The Story of ‘Footprints,’ the Brilliantly Stealthy Navy Seals Ad Nobody Saw Coming

Cindy Gallop picks her three favorite ad campaigns

Headshot of Tim Nudd

On Dec. 14, 2005, Campbell Ewald and director Stu Maschwitz arrived at Will Rogers State Beach, just up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica, and spent 10 hours shooting a 30-second spot that would become known as one of great military recruitment ads of all time.

It was for the Navy Seals. The agency’s idea was simple: Communicate the legendary stealthy nature of the Seals by showing a beach scene at night, with footprints mysteriously appearing in the sand after a wave, and then disappearing with the following wave.

The 10-hour shoot was not without its challenges. But the resulting spot would send chills down the spine of viewers, including potential recruits and their families, casting the Seals as a invisible force moving swiftly and silently into hostile territory for unspeakable missions.

Cindy Gallop, the former BBH leader and founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, chose “Footprints” as one of her three favorite ads ever when we sat down with her recently for our “Best Ads Ever” series. Check out the video above.

“I love this ad because it is product demonstration at its absolute finest,” she says of the “Footprints” spot. “That ad is absolute genius. It totally delivers on everything a recruitment ad should. It absolutely communicates what the Navy Seals are all about. It makes you go, ‘Oh my God, I want to join the Navy Seals.’ You look really hard at that ad, because of the way it works. I think that ad is absolutely brilliant.”

Check out the full spot here:

Adweek spoke with Stu Maschwitz, who directed “Footprints,” last last week and got some of the backstory on how it was made.

First of all, it was shot during the day, not at night. The night sky, the day-for-night color, the digital moon and the clouds moving across it were all added in post, Maschwitz says. But beyond that, it was all real.

“There’s no digital trickery at all with the wave interacting with the footprints. That part is 100 percent in camera,” Maschwitz says.

Much like surfers do, Maschwitz and his assistant director got good at reading waves. “The timing of the perfect wave would be based on swells that we had to learn to see coming hundreds of yards out,” he says. “When we felt like a good one was coming, we’d send out our four PAs in the correct Navy-Seals-issue booties and have them stand in the surf. We’d call action, they’d come walking in leaving the prints, and then we’d all hold our breaths hoping that the perfect wave would lap in and erase them.”

Check out some photos from the shoot, taken by Maschwitz:

In 10 hours of shooting, they got five solid takes where the wave erased the footprints perfectly. “We shot into the evening, but the take we wound up using was shot before lunch,” Maschwitz recalls.

The vibe on set was upbeat and relaxed—for the most part.

“The only people who were not super relaxed on the shoot were [cinematographer John Stanier’s] camera crew, who were constantly worried that a rogue wave would take out the Panasonic VariCam, for which we had no backup,” Maschwitz says. “Because we needed the waves to cross the bottom of the frame, we really were putting the camera in danger.”

More than a decade later, Maschwitz looks back on the spot fondly. “Everyone had the sense that they were working on something special with this spot,” he says.

Campbell Ewald, which later called the ad “quite possibly the stealthiest television commercial ever produced,” had been pitching the idea to the Navy for several years, Maschwitz recalls. “When they finally decided to do it, they committed hard and never once second-guessed the creative. What I brought to the project was a commitment to do as much in-camera as possible, and just pure enthusiasm for the concept.”

He adds: “Looking back, it’s absolutely my favorite commercial I’ve made. The process was enjoyable, and it was immensely gratifying to still see it running on TV many years later. I’m incredibly honored to have been a part of it.”

Eric Olis, who was creative director on the Navy account at Campbell Ewald for 15 years, also has very fond memories of the “Footprints” ad.

“I can remember two things about that shoot,” he tells us. “One was that everyone I told about the shoot said, ‘You get to be on a beach near Malibu all day?! Hard life.’ The funny thing was that we actually froze our butts off, as it was overcast, windy and cold all day long. Two, once we had the spot assembled, I had a drawn-out fight with an account executive as he wanted to put a huge Navy logo on the end of the spot. Thankfully, I won that argument!”

In addition to “Footprints,” Gallop picked one other spot, and another full campaign, to round out her three favorite ads.

As a former chair of BBH New York, she wanted to pick a BBH spot—and she went with “Getting Dressed” for Axe from 2004, in which a couple are seen retrieving their clothes from all around town after sleeping together.

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