The Story Behind Kristen Schaal’s Fifty Shades Of Verizon Super Bowl Ad For T-Mobile

A behind-the-scenes look at the comedian’s brand-specific fetish during the big game.

The Story Behind Kristen Schaal’s Fifty Shades Of Verizon Super Bowl Ad For T-Mobile

As another cavalcade of commercialism paraded its way across 100 million TVs, brands’ advertising efforts were scrutinized in real time on Twitter and Facebook, upping the pressure for success and squeezing every ounce of value for the millions spent. T-Mobile was no exception, and the mobile brand stuck to a Super Bowl strategy that worked last year–this year subbing in Justin Bieber for Drake–but also its overall strategy to mix things up as much as possible. That’s where comedian Kristen Schaal came in.


Schaal (Bob’s Burgers, Flight of the Concords, The Last Man on Earth) starred in two ads as woman who has a Fifty Shades of Grey affinity for excessive mobile charges, taxes, and fees. T-Mobile SVP advertising Peter DeLuca says the Super Bowl is an opportunity for a challenger brand to make a significant impact.

“Our overall Super Bowl strategy, we get outspent in the category two to one, so the Super Bowl is one of those places where we believe wholeheartedly that you have to go big as a brand,” says DeLuca. “It’s a massive platform and we create work that we believe is not just spots for the Super Bowl, it’s bigger than that. We build content all around them, and then we leverage the commercial time during the game, but use the social channels to make that even bigger.”

That approach seems to have worked. According to marketing technology company Amobee, T-Mobile had the second most branded Twitter activity–after Netflix Stranger Things 2 trailer–generating 91.7K tweets around the three minutes across four ads, starring Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart, Justin Bieber, and Schaal. Verizon even took the bait and tweeted at T-Mobile, raising the campaign’s profile even more.

Schaal was the first pick agency Publicis Seattle pitched for the role, and while she may not be as famous as Justin Beiber, Schaal does have a unique kind of celebrity. “Her type of celebrity is people know her as soon as she’s on the screen,” says DeLuca. “They might not know her name right away but they’ll know her. She’s just inherently funny and memorable.”

Initially, the brand had only purchased one 30-second commercial slot during the Super Bowl for a Schaal spot, but DeLuca said the right script in the comedian’s hands forced them to buy more during the game. “(Publicis Seattle) presented the idea but then we started thinking about how to really blow the concept out,” says DeLuca. “Our social agency Laundry Service, came back with some scripts for Kristen, and she did it on-set, and as we were putting that spot together we realized it was perfect for the big game, too. So it was just going to run on social and digital, but we loved it so much we decided to see if we could get it on the network broadcast.”

Schaal says she decides on commercial partners based on how she feels about the product, and the quality of the work. Good product, funny script. These spots, she says, fit the bill. “If anything I was weighing in on trying to make it less sexy,” she says. “I think they were ready for it to be more provocative but I was toning it down a bit, but it was a lot of fun, a really good collaboration, and they were ready to go all in which was exciting.”

Did she feel any added pressure with it being a Super Bowl commercial? “You know it’s going to be watched by more people than usual, but I think in everything that you make, you always want it to be good no matter what,” she says. “So even if you’re making a commercial to air during the least-watched television show, I’d still be stressed and nervous about the quality.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.