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The Dallas Morning News Cheryl Hall column
[February 12, 2009]

The Dallas Morning News Cheryl Hall column

(Dallas Morning News, The Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 11--Andrew Robinson underestimated the power of America's imagination, and he and his client couldn't be happier with this miscalculation.

The 50-year-old senior vice president of the Marketing Arm created a contest three years ago in which ordinary Joes submit homemade commercials for Doritos. The top entries air during the Super Bowl.

Robinson and his team suggested a twist for 2009: Frito-Lay would pay a million-dollar bonus prize if a "Crash the Super Bowl" ad was voted the most popular ad during the big game.

That would mean dethroning Budweiser, the decadelong king of USA Today 's Ad Meter, which monitors the responses of a focus group to ads aired during the Super Bowl.

Robinson -- and Frito-Lay -- never imagined that a homemade ad would beat the high-paid minds of Madison Avenue.

Two self-described "nobodies from nowhere" did.

"It's absolutely the best million dollars we've ever spent," says Frito-Lay spokesman Chris Kuechenmeister. "Anybody here would tell you that."

Joe and Dave Herbert, unemployed 30-something brothers from Batesville, Ind., made marketing history with a funky 30-second spot called "Free Doritos!"

It featured a Dilbert-looking guy predicting free Doritos for the office, then shattering a vending machine with a crystal ball (really a snow globe).

The brothers spent $2,000 -- mostly for food for the crew and five panes of glass -- to beat out 51 high-dollar contenders for Ad Meter's most-liked spot.

Other indications that it won viewers' attention: More TiVo customers replayed the Doritos snow globe ad than they did Steelers linebacker James Harrison's 100-yard dash for the end zone. Doritos got the biggest image boost in a Super Bowl research survey by comScore. And the ad won YouTube's Ad Blitz 2009.

The going rate for big-game airtime was $3 million for a half-minute, so this was no small gamble on Frito-Lay's part.

It also paid for the second-place finisher, "Power of the Crunch," to get 30 seconds of fame. A guy eating Doritos magically causes a beautiful woman's clothing to fly off, an ATM to dispense a flurry of money and a policeman to turn into a small monkey. When his Doritos bag is empty, the guy gets hit by a bus.

That spot finished fifth.

"We've always been blown away with the creativity and the passion of Doritos fans," says Kuechenmeister. "They showed this year that they can compete with the best in the business."

The Marketing Arm handles all of Frito-Lay's promotional advertising, Robinson says. Crash the Super Bowl is an evolution of his initial work on the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl that began in 1995.

Back then, it was just him. Today, nearly 60 agency staffers are assigned to Frito-Lay's account. Nearly a dozen worked on this year's contest.

Robinson came up with the quirky campaign in 2006 as a way to engage Doritos' core consumer -- young males. It's open to everyone, but most of the entries -- and all of the finalists -- were submitted by men.

Millennial guys -- those under 28 -- instantly shun advertising that even hints of marketing mind control, says Robinson, the father of three sons ages 7 to 19.

"They live in this hyper-life. They have their iPods on. They're doing IM and watching TV while doing their homework." Robinson says, sitting in a Marketing Arm conference room in downtown Dallas.

"What better way to show your authenticity than to provide the opportunity to produce your own commercial and have it aired on the biggest advertising stage of the year?"

But when he presented the idea to Frito-Lay, almost everyone was taken aback. They asked Robinson if he really thought any of the commercials would be worth millions to air. He confidently assured them that creative geniuses were just waiting to be discovered.

"In reality, I had no clue," Robinson says.

When the "really God-awful" entries started rolling in, Robinson was certain his agency would be fired. "But slowly, as we drew closer to the deadline, they got better and better."

That first year, Marketing Arm winnowed 1,000 entries into 20 potential finalists. The Doritos brand team picked five that were put on a Web site for public vote.

"We were trying to manage expectations," Robinson says. "No matter what anyone says, you're advertising in the Super Bowl, and you're worried about that Ad Meter. Someone has to finish last. And you hope to God it's not you."

For the first and second years of the contest, Frito-Lay's top online vote-getters finished fourth.

"The mojo on the brand started to come back," he says. "It's been kicking butt since then."

In the months ahead, the two Super Bowl ads and the other three finalists will air as part of a national campaign, Kuechenmeister says.

Planning for next year will start in April or May, Robinson says. "This is not official, but the nice thing about finishing No. 1 is it sets up pretty easily as 'defending the crown.' "

As for a repeat of the $1 million bonus, both Robinson and Kuechenmeister say we'll just have to stay tuned.

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