Over the last several months, Los Angeles-based advertising agencies have put a Saint Bernard in a fat suit, a French bulldog in red sneakers, a Holstein in pigtails, and Matthew Broderick, a la "Ferris Bueller," in an SUV.
During Sunday's Super Bowl broadcast, with big-budget ads for clients like Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda and Pepsi, the agencies are going head to head with competitors from Madison Avenue to Marina del Rey.
"We look at this as the ultimate showdown with other advertisers and other agencies," said Michael Sheldon, chief executive of Deutsch LA, which handles advertising for Volkswagen. "This is a creative arms war."
More than 110 million people are expected to watch the Super Bowl on TV, making it the biggest advertising event of the year. The pressure to perform is intense. Broadcaster NBC has charged a record $3.5 million for each 30-second spot. The commercials, which can cost an additional $2 million to make, will be analyzed and replayed as much as the action on the field. More than 20 of the high-profile commercials, including those promoting Hollywood films, were created locally.
Los Angeles has long played a starring role in Super Bowl advertising. Chiat/Day revolutionized the sport more than a quarter-century ago with "1984," the groundbreaking, Orwellian ad that introduced Apple's Macintosh computer. Last year, Deutsch LA devised the most buzzed-about Super Bowl commercial, in which a little boy dressed as Darth Vader uses his powers to start his pop's VW Passat. The spot attracted 50 million views on YouTube, and this year the team is taking another crack at the"Star Wars" theme.
"The Super Bowl is the most epic stage of entertainment," said David Angelo, whose David & Goliath agency created a 60-second spot this year for car company Kia that features Brazilian fashion model Adriana Lima and the rock band Motley Crue. "We are trying to create an experience that begins a month before the Super Bowl … and then extends online after the game."
With so much at stake, ad agencies have produced mini-movies with stars, special effects, highly trained pets and feel-good endings. The commercials began rolling out early, with teaser trailers in movie theaters and online, but most will debut before television's biggest annual audience.
Los Angeles has experienced a shooting spree as local agencies have expanded and new ones have opened. Together, the agencies make for an estimated $4-billion annual industry. And although local film and TV production is down, commercial production rose 4% to a record high from 2010 to 2011, according to FilmL.A., which handles film permits for the Los Angeles region.
El Segundo-based David & Goliath — like its competitors Saatchi & Saatchi LA, in Torrance; Team One, in El Segundo; RPA, in Santa Monica; and Innocean, in Huntington Beach — was formed to service the foreign automakers whose U.S. operations are based nearby. Car ads helped build the West Coast counterpart to Madison Avenue, and still create most of the work.
Deutsch LA, which operates out of a warehouse-like building east of Marina del Rey, has been working since August on its commercial for the Volkswagen Beetle. Months were spent training a 3-year-old Saint Bernard mix that in the ad "decides" to get fit. To achieve the desired weight-loss transformation, the dog wore a fat suit. The suit comes off as the pooch "sheds" pounds.
Siltanen & Partners, also in El Segundo, cast a French bulldog as the four-legged hero in Manhattan Beach-based Skechers USA's commercial. The stubby dog got the nod, in part, because firm founder Rob Siltanen noticed a sharp increase in the breed strutting down the Strand in Manhattan Beach.
In the biggest nod to Hollywood, RPA paid homage to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"in its commercial for Honda. This time around, Broderick has a Ferris-like adventure — with stops in Beverly Hills, the Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood Park and Chinatown — in the newly redesigned Honda CR-V. The big-budget ad was directed by Todd Phillips ("The Hangover").
One high-profile ad, produced by another division of RPA, features Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno vying for control of a new Acura. The action supposedly takes place in Manhattan, but the ad was created and shot in Los Angeles.
With all the teases and trailers, viewer expectation should be high — at a time when people are already primed.
"The Super Bowl is really the only time of the year where people are looking forward to seeing commercials," said Joe Baratelli, executive creative director of RPA.
Most of the advertising agencies in the L.A. area are concentrated in a narrow band of land west of the 405 Freeway. Leading firms TBWA/Chiat/Day and Deutsch LA settled east of Marina del Rey, where Howard Hughes once built airplanes. Recent arrival 72andSunny, which moved to the neighborhood from Culver City, put together its first Super Bowl spot, a 90-second message for Samsung.
The region's creative renaissance is due to several factors, executives say, including the Los Angeles beach culture, the sunshine and the explosion of Internet companies on the Westside in an area dubbed Silicon Beach.
"Southern California is a cultural hotbed for fashion, technology and film," said Carisa Bianchi, president of TBWA/Chiat/Day, which has produced two Pepsi ads this year, one featuring Elton John, and in the past scored with the Energizer Bunny and the "I'm a Mac. I'm a PC" campaign.
Margaret Keene, executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi LA, which is creating two commercials for the Toyota Camry, agreed: "Every shop is firing on all cylinders."
Ad agencies in other cities have been working hard too. Santa Monica-based Hulu has a Super Bowl spot, made by Boulder, Colo.-based Crispin Porter + Bogusky, that depicts actor Will Arnett trying to break into Hulu headquarters: the "H" in the Hollywood sign.
But Los Angeles could be gaining on its older, bigger East Coast brother. Siltanen, of the French bulldog ad, recently picked up an account that was slated to go with a New York shop.
"We should see more business coming our way," Siltanen said. "We have the best editors, the best music houses and directors. Over time I think you'll see Los Angeles become the epicenter for advertising."