How CeraVe and Michael Cera Pulled Off an Epic Prank for the Brand's First Super Bowl Campaign

Ogilvy crafted the elaborate ruse with the help of influencers to fuel rumors before the Big Game

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Weeks of speculation that actor Michael Cera is the founder of skin care brand CeraVe have culminated in a Super Bowl ad that reveals it was all an elaborate prank. 

The L’Oréal brand’s first Super Bowl campaign, developed by WPP and led by agency Ogilvy, has taken an unconventional route involving bizarre public appearances by Cera, rumors circulating on social media about the actor becoming a skin care influencer, and publications trying to piece together the mystery of whether he actually invented the moisturizer.

During the first quarter of the Big Game on Feb. 11, an ad finally debunked these myths. Mimicking mystical and over-the-top commercials from beauty and perfume brands, the film shows Cera claiming, “I am CeraVe,” before luxuriating in a massage, climbing a mountain and communing with a narwhal. His offbeat humor and deadpan delivery are on display as he murmurs, “Let my cream hydrate you.”

At the end, Cera awakes from this fever dream to face a CeraVe boardroom full of skin care experts. Though the actor concludes his presentation with, “It would be really nice if people think that I make this,” the ad informs viewers that CeraVe is actually developed with dermatologists. 

By building intrigue, getting hundreds of influencers in on the joke and capturing the general public’s attention weeks before the actual game, CeraVe and Ogilvy executed a campaign that threw out the rules of the Super Bowl marketing playbook. 

“This is an immersive campaign where people could join in the conversation,” Melanie Vidal, CeraVe’s global brand general manager, told ADWEEK. “We want to have fun with people, not message at them.” 

CeraVe, Ogilvy

An unusual brand ambassador

It all began with a conspiracy uncovered in the depths of the internet.

CeraVe, founded in 2005 and acquired by L’Oréal in 2017, hired Ogilvy last year to create its first Super Bowl campaign. Though the brand had become a cult favorite, particularly among TikTokers, it wanted to “translate its TikTok relevance to a far wider audience on the biggest stage in America and become a cultural icon, while also educating consumers along the way,” said Charlotte Tansill, president of Ogilvy North America’s PR, social and influence practice. 

For inspiration, Ogilvy’s team trawled social media and found Reddit threads from several years ago speculating about whether Michael Cera was connected to the brand because of his name. 

“This deep-rooted internet conspiracy became our opportunity to fuel the fire,” said Tansill. 

Despite the symmetry between the actor’s and product’s names, Michael Cera is by all appearances an unlikely brand ambassador. Amid a proliferation of celebrity skin care lines and star-studded Super Bowl commercials, Cera is an unassuming actor who rarely does brand collaborations. He doesn’t even have his own social media accounts. 

But that worked in CeraVe’s favor as it decided on the idea to create an “imposter character” to represent the brand, said Vidal, who called the actor “authentic and approachable.” Cera’s lack of social media presence added to the mystique of the campaign, whose concept was to create fake news before revealing the truth to consumers. 


Michael Cera in NYC with CeraVe
The actor fueled the rumor mill as he carted bags of CeraVe around New York City.CeraVe, Ogilvy

Fueling fake news

CeraVe’s campaign is influencer-led—still an unusual strategy for a Super Bowl ad.

Though creators have begun to appear in Big Game campaigns over the past couple of years, the typical process for brands and agencies is to make a film, then tack on some influencer and social media activity, Tansill explained. 

With CeraVe, influencers were closely involved from the start. The brand already works with skin care and dermatology influencers, but for this campaign it expanded those partnerships to include culture and entertainment commentators, “people who would dissect rumors on the internet, because that’s how we were building the story,” Vidal said.

Popular influencers Kirbie Johnson, Haley Kalil and Bobbi Althoff posted content speculating about a partnership between Cera and the brand. But hundreds more creators were also involved as the story unfolded, posting unboxing videos or commenting on Cera’s behavior. 

Meanwhile, Cera was doing his part to fan the flames. He signed bottles of CeraVe at Euro Chemist in Brooklyn and carried bags of the product around New York City, images that later appeared in tabloids such as Page Six. When Althoff interviewed him on her show The Really Good Podcast, he dramatically walked out when asked about his ties to CeraVe. 

@bobbialthoff

This week on The Really Good Podcast I interviewed the actor and maybe developer of CeraVe, Michael Cera @CeraVe #ceravepartner #michaelcerave

♬ original sound – Bobbi

Rather than releasing a teaser for its commercial as many Super Bowl advertisers do, CeraVe relied on the internet gossip engine to build buzz without explaining anything. As the stunts went viral, the conspiracy garnered press coverage from the likes of People magazine, The Cut, Us Weekly and the Daily Mail.

In the three weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, CeraVe’s collaboration with Cera has garnered 6 billion earned impressions and millions of engagements on social without any paid media, according to Tansill. 


Michael Cera handing a box of CeraVe to a man walking on the sidewalk
As Cera kept handing out bottles of CeraVe to passersby, is it any wonder many concluded he was a moisturizer mogul?CeraVe, Ogilvy

Providing closure

As the game drew nearer, CeraVe and a team of experts finally began asserting the truth. On Jan. 29, the brand posted on its social media accounts that “CeraVe is and always has been developed with dermatologists.” Skin care specialists such as DermDoctor, aka dermatologist Dr. Shah, confronted Cera’s incorrect claims on TikTok.

@dermdoctor

Confronting Michael Cera after seeing @haleyybaylee ‘s video of him signing CeraVe bottles… is he really a skincare expert? #ceravepartner #dermdoctor #dermatologist #skincare #michaelcerave

♬ original sound – DermDoctor | Dr. Shah

CeraVe’s approach is what the brand and Ogilvy have dubbed “edutainment,” a cross between education and entertainment.

Skin care is one of the most searched categories online, with people seeking advice in a crowded and often confusing sector, Vidal said. CeraVe sees itself as “the transmission between dermatologists and consumers,” she added. “Ultimately, we strive to be useful with the content we put out there and bust myths around skin care.”

That doesn’t mean its educational content has to be boring, though, and CeraVe wants to be a brand straddling the “super fun and serious,” she said. 

CeraVe’s Super Bowl ad concludes a journey that has both mystified and entertained people along the way, but the brand will be observing how the public reacts on game day to see if it needs to “tell any other parts of the story,” Tansill said. 

Two things remain clear, however: This is not the start of a new career as a brand ambassador for the actor. And, Tansill repeated, “Michael Cera is not associated with CeraVe.”

For the latest Super Bowl 58 advertising news—who’s in, who’s out, teasers, full ads and more—check out ADWEEK’s Super Bowl 2024 Ad Tracker and the rest of our stories here. And join us on the evening of Feb. 11 for the best in-game coverage of the commercials.

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