Walmart teased two of its upcoming Academy Awards spots, short films directed by a series of award-winning directors for the big box retailer's ad blitz during the Oscars telecast this weekend. Schoolchildren burst into song in "Bananas Town," a musical comedy from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and a young boy carefully plans an adventure in "The Gift" by Antoine Fuqua.
Walmart had initially intended to release the 60-second spots in full this week, only holding in reserve a third film by Marc Forster for an Oscars debut. Now all three films will appear for the first time in their entirety on Feb. 26, along with a behind-the-scenes short that will air during the pre-show.
"The Oscars have an element of magic and imagination that presented a different opportunity for Walmart, which is usually more focused on everyday experiences," said Javier Campopiano, chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi NY, which initiated and shepherded the idea through production. It was an easier sell than it might seem for a brand best known for low prices, not Hollywood glam.
"Our brand proposition is ‘Save money, live better,’ and we think we can do more to tell the 'live better’ side of our brand story," said Kirsten Evans, SVP of marketing at Walmart. "We're looking for places to engage our customers in a way that shows that we know what they are passionate about and that we want to be a part of that experience." So in a context like the Oscars, which celebrates storytelling in as extravagant a way as possible, partnering with four big-name directors made sense.
Still, it’s a massive investment. A 30-second Oscars spot cost $2 million this year, up $280,000 from last year. That means Walmart’s three 60-second spots are running a $12 million tab just for air time. The Oscars typically pull in an audience only about a third of that offered by the Super Bowl, but it skews more heavily female and metropolitan, particularly tempting demographics for retailers.
While many brands were scrambling to put the finishing touches on their Super Bowl ads early this year, Walmart and Saatchi were making trips to three different sets in Los Angeles.
The directors had been chosen not only for their name recognition, but for the diversity of their styles. Each of the films tells a story about the same Walmart receipt, and "the idea really comes to life when each of the films are unique but tied together by the receipt," Evans said. Rogen and Goldberg are best known for raunchy comedies like "This Is the End" and "Sausage Party." Fuqua has made a career of gritty action flicks, like "Training Day" and the recent "Magnificent Seven" remake. Forster has plenty of Oscar-nominated films to his name: "Monster’s Ball," "Finding Neverland," and "The Kite Runner," as well as traditional blockbusters like the Bond film "Quantum of Solace."
Evans wouldn’t reveal any plot points of Forster’s film, saying only, "I think it’s a very, very beautiful piece of filmmaking. The way that it is shot and edited is absolutely stunning."
After being selected, each director received an image of the receipt and its six items: bananas, paper towels, batteries, scooter, wrapping paper, video baby monitor. "We tried to come up with a collection of items that represent what our customers experience in the store—a combination of food items, everyday general merchandise items and then some items that are a little special," Evans said. There won’t be any in-store promotions of the items or tie-ins with specific brands, like Chiquita or Dole bananas. "We didn't over think it," she added.
The directors each sent back ideas within a week, Campopiano said. "It was an unusual process, because neither we nor Walmart were there to vet their specific thoughts." Instead, the directors worked mostly on their own, with Campopiano receiving updates throughout the process.
For Evans and her team, working this closely with Hollywood productions, even small-scale ones, left an impression. "This was really a process of filmmaking—the way the ideas were developed, the way they were scripted, edited, scored," she said. "To get the opportunity to experience filmmaking and what that's like was absolutely amazing."