It’s an early evening in January, and David Harbour is already in his pajamas, lying on a mattress without sheets in a country club just outside of Los Angeles. Moments before, he had been jumping on the bed like a giddy teenager at a slumber party. He turns to his side, looks over his shoulder and, with a dreamy-creepy smile, takes a deep breath before earnestly exhaling, “Tide.”
This is the task that Harbour, the actor best-known for playing Jim Hopper on Stranger Things, has been given by Tide and Saatchi & Saatchi New York. It’s the second day of a four-day shoot for Tide’s Super Bowl campaign, and Harbour has already performed many scenes that are arguably just as surreal. (After the jumping, Harbour grabs a white rose from a vase, mugs for the camera and eats the entire flower—chewing it slowly, as if it’s a large wad of rose-flavored bubble gum.)
The point isn’t so much to get weird with Tide—though that’s certainly happening—but to give each moment some semblance of truth so that Saatchi & Saatchi’s punchline lands.
Tide’s wildly ambitious plan is much more involved than your average Super Bowl spot. The detergent brand’s goal is to take over the Super Bowl with a campaign that positions Harbour as an omniscient narrator of sorts, asking Super Bowl viewers to question every ad they see—because if you’re seeing clean clothes, you could be watching a Tide ad.
To accomplish this, the company bought an ad in every quarter—a 45-second establishing spot in the first quarter, along with 15-second ads for each of the following three quarters. Tide then filmed each scene as a separate short spot in the genre of whatever product it’s pretending to pitch. There’s a car ad, a beer ad, a deodorant ad and a half-dozen others, all of which, through various twists, turn out to be pitching the same laundry detergent.
“It’s wildly self-aware,” Harbour tells Adweek in between scenes on set. “The fact that you have this character who’s sort of this Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone of advertising, sort of coming in and being like, ‘Wow, maybe every ad is like a Tide ad,’ and then he pops up in all of these different ads to kind of reveal to you that what you think you’re watching is not actually what you’re watching.”
Taking over the Super Bowl
The idea stemmed from Tide’s position as the leader seller of detergent in the U.S. After all, the brand had more than a quarter of the market share in 2017, according to Statista. If people use Tide at home, why wouldn’t the styling teams for every ad in the Super Bowl also use it on set? (When asked, Tide’s parent company Procter & Gamble said every piece of clothing used in its Super Bowl spots was indeed washed with Tide.)
“The idea itself was really informed by the brand Tide being such an icon, that so many people use it,” said Paul Bichler, Saatchi & Saatchi’s executive creative director. “So it lends itself to this idea—of the people you surround yourself with, half of them are essentially Tide ads.”
Tide has been a regular contender in many Super Bowls over the past decade. Last year, it surprised the audience by doing a stunt with Terry Bradshaw; the football-commentator-turned-Tide-spokesman played along with a fake stain on his shirt during what appeared to be a live broadcast, which was actually shot by Saatchi weeks earlier.
This year, the detergent brand is looking to pull off another stunt—this time, writ large with a massive price tag. With 30 seconds of airtime in the Big Game costing more than $5 million, P&G’s four spots (a total of 90 seconds) add up to around $15 million, without factoring in production, talent and agency fees. What could be worth that much?
According to Vedran Miletic, P&G’s brand director for North America fabric care, the reason for doing the spots is two-fold: On the one hand, Tide has a new scent, Fresh Coral Blast, and a new stain-focused cleaning line called Tide With Ultra Oxy; it’s also, in recent weeks, begun promising a “cleaning power” that he says is 10 times that of Tide’s generic competitors.
“I think, in a very engaging and humorous way, we point to the fact that when you see clean clothes, you should expect that Tide would’ve brought it to you,” Miletic said before filming began for the :15 that will air during the fourth quarter. “We’re really bringing that equity of the brand in a very fresh, humorous and new way.”
Moving past Tide pods
However, there’s another unspoken goal that Tide executives won’t mention—a chance to put the brand in a positive light after many weeks of negative PR involving young people eating Tide Pods, or joking about eating them.
A 2015 article from The Onion recently sparked a resurgence in people talking about eating, or even trying to eat, the chemical-laden compartments through what many call the “Tide Pod Challenge.” In fact, the trend has become so ubiquitous that P&G’s CFO addressed it on the company’s most recent earnings call, while CEO David Taylor posted a video the same week calling them “dangerous” to eat. (The company even drafted New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to do a PSA explaining the danger.)
The problem is so pervasive that Harbour even joked on set about it. In one scene, while lying on the mattress, instead of whispering “Tide ad” like normal, he jokingly said, “don’t eat Tide Pods.”
The campaign does seem to have the potential to distract consumers from Tide Pods, at least for one night. That is, if viewers understand it.
The campaign largely relies on viewers catching the 45-second spot that sets up the gag. Those who miss it might be scratching their heads at the shorter spots.
For Tide and Saatchi, the :45 had to be enough of a teaser to pique viewers’ attention while not giving too much away. The gag is then paid off with the :15 ads and an accompanying paid social campaign that uses the hashtag #TideAd.
“I think it is actually very, very critical for the program to continue to paint that story as the night goes on, in case somebody is looking at their phone or iPad versus watching the game on TV for some moment of time,” Miletic said.
Tide and Saatchi wanted to spoof as many stereotypical Big Game brand categories as they could. That meant cramming more than a dozen ads into the four spots. It also took some agility on set to establish what’s happening in each ad before quickly getting to the misdirect that shows every spot is a laundry ad.
Bichler said every ad was cast, lit, dressed, set and shot like it would normally be in that genre of commercial. That meant shooting the car ad like a car ad, a beer ad like a beer ad, and so on.
This required setting each scene up quickly while leaving enough time to pull the rug. Clarity was critical, even from the director’s chair. The creative and production teams described the spots on set as part of a “program.” That was to make sure no single spot was seen as a standalone, but rather as part of something that would roll out across four quarters of the game.
“We talked very, very, very early on with all the creatives about, if we lose the viewer halfway down then we’re screwed,” said Patrik Von Krusenstjerna, who directed the spots with his colleague from production company Rattling Stick, Sam Larsson. “We have to be clear. We have to be very clear what the concept is, and when people are on board, then it’s way, way easier to have fun with it.”
Even if someone shows up late and misses the first quarter, the other spots still stand on their own—though a bit of the humor is lost without the set-up. They also feature a few cameos from other beloved P&G brand characters. For example, one features Isaiah Mustafa, the star of the iconic older commercials for Old Spice. Another features Mr. Clean, whose animated self was a hit last year.
Javier Campopiano, chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi New York, acknowledged that it’s tricky to force people to pay attention. However, since it’s the Super Bowl, Campopiano and others at Saatchi said they’re betting on people paying closer attention to the ads, since commercials are always a major part of the game.
“It plays a little bit with your mind, in a good way,” Campopiano said. “You are watching, and you think, ‘Oh, I know this ad,’ and these ads were really big. Mr. Clean was huge last year. Old Spice was huge years ago. So you connect with that immediately and maybe feel the emotions connected to those ads. And then you have the reveal that, no, you’re actually in a Tide ad.”
There were some spots that didn’t make it into the final cuts, but which will come out in a longer 60-second spot be released sometime after the Super Bowl.
“It takes a brand with the scale and the legacy of a brand like Tide to do an idea like this,” said Bichler. “I just don’t think the people watching would be willing to go along with an idea [like this] unless it was a brand like Tide.”