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Volkswagen's Mini-Darth Vader Ad: Behind the Screens

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A clever pop culture reference and a heartwarming moment: That’s what it took to win the Super Bowl.

Of course, we’re talking about the Super Bowl ad game, that other contest played on Super Bowl Sunday. The Super Bowl is the one time all year when people want to watch TV commercials. Consequently, ad agencies plan for months to unveil something special that day.

Despite all the crude humor and surprise celebrity appearances in Super Bowl spots, this year’s winner had neither of those things. It had a young boy in a Darth Vader costume and a small moment with his father (and a Volkswagen Passat).

The same factors that made this spot (officially called “The Force,” but known to most viewers as “Mini-Darth”) a Super Bowl hit also made it a runaway viral success online. Its online viewing numbers have topped 30 million, as of this writing, and the ad seems destined for iconic status. Here’s how the ad went viral, how it came together in the first place, and how Volkswagen and Deutsch Los Angeles (the agency behind the ad) won the day.

Volkswagen's Viral Video Success

“We knew we had something special, but not 30 million views in a couple weeks,” says Michael Kadin, an executive vice president and group creative director at Deutsch.

Kadin and Eric Springer, also an EVP and group creative director at Deutsch, were the two people responsible for shepherding the ad from concept to finished commercial.

The success of “Mini-Darth” didn’t actually start on Super Bowl Sunday. The public got an early glimpse of the ad starting the Wednesday prior thanks to a strategy called “seeding.” If you’ve ever wondered why all the good commercials are available for online viewing days before the big game, this is the reason.

Seeding isn’t always popular. Many viewers enjoy the thrill of seeing the new commercials during the Super Bowl, and they don’t like that the surprise is being taken away with advanced viewing. For advertisers, though, it’s a way to get extra views for a spot and build up a little excitement.

At Deutsch, people were split on whether or not to seed the “Mini-Darth” spot.

“There was a lot of talk about that,” acknowledges Springer. Some on the team wanted to “keep the genie in the bottle” and surprise game-day viewers. The Super Bowl itself gets a commercial 110 million views, so seeding it usually only brings in a little more to its total. In the end, Deutsch decided to seed the ad, hoping for 1 million impressions online.

“We have a great group that can seed things properly, and then you hope that the creative is at a high enough mark where those seeds grow into mighty oaks,” says Springer.

Seeding doesn’t just mean dumping an ad onto YouTube and hoping for a payday. No, it means carefully choosing the right influencers who will help shape the opinions of online viewers. The “Mini-Darth” ad was seeded to auto sites, popular culture sites, and even Star Wars sites. The Deutsch team chose their opinion leaders well.

“If they don’t like it, it ain’t gonna move,” says Springer. “If they like it, it’ll move a little bit; and if they love it, it’s gonna move like a fast-burning fire through the Hollywood hills.”

The seeding paid off more than anyone at Deutsch would have guessed. By the end of Wednesday, the video had already received 1 million views.

“I spent most of my day on the Thursday and Friday before the Super Bowl chatting with our clients, trying to make bets [on] what was going to be the number of views online at 3:15 before the Super Bowl,” says Springer. He and Kadin won with a guess of more than 17 million. The correct number was 18 million.

Working With Lucasfilm

“You could tell there was something really special from the get-go,” says Kadin about the initial concept for the ad.

The concept was created by David Povill, a senior copywriter; Ryan McLaughlin, a senior art director; and Craig Melchiano, an art director. From the start, it stood out from the rest.

“We loved it the first time we saw it. We took it from a much smaller idea into basically what you saw on TV: a much larger story arc and a much more detailed, funny story,” says Springer.

Volkswagen's Mini-Darth Vader Ad

Since making this story would require getting Lucasfilm Ltd.’s approval, the ad team approached Lucasfilm before showing the idea to the client.

“They were unbelievably pleasant to work with,” says Springer. As regular Family Guy or Robot Chicken viewers know, Lucasfilm seems happy to endorse its role in popular culture. It gave the commercial its blessing.

Planning a Super Bowl ad is serious business at an ad agency. Fortunately for Deutsch, which also created a Super Bowl ad for Volkswagen last year, the car maker doesn’t want generic shots of cars gliding through rolling hills. It prefers small, humanmoments.

The Deutsch team held weekly meetings to prepare for the Super Bowl and looked at hundreds of scripts. The “Mini-Darth” idea shone from the start, and it was presented with other ideas to Volkswagen executives several times. The concept kept winning out, so it was chosen for the big day.

“Every time I presented it, whether it was to the [Volkswagen] executives in Herndon or the Volkswagen executives in Germany, no matter who I presented it to—even my neighbors—that was the one that everybody laughed [at], and everybody thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be great,’” says Springer.

Once the Deutsch team had buy-in from the sponsors, they approached directors to find the one that could best share the vision of the spot.

“We had every A-list director lining up to shoot this idea, because it was such an amazing idea,” says Kadin.

 The Deutsch team selected Lance Acord and presented his reel to the Volkswagen execs to get their support. Once settled, the team planned the budget, storyboarded every shot, held preproduction meetings, and presented their collective vision to the client.

One crucial step was casting just the right child for the role of mini-Darth. The agency looked at kids from 3- to 9-years-old. Since the child was fully covered, it didn’t matter if they cast a boy or a girl. Springer knew that the smaller the child, the more endearing the commercial would be. In the end, they cast 6-year-old Max Page, a young actor with theater experience.

“He knows how charming he is,” says Springer. Because of his acting experience, Page took direction well. His mimed despair was a big part of why the ad touched so many people.

“The emotion we’re trying to get from the ad is something you can relate to, and then we just tried to charm the pants off people with this little kid,” says Springer.

After the shoot, the footage was edited and re-edited, and the sound was fine-tuned. It all needed to work together to create a simple human truth, which is the idea behind Volkswagen commercials.

Deutsch was pleased with its decision to go for a small moment, as it helped the ad stand out from the noisy crowd on Super Bowl Sunday. “If everyone’s going this way, we really wanted to go the other way,” says Kadin.

For Kadin, the appeal of the ad comes down to the bond between parent and child. “All parents want that relationship with their kids. I have two daughters, 4 and 6, and I want that and all parents want that: They want to feel like they can have that effect on their children of being so engaged in their children’s [lives],” he says.

What's Next for Deutsch and Volkswagen?

There won’t be a sequel ad for “Mini-Darth,” sadly enough, but there will be similar ads from Volkswagen. As for “Mini-Darth,” it will likely live on as one of the rare commercials that touch the heart, such as The Coca-Cola Co.’s classic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” spot.

Springer says that he knew the ad was an iconic success when he saw it referenced in two political cartoons.

“I think this is a spot, in 10 years or so, it’ll just always be around. There’s just something so human about it,” says Kadin. “The other stuff is over almost as soon as the Super Bowl is over, because there’s an overt intent to be splashy and entertain. A lot of times, it’s at the expense of a great idea.”

While there are no Super Bowl rings for these winners of the big game, the team behind the viral success will get some kind of extra compensation.

“We don’t get Passats, but there are spot bonuses or something that are tossed around,” says Springer, noting that Deutsch is good at “rewarding amazing behavior.”

Their challenge now is to capture the same appeal that “Mini-Darth” did in new ads. Perhaps the magic will inspire other ad agencies, as well. Imagine if all the commercials during the 2012 Super Bowl focused on small, touching moments. Now that would be a contest.

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