When Campbell Mithun signed fellow Minnesotans Joel and Ethan Coen to direct a Super Bowl spot for H&R Block, all the agency had was a simple concept: a man behind a desk, droning on about the changes in the tax laws this year.
Coen brothers fan George Hal vor son, Campbell Mithun's executive creative director, says the agency envisioned the spot as having a similar feel to the film makers' big-business spoof, The Hudsucker Proxy. Other executions in H&R Block's ongoing $100 million campaign feature three government suits lip-synching to the Beatles' "Tax Man" in a dark, dreary world, and also focus on the complex new laws. But for the first foray into the big game for both agency and client, the Minneapolis shop wanted a more dramatic execution.
During several phone conversations with the agency, the Coen brothers added details that lent a "bigness and ominous quality" to the spots, Hal vorson says, such as the staffers' monotonous outfits—think IBM in the 1950s—and an aide who pushes a cart of ice water.
Most important, the Coens figured out how to use "Taxman" in a way that links the Super Bowl commercial to the five others in the campaign without detracting from the overall tone.
"They took the basic idea and defined it," Halvorson says.
The spot opens on a roomful of desks occupied by government workers. "Somewhere in Washington, D.C," reads a super. As a balding bureaucrat monotonously reads phrases such as "limitation based on amount of tax" from a book into an overhead microphone, the camera shows various employees strug gling to understand the arcana. One applies eyedrops, while an other looks around nervously to see whether others are equally confused.
As the camera passes over one zoned-out staffer listening to "Taxman," a voiceover as serts that H&R Block understands each of the 441 new laws to take effect this year.
"The idea is, it's so confusing that the people who have passed the laws don't quite get them," says Halvorson.
Halvorson had watched Super Bowl tapes from the last 10 years and decided that humor was usually key to an ad's success. The droning-man concept was one of the first the agency came up with.
"It seemed to have all the right components for the Super Bowl," he says.
The Coens, known for films such as Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, have directed only about one spot a year, including work for Honda and Olympus. Says Halvorson, "They understood what the Super Bowl is—they wanted the commercial to stand out."
The Coens approached the shoot, which took place in Los Angeles in December, the same way as their feature films, Halvorson says. They did only three takes of each shot before moving on. By 4 p.m. on day one, the shoot was done.
"They were very focused, not schmoozing with the client or chumming with the crew," Halvorson says. "They were very professional."
Though H&R Block will run just the one spot during the game, midway through the second quarter, it has five spots scheduled for the pre-game show. Afterward, the Coens' ad will be inserted into the rotation in H&R Block's campaign, Halvorson says.
Hopes are high that the commercial will make a strong impact even without the splashy effects that often characterize advertising on the Super Bowl. Robin Benson, an executive producer at the Beverly Hills production company Villains, is confident the ad will stand out. "The only special effect in this spot," he says, "is the Coen brothers' unique take on a well-written concept."