It’s a late day in November and Danny DeVito is waist deep in a chocolate pool—well, he’s not exactly wading in molten chocolate, but a liquid mixture of sorts. This brown soup is meant to resemble a chocolate pool and it will, after some retouching in postproduction. Mars and BBDO are in the midst of filming a 30-second M&M’s spot for the Super Bowl airing on Feb. 4. During the shoot, 713 gallons of said concoction have been sitting uncovered for 12-plus hours on the New York City lot at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. And yet, DeVito, the consummate professional, plunges right in, moving his limbs as if he’s making snow angels and giving various line readings of “Mmmm, Super Bowl,” for director Wayne McClammy, who wants DeVito to make viewers believe he’s in the most luxurious bath possible.
To be clear, DeVito’s “chocolate” bath isn’t what M&M’s has planned for its Super Bowl ad. Instead, the brand is using this goofy-yet-mesmerizing scene for a 15-second teaser; the big reveal showcases DeVito as the ad’s star. The brand’s strategy this day: Shoot the 30-second spot, a 15-second teaser, followed by another 15-second ad that it will use later in the year and finally, content for social media. The goal, according to Tim Bayne, evp and ecd at BBDO in New York, is to take advantage of the comic actor’s time on set in order to create a multipronged approach to the ad itself. In other words, a promotion of a promotion, inside of a promotion.
It’s a busy day.
The value in producing three spots in a single day is something that Allison Miazga-Bedrick, brand director for Mars M&M’s, says she learned from her time spearheading the celebrity-filled Snickers campaign. Miazga-Bedrick, who took over the reins at M&M’s last year, previously ran marketing for Twix, Milky Way, Three Musketeers, as well as Snickers. After overseeing 2017’s Snicker’s live ad and 36-hour livestream featuring Adam Driver, Miazga-Bedrick was inspired to tackle M&M’s triple-header. The big take-away from that project, she says, was “let’s do everything in service of the spot.”
“Last year on Snickers, the vision was to be the most-talked about,” she says. “And to be the most-talked about brand on the planet, you have to do a lot of different things, so it was successful in that right.” According to the company, the ad garnered 161 million social media impressions and was featured in more than 1,700 news articles. This year, instead of having various promotions that could be newsworthy in their own right, e.g., the 36-hour livestream, Mars “wanted to come back and have a really awesome 30-second spot and do everything in service of that,” explains Miazga-Bedrick.
This is M&M’s first Super Bowl commercial after sitting out the game for the past three years. “Every year, we talk about which brand [at Mars will go to the Super Bowl] and I think it was just time for M&M’s,” says Miazga-Bedrick. “The brand has a lot of momentum. We’ve launched caramel and so it’s sort of like, let’s ride M&M’s, it’s doing really well now, and it felt like we’re getting to where we want in a relevancy perspective.” In 2017, M&M’s grew 10.2 percent, according to Nielsen. Mars credits M&M’s product innovation, like the new caramel flavor, for the growth.
While M&M’s declined to provide the budget on its Super Bowl campaign, industry estimates put the company’s spend at well over $5 million—the going rate for a 30-second spot on NBC, which is airing the game this year.
At a time when Americans are consuming less chocolate (according to Euromonitor, Americans on average ate 9.5 pounds of chocolate per person in 2015 compared to roughly 12.6 pounds per person in 2006) and are more mindful of their sugar intake, Beth Kimmerle, a noted confectionery expert and author of Candy: The Sweet History, sees M&M’s return to the Super Bowl as a savvy way for Mars to get out in front of consumers on what is also considered a “day of indulging.”
“Big [candy] companies are trying to figure out how to maintain their iconic brands,” she says, “but [they are] also [trying to] subtly shift into brands that are perceived as healthier.” While Mars is privately held and doesn’t disclose individual brand sales figures, Kimmerle says “my gut instinct is that they are doing quite well.” The challenge she notes is that while generating big profits on candy, Mars is also balancing public opinion, moving into nonsugar categories. In November, Mars announced its plan to buy a minority stake in health bar outfit Kind Snacks.
When M&M’s last made a Super Bowl appearance, its spokescandy Yellow had a starring role, positioning its long-standing marketing message of mouthwatering allure. In the spot, the Russian mob kidnaps the lovable doofus; a mobster lists all of the ways he would eat him. This year’s ad, dubbed “Human,” tells the unlikely tale of Red (played by DeVito), the selfish, egotistical, maniacal archetype of the M&M’s characters, who turns into a human after wishing on a lucky penny, only to realize that none of the humans around him want to eat him. The spot will air during the first quarter of the game.
