WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. - The seven stressed actors crammed inside this tiny elevator are getting way too familiar with each other.
The director of Volkswagen's Super Bowl commercial keeps them entombed here for nearly four hours while he shoots and re-shoots more than 100 times the 10-second scene about a happy fellow in an elevator filled with unhappy people.
That's right: 100 times.
"It's all in the eyes," Tom Kuntz, the perfectionist but patient director, reminds an actor and actress. The two aren't showing quite the sarcastic expressions that he wants after the happy-go-lucky elevator rider tries to break up their Monday morning gripes. When the director turns his back for a moment, the two actors finally roll their eyeballs sarcastically - at him.
This isn't just any commercial. It's Volkswagen of America's one-minute Super Bowl spot. Usually secretive VW let USA TODAY behind the scenes to observe the filming of this spot three weeks before the Feb. 3 big game. The pressure is hotter than the unforgiving spotlights. VW won't say what it's spending. But with the price of commercial airtime on the CBS game broadcast and the cost of producing and promoting the spot and its social-media teaser, Volkswagen could spend close to $10 million - far more than any other single marketing expense on tap for the German carmaker in 2013.
"If I put this in financial terms, it would give me hives," says Justin Osborne, general manager of marketing communications at VW. "I can't look at the zeros. I just have to look at the sum of the parts."
Few moments of public pressure compare to that of airing a Super Bowl commercial. Not only will it be watched by more than 110 million consumers, the social-media buzz before, during and after the game can generate tens of millions of additional views. Thirty-some advertisers - from veteran Anheuser-Busch InBev to newcomer SodaStream - will air 50-some commercials in Super Bowl airtime that cost them roughly $3.8 million per 30-second slot. That's a record average price for Super Bowl slots.
It's the most expensive media money can buy. In total, 2013 Super Bowl advertisers will spend as much on this one game as they would spend advertising on a seven-game World Series. Each year, the Super Bowl makes legends out of a few advertisers - and fools out of many.
"Super Bowl ads get scrutinized to within an inch of their lives," says Robert Thompson, who as professor of pop culture at Syracuse University does his share of the scrutinizing. "Super Bowl Sunday would not be Super Bowl Sunday without the commercials. I can't think of any comparable cultural phenomenon."
The big game's evolution as an advertising extravaganza began to take shape in 1984, when Apple rocked the foundations of the ad world with a blockbuster Big Brother-themed spot for the rollout of its Macintosh computer. The first $1 million Super Bowl ad slot was sold within a decade of that - and passed $2 million by 2000.
There is no comparable pressure cooker in the entire media world, says ad critic, media consultant and humorist Bob Garfield. "It's like borrowing money from your father-in-law," he says. "The implications of not paying him back are unthinkable."
Equally unthinkable: failure on the world's largest ad stage.
The shared goal of Super Bowl advertisers is to become multimedia darlings with ads that not only get the thumbs up from millions of consumers, but win the exclusive USA TODAY Ad Meter rating, whose winners and losers among the game ads this year will be decided by an online consumer panel. Because of this intense scrutiny, Thompson says, there really are two concurrent, high-stakes games being played on Super Bowl Sunday: one on the field and one during commercial breaks.
Few advertisers know this better than Volkswagen. The automaker has learned how to not only withstand the pressure, but to create a multimedia romp.
With the latest commercial shoot, VW is taking an enormous, strategic gamble. Two years ago, it aired "The Force," an endearing commercial about a cute kid dressed as a mini-Darth Vader, who is shocked at his own apparent powers to start a VW by simply pointing at it and using his "force." (It's actually his dad who does it, by pressing a nifty, engine starter on his key fob.)
The ad became an instant Super Bowl classic and ranks as one of the most popular - and widely viewed - Super Bowl ads of all time. It attracted some 2 million YouTube views in just the day after it aired.
