The Most Successful Superbowl Ad Of All Time Was Never Aired on TV.

Ash Jurberg

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Skittles Case Study: The Play

Opening Scene

The curtains open to the Skittles Boardroom. The marketing team sits around a large table with a giant bowl of Skittles in the middle. There is a whiteboard with lots of ideas scrawled on it, many of which are crossed out.

A stressed-out lady, Lisa, is pulling at her hair. She shouts, “the Superbowl is fast approaching. We need a creative, innovative commercial to cut through the clutter. We need something different!”

Gary, the intern, nods his head, “it’s like the Superbowl of advertising,” he says with a huge smile. The room is silent.

Brittany, the new head of creative, stands. “I’ve got a crazy idea… so crazy that it just may work. Close your eyes and picture this...”

It Started With an Idea So Far Out of the Box; the Box Wasn’t in the Picture

Advertising during the Superbowl is a costly exercise. The rate for a 30-second spot this year is approximately $5.5 million. That’s a lot to invest for such a short spot, and of course, it doesn’t include the cost of producing the commercial. Several companies have been looking at inventive ways around this, but none compare to what Skittles did in 2019.

Mars, the parent company of Skittles, and their advertising agency DDB Worldwide decided to ambush the USA’s biggest sporting event. Instead of advertising during the game, they decided to run their commercial as a Broadway musical on the same day, leading up to the Superbowl.

It would be a 30-minute live commercial viewed by theatergoers and never air on TV or online. The idea sounded crazy — so crazy it just might work.

Forget Hamilton; See Skittles

To make this a success, DDB needed to do it right. The first step was obtaining the help of a Broadway expert, Patrick Milling-Smith, winner of eight Tony Awards for production. The advertising team behind the campaign then attended almost every show running on Broadway and read hundreds of plays.

They enlisted playwright and Pulitzer finalist Will Enol to write the musical. It needed to be of high quality to make the campaign a success. Finally, they employed a 17-member cast with Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame in the lead role.

As word spread of the audacious project, Skittles the Musical started generating a buzz. Billboards appeared in Times Square advertising the musical, and tickets went online for sale. Priced similarly to a real Broadway show — up to $200 a ticket — it sold out in 72 hours (all proceeds went to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and were matched by Skittles.) At a minute-per-minute cost, it was actually more expensive than the cost of top-tier seats for Hamilton.

A week before the musical, a behind-the-scenes recording of the show’s main musical number, Advertising Ruins Everything,’ was released.

(Warning: this song is a guaranteed earworm,click on it and you will be singing it all day)

It was soon followed by a cast recording of the full song list on Spotify. This was following all the marketing promotion of a regular musical.

But it was a commercial.

Take Your Seats, Please

The advertising team behind the stunt wanted the theatrical experience to be as realistic as possible. They had vendors outside the theater selling ‘unauthorized’ knockoff Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical T-shirts at half the price of the ‘official’ T-shirts sold inside.

Audience members were invited on stage before the show to visit the bodega, which was the production setting. They were allowed to peruse the shelves and attempt to make a purchase. There were standard household items, pet food, snacks, and lots of candy stocked on the shelves. The only thing anyone could actually buy — Skittles.

It truly was an immersive experience.

But it was a commercial.

​Mega Meta

“What kind of people buy tickets to watch a Skittles Commercial?”

That was one of the musical’s opening lines in what the New York Times described as “metatheatrical to the max.”

From the outset, the musical did not attempt to hide the fact that it was a marketing stunt aimed at promoting Skittles. They trolled the world of advertising and marketing, and the script was littered with self-deprecating humor.

The plot centers upon Hall’s anxiety upon the realization that participating in a musical advertisement could negatively impact his career. Throughout, he questions his decision to accept the role. His first song is This Might Have Been a Bad Idea. The main song, Advertising Ruins Everything (still in your head, isn't it?), features lyrics such as, “it ruins the web, and it ruins TV, and it fills our inboxes with spam/And there’s nothing we hate more than each time you pay for a targeted ad on Instagram.”

While making fun of the whole experience, the musical was an entertaining production, and people started sharing their experience on social media with the hashtags #SkittlesTheMusical and #AdvertisingRuinsEverything.

What the Critics Said

Who would have ever thought that the New York Times would write about an advertising campaign in the Arts section? Yet the show got glowing reviews from theatre critics in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Many media outlets praised both the production and the advertising campaign. In all, the campaign was covered in more than 1,000 publications and news broadcasts.

“The most inventive end run in the history of ambush advertising.” — USA Today
“DDB are conducting a masterclass in integrated communications.” — Gorilla Creative Media
“The cast of a live Skittles commercial got a standing ovation on Broadway today — and actually deserved it.” — Muse by Clio
“I often leave performances of new musicals without any tokens from the score, but I’ve been singing ‘Advertising Ruins Everything’ on repeat.” — American Theatre
“We’ve fallen right into the brand’s candy-coated, rainbow-dyed meta hands by writing about this. Guess what? We’ll probably do it again! Hook, line, and Skittles.” — Fast Company
“I have got to write about this advertising genius.” — Ash Jurberg

The musical got far more media coverage than a ‘regular’ Superbowl ad. It received more than 2.5 billion earned impressions — 25 times the viewership of the big game.

And the Award Goes To

Each year the best of Broadway compete for the ultimate prize in theatre — the Tony award. While Skittles sadly didn’t win any Tonys, it did win the following:

Cannes Lions 2019

  • 12 Lions​

M&M Global Awards 2019

  • Gold: Best Campaign led by Events, Experiential or Sponsorship Activation
  • Gold: Best Campaign led by the Creative Idea

Adweek Media Plan of the Year 2019

  • Best Use of Experiential $500,000 +

AdClub Brave Brands Honoree 2019

Advertising Doesn’t Need To Ruin Everything

Skittles took a huge risk with this campaign. If it wasn’t executed perfectly it could have been a mistake.

The time and research they took to ensure they could produce a Broadway standard production paid off. You need commitment to an idea when it is as audacious as this one — attempting to disrupt the Superbowl, the biggest day in advertising.

I can’t recall any Superbowl ads from 2019, and I’m willing to bet you can’t either. But Skittles the Musical will live on in marketing history.

Let’s hope more brands take risks like this.

“It’s all about doing something that is not predictable. If I had a dollar for everyone that has asked me if we are really putting on a Broadway show for Skittles, I would be able to afford another TV spot at the Super Bowl.” — Mars Wrigley’s vice president of corporate affairs, Lee Andrews

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