Hulu’s long-running Sellouts campaign, in which professional athletes pitch Hulu’s Live TV offering in exchange for a sweet cash payout, is coming back this week as the National Football League’s fall season preps its return. But due to the limitations around production as a result of Covid-19, the company had to get crafty to make it happen.
In an ad rolling out nationally this evening during NBC’s NFL kickoff game between the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley appear onscreen to talk about how Hulu has live sports—but something about their appearance is off. The athletes reveal that while they wanted to cash in on their contracts with Hulu, their faces were superimposed on decidedly less-athletic body doubles because they couldn’t film the commercial normally.
Philadelphia 76ers player Joel Embiid makes a cameo at the end of the spot, with his face superimposed on body decidedly shorter than his normally 7-foot-tall frame. “That was weird,” he deadpans.
It’s the latest iteration of Sellouts, which has previously featured athletes like quarterback Tom Brady and the U.S. women’s national soccer team, and it’s a transparent nod to the challenges surrounding ad production as the pandemic limits filming and as athletes competing this fall navigate various quarantine requirements.
With help from agency Big Family Table and post-production company Tribbo, Hulu employed a VFX technique called digital face replacement technology, which allowed Hulu to work around those production limitations. On a small set from production company Hungry Man, actors went through the motions that Hulu would typically have the athletes do onscreen. Meanwhile, the athletes received sanitized recording kits that included iPhones, and had family members or teammates film them and send the footage along to be incorporated into the live-action filming.
“We felt like it was our best option, and we also knew that people—particularly hardcore fans of each individual athlete—would know, because as good as we can make it look, nothing can substitute for the real thing,” Ryan Crosby, Hulu’s vp of marketing, said. “We always knew we wanted to have fun with it.”
A prior ad in Hulu’s fall Sellouts push, which debuted in mid-August, depicted the NBA’s Damian Lillard, the MLB’s Aaron Judge and the WNBA’s Skylar Diggins-Smith dropping their quarantine habits (painting, baking sourdough and playing the ukulele) to get back to sports full-time. Those ads didn’t note the VFX technique outright, though—and some YouTube comments on the ad note that something about the athletes looked a little uncanny.
This ad, which will appear on television sports broadcast and across digital and social, leans into the transparency behind the Hulu Sellouts campaign by being upfront about the tech that made it possible.
“We wanted to unveil via the athletes’ social channels the fact that it wasn’t them and that it was a technology behind it, but what you see in this one is a very transparent view about the technology, and making it abundantly clear that we’re using facial replacement technology,” Crosby said.
The timing of the campaign around the NFL’s return is a strategic one for Hulu, which often sees spikes in its live television subscriptions around live sports, Crosby said.
“We know in the cycle of our business that sports are always a driver of viewing on our vMVPD service, and we see a lot of subscription and a lot of engagement in our live service when sports start,” he said.