Q&A: The Director of That Viral Chevy Dog Ad Isn’t Surprised He Didn’t Win

Lloyd Choi looks on the bright side

"Maddie," a minute-long commercial by young Canadian director Lloyd Lee Choi, didn't win Chevrolet and Mofilm's Oscars competition. That honor went to a whimsical exploration of creativity by Jude Chun, whose ads about kids making a movie with a 2014 Chevy Cruze aired during the Academy Awards on ABC.

Choi's entry, however, clearly has legs—four of them, to be precise, belonging to the ad's titular Golden Retriever, whose heartrending story unfolds in reverse chronological order. (Three dogs were actually used to portray the pooch.) "Maddie" opens at the end of the dog's life, closes in puppyhood, and makes the point that your Chevy—seen throughout—can also be "A best friend for life's journey."

Shot for $7,000 in less than three days, it's an emotional tail-chaser that's proven to be popular yet polarizing. Some commenters seem to both love and hate various aspects of the film. (AdFreak's Gabriel Beltrone called it "beautifully written and produced," then smacked Choi with a rolled-up newspaper for making folks angry "when you realize Chevy is a dick who has shamelessly manipulated love for a dying dog to get you to buy a car.")

The ad has fetched more than 1.4 million views on YouTube, compared to 33,000 for Chun's winning entry. It's the best of both worlds for Chevy, which reaps publicity from both spots but still maintains some distance from the mildly controversial "Maddie" ad.

Of course, it's up to each viewer to decide whether any commercial is best in breed … or just a dog. To gain some insight, AdFreak chatted with Choi about "Maddie."

Where did you get the "Maddie" idea? Is it based on something from your own life or the experience of someone you know?

Chevy is a very family-oriented brand, so we came up with an idea that followed a girl and her family—their life together told in reverse. But I felt it was missing an emotional thread, and I thought back to my childhood growing up with pets and how they provide us with unconditional love and affection that is so unwavering … and that's a beautiful thing. I wanted to capture that truthfully, which is why we showed a multitude of moments, big and small.

What was the major theme or message you were trying to get across for the Chevy brand?

I think viewers nowadays prefer subtlety versus messaging that's in your face. Our generation tends to skip commercials that blatantly advertise something, and we are quick to forget about it and move on to the next thing. Chevy wanted young filmmakers to create content that focused on authenticity and narrative that evoked an emotion. In the end, our main goal was to create a narrative that told a compelling story in one minute.

Why shift into "reverse"? Did using reverse chronology present any problems?

A reveal is more exciting!

The spot took me a couple weeks to edit, trying to find a flow that worked. Always a bit more challenging when you have to film and edit against your natural inclination of moving forward in time.

Where did you get the dogs, and how many did you use? Did they cause any problems during filming?

We used three dogs and a litter of puppies, all found through friends. Stanley (young pup), Maddie (main dog) and Lily (old dog) were the stars. They had their moody moments, but we all do in our different ways. Filming a couple times before with animals, I've come to realize you just have to let them be and sometimes film around them. And to be patient. Oh, and they dictate the washroom breaks.

What was the toughest or most surprising thing about the production?

On our search for our main dog—and type of dog—I was in a coffee shop waiting in line. I looked across the street and I saw a beautiful Golden Retriever sitting at the heels of its owner. In my memory, his fur was literally shimmering in the light. I pointed and said to my girlfriend, "That dog is perfect!" She laughed and told me that was her friend and her dog. We walked over and said hi and I was introduced to the Golden Retriever, whose name was Maddie, and that is the main dog you see in the spot.

[On the set] we made sure to set aside an hour in the production schedule to play with all the puppies.

I was operating the camera during the vet office scene, where in a few takes we all started to tear up. Parts of those takes were unusable due to camera-shake.

Were you surprised you didn't win the competition?

We weren't surprised we didn't win, and kind of knew going into the competition we wouldn't. We wanted to create a short film, and our tone was too bittersweet for commercial purposes. Chevy definitely chose the right spot. Jude's ad is incredible!

Are you surprised by the intense reaction, with "Maddie" going viral?

The reception of "Maddie" has been insane and amazing so far. The cut that we released was a director's cut that was mainly to showcase our work online for reel purposes, so we could get more work. We never expected more than a handful of industry people to watch it, but the spot grew online organically and just exploded.

I think people are gravitating toward it because they can relate so closely to the story. In the end, it's a story about the life we live with a friend who loves us unconditionally, really the only ones that surpass human judgment and emotion, and give us pure love. Many people have felt that, and can see themselves in that story. And I can see why others aren't so fond of the spot, either being reminded of something that they will have to face one day, or feeling as if they were cheated by a car commercial.

What's the big takeaway … the main lesson you've learned?

People really connect with content that hits a different chord than all the other content out there. So much is being created and shared daily, and what stands out is what is authentic and meaningful in that person's day, at that time in their lives.

I've received a few heartwarming emails from people on how the spot has really affected them on a deep level, not just making them emotional and shedding a tear, but reminding and inspiring them to appreciate and cherish their loved ones (animal and human) just a little more. Those emails meant the world to me.

The spot would never have worked using a cat. Because cats suck … right?

Ha! I do love cats and dogs equally. And maybe cats could've worked—it would just have a different tone, full of attitude and sass. Cats tend to be divas, harder to work with, and usually ask for too much.

@DaveGian davegia@hotmail.com David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.