How Snickers Transformed a Basic Biological Need Into Super Bowl Success

'Looking at hunger from a new perspective felt like it could have long-term potential'

Betty White is looking at a Snickers bar as she seems like she is about to take the first bite
The initial spot spurred a popular series of ads that won much acclaim. BBDO

In the fall of 2009, Snickers came to BBDO with two big challenges: an ambition to create a Super Bowl spot that would score high in the USA Today Ad Meter (the one poll that mattered back then) and a long-term task to rejuvenate the brand, one that was iconic and loved but forgotten in the minds of many consumers.

To satisfy both needs, we knew we needed an idea that felt fresh and breakthrough enough for the Super Bowl yet delivered a core message that didn’t stray from the equity of Snickers.

For us as a team, this was our first Super Bowl brief, but we had always agreed on what Super Bowl spots we found most inspiring: the ones that used the time-tested, crowd-pleasing tricks (celebrities, physical comedy, animals, etc.) yet did so in an unexpected, subversive way. E*Trade’s “Monkey” and FedEx’s “Top Ten” were great examples of this.

We talked about celebrities and how they were typically used in an aspirational context. And we thought, “What if instead we used them to represent the problem?” which, in this case, is hunger. From there, we figured out a structure for a few scripts and a line: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Given the brand’s equity in hunger satisfaction, looking at hunger from a new perspective—specifically its ability to mess with your personality—felt like it could have long-term potential.

The sight of a beloved octogenarian getting slammed to the ground turned out to be an effective way to get all eyes back on the screen.

Though in retrospect, it may look like we paid trend forecasters to tell us who 2010’s hottest celebrity would be, in reality we just wanted to cast someone who was well known and loved, could deliver a funny performance and wasn’t a typical Super Bowl celebrity choice. Betty White performed the role better than we ever could have imagined. She perfectly channeled the tone and mannerisms of an out-of-sorts dude on a football field, in addition to spending a long time in some pretty uncomfortable positions in order to make the effects work. With the help of a bad-ass stunt woman, co-star Abe Vigoda and the supreme comedic and filmmaking instincts of director Craig Gillespie, it all worked.

The spot won the Ad Meter and led to a rejuvenation of the brand. “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” has been activated in 85 countries and is still breaking new ground, winning awards in its ninth year. White’s career got a boost as well, as the internet lobbied and eventually succeeded in getting her to host Saturday Night Live.

Below are some of the lessons we learned from that success that could apply to any Super Bowl advertiser.

Grab the audience’s attention and don’t let go

Start with a visually captivating moment. Even though the Super Bowl is supposedly the one time people watch for the commercials, attention quickly drifts given the party environments viewers are typically in. The sight of a beloved octogenarian getting slammed to the ground turned out to be an effective way to get all eyes back on the screen—better than any slow-building story could have.

Don’t forget to advertise your product

Make your product the hero. An old, obvious statement that is often forgotten at Super Bowl time, when many brands decide they are in the entertainment business. Often they seem to be trying so hard to out-funny or out-emote each other that they forget to actually sell something.

Execution is everything

This script scared some people. Seeing an old woman violently tackled could have offended many in the audience, if not executed properly. But the casting, direction, performance and timing all helped give it a tone that worked. Nothing was more important than our client’s faith in our ability to execute those elements properly.

Use talent that’s willing to go above and beyond

If you do cast a celebrity, try to find one who’s collaborative and willing to do whatever it takes to make a great spot, even if that means laying down in a muddy field on a cold day.

Over the last decade, the Super Bowl landscape has of course changed. More brands are buying 60-second, longer spots or multiple spots, like last year’s Tide campaign. Not to mention all the stunts that avoid a traditional ad buy completely. But for those who still think 30 seconds is the smartest investment, don’t fear getting lost in the shuffle. Just make the most of every second, and you can still be the talk of the game.

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This story first appeared in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Gianfranco Arena is an ecd at BBDO New York. His other job is raising a blended family of six kids.
Peter Kain is an ecd at BBDO New York. He is an Eagles fan who would prefer to spend Sunday rewatching last year’s Super Bowl.