Super Bowl Commercials Put Celebrities on Tricky Stage

Tracee Ellis Ross had to leave the set of “Black-ish” for a project so secret she wasn’t sure she could even tell her co-star on the show, Anthony Anderson. On Sunday, it won’t be a secret anymore.

Ross is one of several handfuls of celebrities scheduled to appear in the big-budget commercials that will run during Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl LIV (interestingly, Anderson is appearing in a Super Bowl ad for T-Mobile. Did Ross know?). The job offers a distinct thrill, but brings with it some very unique wrinkles.

Super Bowl ads “stand out through time, and they become little pieces of art,” says Ross in an interview. She will appear with Bryan Cranston in a remake of the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film “The Shining” that has been turned into a pitch on behalf of PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew. “A Super Bowl commercial is like the Olympics of commercials,” she adds.

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Popular actors, musicians and newsmakers have long made their way into Super Bowl ads, as anyone who remembers Clint Eastwood telling the audience watching Super Bowl XLVI that “it’s halftime in America” or seeing South Korean personality Psy holding forth for Wonderful Pistachios during Super Bowl XLVII can tell you. But in 2020, “I think this is going to be the biggest year for celebrities in commercials and multiple celebrities in one spot,” says Carol Goll, partner and head of the global branded entertainment department at ICM Partners. And advertisers, who are ponying up anywhere from $5 million to $5.6 million for 30 seconds of commercial real estate, are eager to see their pitches break out from the rest of the pack.

Procter & Gamble plans to run an ad for many of its products featuring Rob Riggle, Sofia Vergara, Troy Polamalu, Isaiah Mustafa and Busy Philipps. Coca-Cola, which has in recent years largely avoided celebrities, will rely on Jonah Hill and Martin Scorsese to boost a new energy drink. Bill Nye will help boost SodaStream. Sylvester Stallone and Chris Rock will tout Facebook, while Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Ross will tout Amazon. Molly Ringwald will promote Avocados from Mexico – the first time she says she has appeared in an ad since doing one in her early teens for California Raisins at around the time she was acting in the NBC sitcom “The Facts of Life.” Philips is also set to appear in a separate P&G ad for Olay, which will also include Taraji P. Henson, Lilly Singh and Katie Couric.

“I thought it was a no-brainer” says Couric of the decision to take part in the Olay spot, in which she plays a news anchor.  She was excited to take part in a commercial about female astronauts that espouses themes of female empowerment and linked women to science and technology. “It basically exemplifies so many of the things I care about,” says Couric who is putting much of her current time into a new media company aimed at bolstering women.

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For this assignment, celebrities need to do more than remember their lines. Super Bowl ads bring with them a level of attention that more common commercials do not  – and other potential responsibilities. “The brands really need to see a return on their investment, so they invest in talent to help amplify their message,” says Goll. The advertisers often focus on celebrities “with a very large and engaged social media following” and work with them to mine engagement from their followers. “I think the biggest thing right now is I always make sure talent is just aware of the cadence of when they are able to talk about being in the spot, when they are supposed to post about it – making sure they are leaning in to all of the content, if you will.”

In a different era, TV ads were seen as something less appealing. “ I remember a long time ago there used to be these different lanes – TV, commercials and film,” says Riggle. These days, he says “everything is crossing over.”

Many of the actors consider a Super Bowl assignment something that’s hard to turn down. “I feel like this is a moment, one of those boxes you tick off,” says Cobie Smulders, who will be seen as the gritty heroine in  a special-effects-heavy saga for Toyota that required three days of shooting in locations around Los Angeles she says she never knew existed.

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And despite the millions of dollars advertisers sink into their Super Bowl pitches, the commercial shoots sound relatively stress-free – as long as the actor can balance a yen for improvisation with the requirements of the day. Nye says he offered several different punchlines during the shoot for his SodaStream ad but “they used one of the scripted ideas.”  When it comes to commercials, says Riggle, “I find the client has very definite verbiage they want to use, and that’s fine. They are the ones paying the bills. If you do find an opportunity to spice it up or interject a little personality, I’m never going to shy away from that.”

And then, of course, there’s always a potential aftermath. Super Bowl ads often generate reams of social-media response and even the best-laid plans of the most disciplined marketer can go awry if someone has an unexpected reaction. All an actor can do is the job they are given, says Ringwald. “Personally, I don’t think you should enter into anything with the wish or hopes that it goes viral,” she says. ”I feel like that’s a sure-fire way for it not to.”

None of the actors indicated they’d rather stay home on Super Bowl Sunday. “One way to make sure you are not standing out is to not show up,” says Nye.

PepsiCo may have orchestrated Ross’ Mountain Dew ad, but the actor feels some ownership over the project.  On Sunday, “I will for sure be waiting in my TV chair,” she says. “And I will be waiting for my commercial. Now it’s called ‘My Commercial.’”