Journey of an Auto Ad on Its Drive to the Super Bowl


The road to the Super Bowl for Pontiac ends Sunday with the debut of a commercial featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

It began with a script dashed off late one night by a 27-year-old advertising writer who had been struggling to get his ideas turned into commercials.

Much is riding on the spot. It’s been two decades since Pontiac has appeared in the Super Bowl, and it’s writer Tom Topolewski’s first entry in the Super Bowl of advertising, a commercial showcase where careers hang in the balance.


“It’s scary,” said Topolewski. “I just hope people like it, you know, I just hope.”

His idea, one of more than a dozen proposed for a routine Pontiac campaign, evolved into a seven-figure commercial production. The fast-paced spot was produced over a period of 10 months by a cast of 100 animators, digital artists, musicians and car guys.

With advertisers paying $1.3 million for 30 seconds, the risks of advertising in the Super Bowl are super-sized. A bad commercial can quickly turn a product into a national joke--witness Burger King’s failed 1986 Herb the Nerd ad.

No amount of testing and research can ensure success. GM’s Cadillac division caught flak from feminists for a 1997 Catera spot depicting model Cindy Crawford as a bored but lovely princess. It later yanked the ad.

With record audiences tuning into the broadcast, a successful Super Bowl can give products a huge lift. Apple Computer Co.’s Orwellian 1984 Super Bowl ad is legendary for driving sales of the Macintosh. Two days after the big game, shoppers had snapped up the entire inventory.


History isn’t on Pontiac’s side. Gallup & Robinson reports that with one exception, consumers rate Super Bowl car ads as dull, dull, dull.

“Too often, car companies run old ads,” said Scott Purvis, president of the polling firm. He said ingredients to success on the Super Bowl are freshness and humor.


When Topolewski first scripted the Coyote spot, it wasn’t Super Bowl-bound. It was merely among 16 ideas D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in Detroit proposed to Pontiac last winter for an upcoming Grand Prix campaign.

In the spot, the Coyote uses rocket skates to catch up with the Road Runner, but fails. Emerging from an Acme crate is Coyote’s latest weapon--a Grand Prix. Taking the wheel, the Coyote barrels up twisting mountain roadways with ease, until he is almost close enough to grab the Road Runner.

The Coyote and seven other proposals survived the first cut, picking up tentative OKs from Pontiac executives. The next step involved two rounds of meticulous consumer testing that is standard practice at GM.

First, sketches from the Coyote adwere shown to dozens of consumers in focus groups, where they were asked whether they liked the ads and understood the pitch.

When focus groups gave them high marks, Coyote and two other concepts that also did well moved to the next level of testing. Armed with a black-and-white commercial cobbled together from the sketches, a research firm button-holed hundreds more consumers at shopping malls around the country last spring, soliciting their opinions about Coyote.

Topolewski, meanwhile, prepared himself by viewing Coyote cartoons rented from Blockbuster and trying not to become too hopeful.


“In advertising, you try not to get too optimistic,” said Topolewski, who went through 1995 without getting an OK on a single idea. “You can think up the most brilliant idea, and one day everyone is congratulating you, and the next day, the idea is dead.”


Despite the popularity of the Warner Bros. characters, Pontiac and some of Topolewski’s colleagues at DMMB&B; had concerns about the Coyote. After all, the characters aren’t new to the product pitch world.

Pepsi-Cola had teamed the Looney Tunes duo with athlete Deion Sanders in a 1996 Super Bowl spot seen by millions. Before that, GM- rival Chrysler Corp. used the characters to pitch its Plymouth Road Runner 25 years earlier.

“We do not want to be perceived as ripping off these commercials,” said Brian Durocher, the DMB&B; vice president who supervises the Pontiac account.

Durocher was also concerned whether a spot starring the Looney Tunes characters would fit with Grand Prix’s existing “Wider is Better” campaign. Those commercials tout the car’s wider wheel base by making wry comparisons to objects that are better when wider--like tightropes.

Consumer response put those questions to rest.

In a 50-page report, the research firm declared the spot ranked among the top 5% of all automotive ads--besides being the most popular Pontiac spot ever tested. People understood it and liked it--a lot.


“It was apparent to everyone that this was a spot that couldn’t be denied,” said Durocher.

No one can say who said it first, but that is when the Coyote ad found itself on the road to the Super Bowl.

The step is a big departure for Pontiac. In 1997 the division passed up the big game, buying up air time in the Super Bowl post-game show, where rates are about half of what it costs to advertise in the game. When the ratings came in, Pontiac and its agency congratulated themselves on their shrewd move. They’d captured 70% of the Super Bowl audience at a bargain rate.

“The Super Bowl is where everybody is bringing their best,” said Jim Vurpillant, assistant brand manager for the Grand Prix. “The Super Bowl has really evolved into the Super Bowl of advertising, where some people tune in to see the ads. . . . We believe we have an ad that is right for the game.”

Pontiac advertising manager Robert Kraut said the spot punctuates one of the best years ever for the Grand Prix. Redesigned in late 1996, Grand Prix sales soared 21% in 1997 to 160,000.

“It keeps the momentum going,” said Grand Prix brand manager William Heugh.

The spot does more than give Grand Prix a boost. Warner Bros. embraced the spot because it helps bring two of its classic characters into the present, before a huge TV audience.


For DMB&B;, the Super Bowl is an opportunity to show off, while changing the way consumers view car ads.


“We think this ad is an award winner,” Durocher said.

Making the ad was a laborious process, stretching over seven months. The goal was to place a live-action car into a cartoon world, without anything appearing out of place.

Working by hand, more than 40 animators at Warner Bros. designed the desert backgrounds, and sketched the Coyote and the Road Runner. The scenes and characters were sent to Industrial Light & Magic in San Rafael, where digital designers painstakingly built them on high-powered computers.

Cameramen filmed two days’ worth of footage of a shiny red Grand Prix, capturing its twists and turns on an empty runway in Santa Rosa, then filming it as it drove down a twisting mountain roadway nearby.

A 40-piece orchestra provided music for the spot.

As work progressed, Pontiac realized that a cartoon world had its advantages. In chasing the Road Runner and stirring up puffs of cartoon dust, the Grand Prix can appear to hit speeds that are huge no-nos in typical car commercials. At one point in the ad, the Grand Prix bounces in the air for a second--the sort of effect that drew rounds of condemnation for a 1990 Nissan Super Bowl spot. (see archives).

“Using cartoon logic, you can appear to go 300 miles per hour, and it works,” said ILM commercial director Steve Beck.

The process sparked a sometimes spirited give-and-take. At Warner’s suggestion, the agency gave the Coyote rocket skates--a weapon he had not yet tried in cartoons. Warner Bros. proposed ending the spot with Coyote driving past Road Runner, but, according to Beck, the agency and Pontiac gave it a thumbs down. They wanted to leave room for a sequel, providing the spot scores big in the Super Bowl.