7 Years Later, VW’s ‘The Force’ Is Still the Dark Lord of Super Bowl Ads

The Deutsch spot that changed the rules continues to cast a shadow

Headshot of Tim Nudd

It remains the most-watched Super Bowl ad of all time. And it’s known not just for its clever premise and fun execution—but it also changed the way Super Bowl ads roll out, having started the tradition of releasing them before the game to get the most visibility possible.

Volkswagen’s “The Force,” created for the 2011 game by Deutsch, is head and shoulders above most other Super Bowl ads, just for its content. Directed by Lance Acord, it tapped into the borrowed equity of Star Wars to tell the irresistible tale of a boy who tries to emulate the powers of Darth Vader—but is frustrated at every turn, until he manages to make a VW Passat roar to life, with a little help from his father’s remote start.

But the spot changed Super Bowl advertising in a more fundamental way. Working with Deutsch and MediaCom, VW decided to release the ad four days before the game—a move unheard of at the time, when the ads were assumed to get the most impact by premiering during the game. As the view count quickly flooded into the millions just hours after it hit YouTube, other marketers took note—and these days, more ads are pre-released than not.

It was controversial decision within the marketing group at VW. Tim Ellis, who was head of marketing at Volkswagen North America at the time (and is now CMO of Activision), fought hard to have the ad pre-released—figuring it would quickly go viral. Partly, this was because VW had bought 30 seconds of time on the game, and Ellis thought the 60-second version was much stronger.

“I believed in the ad. I believed in the virality of the ad. And we took a risk,” Ellis tells Adweek. “The reason I made that decision was because of the quality of the :60, versus the :30. We had only bought a :30, but the :60 was just so much better. I did everything I could to trade with another advertiser to get a :60, and it was just not available. So, that’s when I said, ‘Let’s run the :60 early. This this is going to go viral. By the time the talking heads are talking about it on Friday night, it will have already won the Super Bowl. People are going to be talking about this ad. So when they see it during the game, they will have already have seen the :60.’ I believed in the power of the creative—of the longer unit.”

Eric Springer, a creative director at Deutsch at the time—he is now chief creative officer of Innocean USA—initially thought the idea to pre-release was nuts, he told Adweek during a shoot for our “Best Ads Ever” video series.

“I’m like, ‘What, are you crazy? We’re not going to share it with anybody. We’ve got to let them see it on the Super Bowl. Someone might rip us off!'” Springer said.

He quickly realized, of course, that there was no time for copycats. “This is four days before the Super Bowl,” he says. “Who the hell is going to rip you off?”

Springer says the combination of great creative and an inspired media idea was “like catching lightning in a bottle. … It changed the way people view the power of advertising. To me, that was a great moment. It was bigger than the ad.”

See the full 60-second spot here:

This week, we reached out to Mike Sheldon, chairman and CEO of Deutsch North America, to ask him about “The Force” and its legacy. Below is what Sheldon had to say.

Adweek: What made “The Force” so special, and was it a surprise that it became so overwhelmingly popular?
Mike Sheldon: The thing that made “The Force” special was that it was the perfectly told story. We had the antagonist, protagonist, conflict and resolution tightly packaged into 30 seconds. It had everything. A mom/son relationship, dad/son relationship and we even threw in a dog for good measure. To top it off, “Imperial March” is a magnetic track that fans across the world love.

But even more than that—people saw themselves in it. I think what made this thing go unexpectedly viral prior to the big game was that so many people saw their own child in the role of little Max [Page, the child actor who played Mini Darth], or saw themselves in the parent’s shoes.

"The Force" was Adweek's best ad of 2011.

How much of the success was down to the idea, and how much was in the execution?
It was extremely well executed, but the idea was everything. We presented the creative idea to our U.S. clients, German clients, the global heads of marketing—who happened to be Italian—and everyone got it immediately. No translation or discussion was required. Anybody and everybody of all ages fell in love with the idea without any refinement or changes. It was the pure package. Again, every parent knows what it feels like to create that moment of surprise and joy for a kid. It’s a universal feeling. That’s what made this spot magic.

There was a whole backstory involving the actor who played Little Vader. It really became a phenomenon more than just an ad, didn’t it?
Max Page was 6 years old when we cast him as Mini Darth. We knew almost immediately that we had a phenomenon on our hands because of his immense talent. He was a child actor with a severe heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot—a congenital heart disease that affects the flow of blood through the heart—and had been through a number of surgeries. After becoming Mini Darth, Max became an ambassador for his condition and has since helped generate awareness and raise money for the cause.

“The Force” ushered in the era of brands releasing their spots early. How much of a factor was that in how well the spot performed? And is that its greatest legacy—convincing so many other brands to do the same?
As big as the spot was in terms of viewers and shareability, its most significant legacy was the impact it had on the way advertisers approached the Super Bowl. After 2011, it became regular practice for marketers to pre-release their spots before the Big Game.

“The Force” became a global phenomenon because of its universal story. We released it at 10 p.m. the Wednesday before the game, and overnight the video received millions of views from across the world. Because VW is a global brand, people in other countries had started viewing and sharing the spot by the time we woke up the next morning. And the story wasn’t encumbered by copy; by not having any language in the spot, it actually spoke all languages.

By the time it aired on the Super Bowl, the video already had 17 million views. And back then, one of the main metrics for success was the number of YouTube views you generated for the ad. So releasing it early worked in our favor to stoke the fire before the game.

Do you think the spot still holds up today?
Absolutely. It’s great storytelling, and all great stories last. It’s ageless, and it reminds us of when we were young. For those of us who are parents, it brings to life the magic and wonder of seeing the world through your kids’ eyes. Plus, the car still looks pretty damn good.

• For all the latest Super Bowl advertising news—who’s in, who’s out, teasers, full ads and more—check out Adweek’s Super Bowl LII Ad Tracker. And join us on the evening of Feb. 4 for the best in-game coverage of the Super Bowl commercials anywhere.

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@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.