“Human” puts a new twist on BBDO’s “Irresistibility” campaign, and is the first time M&M’s has turned one of its “spokescandies” into a human. After Red’s transformation, DeVito, giving quite the committed performance, conveys the candy’s euphoria at realizing his existential dread about being eaten, after being given a momentary reprieve. Looking at his reflection in a shop window, Human Red touches his hair and feels his face, clearly delighted at the transformation, blurting out, “I look good.” Human Red then runs around New York City asking a series of nonplussed passersby if they want to eat him. They don’t. No longer a candy, the spot’s theme becomes one of cannibalism.
According to Bayne, the enduring effectiveness of M&M’s campaign (running since 1996) is that the brand has successfully and credibly integrated an animated candy universe with that of the real world. “We’ve told these stories where people, whether it’s celebrities or just regular people on the street, they want to eat them.” But, he explains, “you can’t tell the same story over and over again and so you get to cannibalism, in a sense.”
The agency chose a Manhattan setting to give the ad’s admittedly odd premise a sheen of believability. “Being on the street in New York City,” says Bayne, “storytelling-wise it just feels more natural and more authentic that there’s people walking around. And being typical New Yorkers, somebody running up to them and saying, ‘Do you want to eat me?’ is not as uncommon as you may think.”
M&M’s kicked off its Super Bowl planning in April. BBDO went through numerous scripts before whittling them down to three options, landing on the concept for “Human.” From the outset, the agency wanted DeVito to play Red and featured him in its pitch storyboards. According to Bayne, nabbing the star that an agency originally envisions for its spot is unusual. But DeVito made for the perfect Red, not only for his build but because “all of his characters have this energy, this selfishness, me versus the world, energetic, a little scheming. That’s exactly Red,” says Bayne.
DeVito isn’t the only star in the spot. Blink and you’ll miss a cameo by YouTube creator, Broadway actor and influencer Todrick Hall who plays one of the passersby. “Obviously Danny DeVito is iconic and everyone knows him,” says Miazga-Bedrick. “But maybe if you’re 14 you might not. Having a Todrick Hall Easter egg is a way for us to be more relevant and play into the power of social media.”
The animation process
Given that this year, most brands waited longer than usual to announce if they would even place a Super Bowl ad, BBDO prepped early, shooting “Human” last fall. According to Kirk Kelley, CCO of House Special, the Portland, Ore.-based animation shop that has worked on M&M’s since 1995, the brand needed nearly a month to edit the live-action footage, another four weeks for the animation process and an additional four weeks to composite the live-action footage with the animation.
On the day of the shoot, puppets of Red and Miss Brown, voiced by Vanessa Williams, populate the set like extras. “We bring little puppets so that the director of photography and director can frame up the shots,” explains Kelley. “In the same way that I might move them around so they get an idea as they walk and talk about performances [for the animation] like how he might react or wouldn’t it be funny if he bent down. Often, depending on who it is, you say this is what Red would do if he were interacting with characters. In this case, since Danny is turning into Red, he just becomes something different.”
All in the details
The logistics of turning Red into a human might seem an exercise in whimsy, but M&M’s and the agency took pains to ensure Red’s credibility down to having granular-level discussions about what a human version of an M&M would wear. The team considered tights, cargo shorts—even if his shoes would have shoelaces. They settled on a pair of glasses, a red T-shirt emblazoned with the M&M’s signature M and red shorts. “Because we have an animated character that does not exist in the real world but is going to turn into a human, we didn’t want that human to be cartoony in the way he looked,” says Bayne.
Throughout the long shoot DeVito is just as mindful of the details as the production team. In one scene, where DeVito’s human Red has just been hit by a garbage truck and knocked in front of a bodega, the comic actor is adamant that Red would be a little roughed up and makes sure to add bits of sage and dried hot pepper to his hair as well as pieces of smashed tomato to his head. That attention makes it easier for the postproduction team, which will edit this frame by frame, ensuring precision and consistency.
Back to the chocolate pool. Dipping DeVito into the brown mixture isn’t solely for the yuks of seeing him splash around in the pool, but rather it’s a nod to his M&M’s transformation. In past spots M&M’s has featured lentils—that’s what the company calls each M&M piece—emerging from chocolate. “Instead of having the lentils popping out you now have Danny DeVito popping out,” notes Miazga-Bedrick.
During the chocolate pool sequence, DeVito and his stunt double, Michael Muñoz, are careful to keep his shirt clean so that the giant M remains legible to the viewers. To shoot it the crew used an overhead shot that moves from a close-up on DeVito’s stomach and the M, before zooming out further into a wide shot, where DeVito is visible swimming around. Once the crew scores the perfect shot, they ask DeVito to fully submerge and splash around the pool until he’s covered—glasses and all. It’s an odd sight, watching DeVito grunting and wriggling around, and yet, you can’t keep your eyes off of him. And that’s the point—when it comes to the Super Bowl with its estimated 111 million viewers, it doesn’t matter how weird you are if people are paying attention.