Last year, VW started to slowly pivot away from Star Wars. Its 2012 Super Bowl spot was about a hefty dog who gets svelte enough to chase a VW all the way to an alien bar, where the Star Wars crew and cute kid make a cameo appearance.
But this year, the cute kid, the dog and Star Wars all are getting the heave. VW is feeling its oats. Or its octane.
"You put yourself into a creative box if you build everything around Star Wars," says Tim Mahoney, chief product and marketing officer at VW. "We opted for a larger statement about the brand."
That statement: Driving a VW will make you happy.
This year's spot is about a guy whose happiness is infectious. Never mind that he's a tall, white Midwesterner who speaks in a thick Jamaican accent. Whenever he sees others in stress - which is non-stop during the commercial shot at his workplace - he reassures them with positive words that sound much like a reggae song, "No problem, maaaan. Everyting weeell be allll-right."
By the commercial's end, it's clear the source of his happiness is his VW. The ad ends with even his most stressed-out co-workers chanting his same happy-go-lucky phrase - with the same accent.
To stack the odds in favor of another Super Bowl hit, VW brought in Kuntz as director. He's a detail-oriented guy who directed the wildly successful but offbeat "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" Old Spice campaign featuring that hot deep-voiced dude who walks out of the steaming shower half-dressed and ultimately ends up on a horse's back.
At one point in the VW shoot, Kuntz, who sports a scruffy beard, a green cap, an orange shirt, red socks and blue canvas sneakers, suddenly stops filming the elevator scene. He sends an assistant out to find a rug to place on the elevator floor. It seems the actors are making too much noise with their feet.
Why such anal-retentiveness? "The Super Bowl is the highest mountain in this business," says Mike Sheldon, CEO of Deutsch LA, the agency behind the VW spot. He arrives late on the set directly from the airport, with a smile on his face but 24/7 strain in his eyes.
One source of that strain: VW wants to keep its Super Bowl ad options open. Sure, this one is supposed to be its Super Bowl spot. But much like Super Bowl ad behemoth Anheuser-Busch, which often defers its Super Bowl ad selection until the 11th hour, VW still was considering several rival ads to air in the game instead, even as this ad was being filmed and edited.
"To minimize the risk, we have a backup," says Mahoney.
One alternate, which was finished in December, is about a guy who loves his VW convertible so much that he drives it around in a snowstorm with the top down. That one ultimately got the thumbs down and will air at another date.
The other contender didn't surface until late last week, after VW executives saw the enormous response a focus group gave to a spinoff of its online Super Bowl teaser video. It features YouTube stars famous for their online rants gathered together by VW onto a hillside of happiness.
Domestic VW executives, who also had to get approval from their bosses in Germany, made a final call Friday morning: the "Get Happy" ad would air in the Super Bowl. A version of the "Rant" teaser likely will air pregame.
VW's Mahoney thinks - but doesn't know - that he's made the right decision. "It's a lot like studying for a test," he says. "Until you take the test, you don't know the results."
VW won't be the only Super Bowl advertiser under the gun on Sunday. Here's how four others are dealing with the marketing powder keg:
• Freshman jitters. The Super Bowl is a tough spot to be riding on training wheels. But for Gildan USA, a private-label clothing maker trying to stretch its wings and flaunt its own name brand, that will be the case when it airs its first Super Bowl commercial this year.
The ad is about a guy who - the morning after - wants to finagle his favorite T-shirt back from his cute girlfriend, who still is sleeping in it. To mitigate a bit of the pressure, Gildan has repeatedly tested the commercial in front of hundreds of consumers who are its target 22- to 34-year-old market. "If those hundreds are any indication, it will not be a flop," says Rob Packard, vice president of marketing and merchandising.
Even then, the pressure is immense. "I'm asking my company to sign a really, really big check to make the biggest splash we possibly can," says Packard. "We've never done anything on a similar scale." Consider Gildan, with annual revenue of about $2 billion, will be going up against mega-advertisers such as Coca-Cola, with annual revenue of about $47 billion.