Behind the Scenes of Olay’s Star-Studded, Space-Themed Super Bowl Spot With a ‘Coded’ Message

Taraji P. Henson, Lilly Singh and other stars help skin-care brand make a giant leap for women and tech

Taraji P. Henson and Lilly Singh in spacesuits in Olay ad
The Olay ad follows Singh and Philipps as they attempt to answer the question 'Is there space in space for women?'
Maggie Shannon for Adweek

Key Insights

It was a beautiful day in Los Angeles, with temperatures in the mid-70s and the tops of palm trees dotting a cloudless sky. That California-in-December bliss, however, was nowhere to be found on Stage 1 at The Lot Studios, a film and TV production complex nestled in West Hollywood.

Nate McCain for Olay

Something celestial was happening, in more ways than one. At the center of the stage was what appeared to be the front end of a rocket ship—a silver hexagonal cylinder topped with an industrial-looking nose, with countless buttons and controls lining the interior.

It’s not just the astronomical set that was radiating star power, but the people, too. Sitting inside the rocket ship were actress Busy Philipps, comedian Lilly Singh and retired astronaut Nicole Stott. That morning, Katie Couric shot a sequence in a makeshift TV studio. And the day before, actress Taraji P. Henson was in command at a mock mission control.

Adweek was there, too, invited to observe and document the creation of this year’s Super Bowl ad for Procter & Gamble-owned skin-care brand Olay. This is its second year in the Big Game, this time working with Badger & Winters to produce a 30-second, star-studded, space-themed spot over the course of a three-day shoot.

It was an experience that stunned even the spot’s stars. “The Super Bowl is literally the Oscars of commercials,” Henson tells Adweek during a break between takes, laughing. “I feel like I made it!”

The ad follows Philipps and Singh as they endeavor to answer the question “Is there space in space for women?” with the help of Henson back at mission control, Stott in the co-pilot seat and Couric reporting on the mission back on Earth.

Olay's final Super Bowl ad

Though it’s humorous—as any ad with Philipps and Singh would be—the spot has a deeper message. Olay is teaming up with Girls Who Code, the nonprofit organization that hosts coding classes for young women to prepare them for careers in STEM, donating $1 for every person who tweets #MakeSpaceForWomen throughout the Big Game.

The cause is fitting when you consider why Olay was inspired to get into the Super Bowl in the first place: The brand wanted to “make space” for a greater number of women to be shown—and see themselves represented—on the biggest stage in advertising.

Back in the game

Super Bowl commercials are typically synonymous with a certain type of brand: automotive, beer, snacks—namely, those that are traditionally associated with men. And with that, only 27% of Super Bowl spots feature women in the leading role. That number, however, is at odds with the actual demographics of the NFL’s fan base: According to a 2018 survey from Taylor Strategy, 45% of NFL fans are female.

That stat led Olay to get into the game last year, Kate DiCarlo, Olay’s senior communications manager, tells Adweek—its first time advertising during the Super Bowl.

The brand ran a 30-second horror-film spoof ad, featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar as a woman who distracts a masked home invader with her “killer skin.” The ad was humorous and “made a splash,” says DiCarlo, but at its core, it was about product efficacy.

Singh and Philipps experience weightlessness, courtesy of wires.
Nate McCain for Olay

For its second go-round, Olay is shifting focus to its brand ethos—in particular, its “Face Anything” tagline. DiCarlo says the brand decided around July of last year to get back in the game, and to “come back [to the Super Bowl] with something that really helps continue ‘Face Anything’ in a way that makes a positive change in the world.”

And who better to handle creative than Badger & Winters, the shop behind the “Face Anything” campaign that launched in 2018 and encourages women to shed the labels and expectations that others place on them.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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