditional family haulers. 

“I'm glad I got used to diving right into projects at Brandcenter,” she said. “With the short timelines of Brandcenter projects, I got used to jumping in and tackling a project immediately. ... After Don [Just, creative brand management,] made me present a harebrained Colonial Village strategy by myself with no deck, defend the viability of perfume for dogs, and walk through a deep dive about Depend adult diapers, I figured I could probably handle whatever the ad industry threw at me.”

Western dance-off showdown

Sam Dworkin and Mike Rodriguez of Goodby Silverstein & Partners can scratch one thing off their advertising bucket lists: working on a spot for the Super Bowl.

“It feels great to have one in the books that we’re proud of,” Dworkin said.

The spot for Doritos Cool Ranch features a western dance-off showdown between Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott. An award-winning artist, legendary actor and crazy dance moves, all set to a catchy, record-breaking song? No wonder they are proud. 

“Doritos added more Cool Ranch flavor to their Cool Ranch Doritos, and the western duel was a motif that came to mind from early rounds,” Rodriguez said. “The team wanted to find a way to make the traditional standoff ‘cooler.’ Doritos has a history of tapping into culturally relevant artists, so it made sense to bring in Lil Nas X after his record-breaking song, ‘Old Town Road,’ blended the hip hop and country music genres.”

For his opponent, the team wanted a recognizable cowboy type. The clear choice was Elliott, an archetypal cowboy.

At the Brandcenter, Dworkin and Rodriguez learned the importance of campaign-able ideas — ideas that can live beyond a simple TV execution. So once the idea for the TV spot was established, the team made it accessible to the masses by partnering with a virtual dance app, Sway, that lets fans emulate the dance moves from the commercial. They also plan to invite participation through social media activations on Twitter and TikTok.

“It’s both really exciting and also kind of scary knowing you’ve worked on something so many people will see,” Dworkin said. “It’s tough because any ad will have both positive and negative responses, but for Super Bowl ads, those reactions are amplified.” 

Drinking coffee in a sweaty little room

The Brandcenter taught art director James Moslander and copywriter Adam Tetreault to hone their abilities to judge their own work. 

“Brandcenter helped us to understand what an idea is, to not be precious, and to be prolific,” Tetreault said. “Basically to love the process and use it to push for the best creative possible.” 

They also learned an unrelenting work ethic and lateral thinking, all which came into play as they developed Facebook’s first Super Bowl showing at Wieden + Kennedy Portland. 

“We don’t present ideas we aren’t interested in producing,” Moslander said.

The spot’s simple premise and musical hook, production value and celebrity cameos made it Super Bowl-worthy, the pair said. 

“Facebook wanted to drive home the idea that ‘there’s a Facebook group for everyone,’” Tetreault said. “We figured the best way to do that was to show that there are literally endless groups out there to be a part of. The challenge was finding a compelling backbone to tie all these disparate groups together. Much coffee drinking and concepting in a sweaty little room ensued, and many scripts were written.”

While this is Tetreault’s first time at the Super Bowl, Moslander has previously worked on three others.

“Having an ad in the Super Bowl is the one chance for everyone in your family, as well as your neighbors and friends who aren’t in the industry, to actually see something you made as it airs,” he said. “It’s probably the closest some of these people will ever get to understanding what we do for a living.” 

Super Bowl LIV ads by VCU Brandcenter alumni

The VCU Brandcenter, a graduate program for advertising and branding in Richmond, Virginia, is a breeding ground for future Super Bowl commercial makers. Most people in the advertising industry work their whole careers without ever having the chance to work on a Super Bowl spot. This year, a record 26 Brandcenter alumni worked on 18 of the most talked about Super Bowl ads.

Our alumni are the creative minds behind some of the biggest brands in the world,” said Vann Graves, executive director of Brandcenter. “We’re proud to see such a huge number of Brandcenter alums behind the scenes of the biggest media event of the year.”

Garrick Sheldon (CW, 2014) Wieden + Kennedy New York, NY

Bud Light

Garrick Sheldon (2014), Wieden + Kennedy NYC 

Doritos Super Bowl Commercial 2020 Sam Elliott.

Doritos - No. 4 on USA Today’s Ad Meter

Sam Dworkin (2018) and Mike Rodriguez (2018), Goodby Silverstein & Partners 

Whatever you rock, there’s a Facebook Group for you.

Facebook

Adam Tetreault (2013) and James Moslander (2004), Wieden + Kennedy Portland 

Four Tops "Reach Out I'll Be There" Blair Warren (AD, 2014) Wieden + Kennedy New York, NY

Heinz

Blair Warren (2014), Wieden + Kennedy NYC 

According to the script Hulu gave Tom Brady to read, the streaming video service doesn't just have live sports.

Hulu

Derek Longest (2018), Big Family Table

Jamaica Tourism - regional ad

Jas Gill (2012) - Beautiful Destinations 

Featuring Rainn Wilson Lyle Yetman (CW, 2004) Will Dean (AD, 2004) Dylan Meager (CW, 2010) Kerry O’Connor (ST, 2015) McKinney Durham, NC

Little Caesars

Lyle Yetman (2004), Will Dean (2004), Dylan Meagher (2010) and Kerry O’Connor (2015), McKinney Durham

Lauren Acampora (AD, 2019) Sean Johnson (CW, 2019) Wieden + Kennedy New York, NY

McDonald’s

Lauren Acampora (2019) and Sean Johnson (2019), Wieden + Kennedy NYC

Working out becomes a whole lot of fun when you see the lighter side.
Introducing 6 for 6-Pack. Pick up a 6-pack and we’ll help transition 6 square feet of farmland to organic. Together, we can change America’s organic farmland forever.

Michelob ULTRA and Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold

Melissa Jackson (2018), FCB Chicago 

Molson Coors’ Saint Archer Gold - regional ad

Marcus Brown (2008) and Marika Wiggan (2010), Preacher Austin

Is there enough space...in space…for women? When OLAY® launches their first space mission to find out, Busy Philipps and Lilly Singh along with astronaut Nicole Stott are tasked with bringing the mission home.

Olay

Grace Chu (1998), Badger & Winters NYC 

When Mr. Peanut’s friends come together for his funeral, something amazing happens – he comes back to life! Welcome to the world, #BabyNut !

Planters

Brittani Kelzenberg (2018), VaynerMedia NYC 

Steve Gonzalez (AD, 2014) Cramer-Krasselt Chicago, IL

Porsche

Steve Gonzalez (2014), Cramer-Krasselt Chicago

Stack Pringles. Make endless new flavors. Stack Pringles. Make endless new flavors. Stack Pringles. Make endless new flavors. This is not an ad. [ad]

Pringles

Shannon Smith (2016), Grey NYC 

T-Mobile Super Bowl Commercial 2020 Anthony Anderson Mama Tests 5G.

T-Mobile

Jodi Shelley (2001), T-Mobile 

With the new 2020 Toyota Highlander you can follow Cobie Smulders' lead and go wherever you’re needed to save the day (or night).

Toyota Highlander

Emily Hudson (2018), Saatchi & Saatchi Dallas

All people are tax people. Crafty people. Cowboy people. Hippo people. People in this music video. People watching this music video. Yes, everyone.

TurboTax

Juliana Cole (2016), Yahkeema Moffitt (2012) and Christian Clay (2016), Wieden + Kennedy Portland

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