Inside Volkswagen’s Super Bowl XLVI Ad: Canine Cuteness Meets Star Wars

Volkswagen and agency Deutsch L.A. are in the somewhat unenviable position of having to follow up a beloved Super Bowl (and viral) blockbuster. VW’s Vice President and Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Tim Mahoney, and Deutsch Chief Creative Officer Mark Hunter talk about how they approached this year’s Super challenge.

Inside Volkswagen’s Super Bowl XLVI Ad: Canine Cuteness Meets Star Wars

In the race to create the most memorable Super Bowl ad of 2011, the force was with Volkswagen. The automaker’s “The Force” held the advertising conversation like the Dark Lord’s death grip on game day and beyond. Now, as this year’s event rapidly approaches, the brand has unleashed its next ad salvo with “The Dog Strikes Back.”

Following up a huge success is a major challenge at any level, but when you’ve had a huge success in the year’s biggest ad venue, and when Super Bowl advertising as a whole is undergoing significant shifts, the stakes are even higher. “It’s hard to think of an ad that was more universally loved than the Darth Vader ad,” says Mark Hunter, Chief Creative Officer of VW agency Deutsch L.A., the agency responsible for “The Force,” which depicted an adorable mini-Darth trying out his powers on household objects. Just about 50 million people have been attracted to “The Force” online since it debuted last year but views and critical acclaim aren’t the only measurements that the agency is concerned with.

By the end of 2011, Volkswagen finished 26% up from the year before, posting its best market share in 30 years. Although many other factors helped the company achieve this impressive showing (VW recently opened an American plant in Chattanooga, significantly reduced prices, and redesigned both the Jetta and the Beetle), the success of the ad built up undeniable momentum and goodwill for the brand, which carried on long after the game ended.

So Volkswagen and Deutsch had to not only make another crowd-pleasing, sheet metal-moving spot for Super Bowl XLVI, but also creatively manage the pre- and post-game conversation. With traditional and social media both important components of Super Bowl advertising, what used to be a 30- or a 60-second hit can now be a two-week affair. In fact, for Volkswagen, the Super Bowl ramp-up has been going on for a month and a half. “When we announced we were coming back to the Super Bowl in 2012 last December, in less than 10 days we generated another three million views of ‘The Force,’” says Tim Mahoney, Vice President and Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Volkswagen.

The brand is at the forefront of the relatively new practice of pre-game ad leaks and bespoke teasers. Releasing a teaser for a Super Bowl ad has been done before, but Volkswagen upped the ante on creative teasing this year with a clip that stood on its own as Super Bowl content. On January 19, the company released “The Bark Side,” in which a cacophony of dog-barking soon coheres into the familiar “Imperial March” from Star Wars, a hint of what to expect in this year’s Super Bowl ad. “The Bark Side” has already been viewed on YouTube 10 million times.

“The equity we built up last year with Star Wars was too valuable to waste, so we wanted to tap into that without making a second version of what we did last year,” Mahoney says. “You won’t see the kid’s sister dressed like Princess Leia, and the mom coming home in a Volkswagen.”


What you do see, though, is probably not what you might expect either. The main action in the ad centers on an overweight dog (“The Bark Side” should have tipped us off) trying to fit through a doggie door and run alongside the new Beetle. However, after a false ending, the ad then takes a Monty Python-esque meta-leap into a bar where this very ad is being discussed against last year’s ad. Which bar? Why, it’s the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars, of course. You can guess who makes a cameo at the end of the spot. The ad was directed by Lance Acord, who also helmed “The Force” (the version here is an extended cut; a 60-second version will run during the game).

“We thought that whatever we do this year is going to be debated and compared to last year,” says Hunter. “So we thought it would be funny if we could start the debate already within the ad.”

That debate will already be going by the time the ad airs during the Super Bowl, since the ad is making its way online today. While “The Bark Side” clearly struck a nerve (fans have been posting reaction videos from their dogs as they watch the ad), it remains to be seen if the game spot will have the same resonance. The ad doesn’t have the instant classic feel of the “The Force,” but it does have the same cute, family-friendly quality that worked well for the brand in 2011.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to do to top ourselves next year,” says Hunter, “but I’m sure it will be something surprising and different.”

See the next ad.

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.