How Skittles staged an epic musical to disrupt advertising's biggest moment

The confectionery brand put on an actual musical, starring Michael C Hall, instead of making an ad for the Super Bowl. Why did Skittles opt for this weird experiment?

How Skittles staged an epic musical to disrupt advertising's biggest moment
Brittaney Kiefer

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This year, Skittles ditched the big-budget Super Bowl ad in favour of a real-life musical. The brand took over a theatre in New York City and cast Michael C Hall (known for Dexter and Six Feet Under) in the starring role. For one night only, the absurd story followed Hall as he agrees to appear in a Skittles commercial and then wrestles with doubt over his decision. He changes his mind after eating some Skittles, only to be heckled by an audience of plants and later (spoiler alert!) being killed by a mob of actors.

Created by DDB, the musical explored the theme of commercialism while attempting to stand out during the biggest marketing moment in the US. So what can other brands take away from this strange experiment? Ari Weiss, chief creative officer at DDB North America, and Patrick J Milling-Smith, co-founder of Smuggler, spoke to Campaign about how they pulled it off, what they learned and why more advertisers should try to entertain rather than interrupt consumers.

What were the biggest challenges to staging a musical? Where did you draw inspiration? 

AW: If we were going to do this, we were adamant about this being Broadway calibre. It couldn’t be a high-school musical. Nathaniel Lawlor, the creative director, writer and lyricist on the show, and I quickly became students of the Great White Way. We read hundreds of plays and attended almost every musical currently on Broadway.

It quickly became apparent that we couldn’t do this on our own. We had six months to pull off what most shows take years to accomplish and we needed the best in the business by our side. We were lucky enough to partner with Smuggler and its founder Patrick J Milling-Smith, who had produced the eight-time Tony award-winning musical Once. From there, Patrick introduced us to critically acclaimed theatre director Sarah Benson and playwright and Pulitzer finalist Will Eno. It was an odd project because Will, Sarah and their teams had to quickly learn our advertising world and vice versa, but there was something in that chaos that added to the magic and the absurdity of what we were doing.

It was in that chaos that we all got really excited about juxtaposing the very contemporary earnest musical trope against a very self-reflexive commentary on commercialism. And so, the show was born.

PJMS: First challenge was finding a Broadway house that was available. It was the beginning of the spring season on Broadway, so it was unusual and fortuitous to find such an iconic theatre able to house the build, rehearsal and performance of show for such a short period. 

How did the show go and how did the audience react?

PJMS: It was such an epic night. You usually have the cover of previews before you officially open a show and there were certainly some frayed nerves going straight in like we did.  Looking back, the whole project felt like an incredible rollercoaster ride.  The audience reaction could not have been better. Everyone was enthusiastic and leaned right in from the start. No-one knew what to expect and, by the end of the show, the entire theatre was cheering in a standing ovation.

AW: It was a very surreal experience. In advertising, we send our work out into the world and usually hear anecdotally or quantifiably how the public accepted it. In theatre, you’re subjected to the very real and live reaction of the room – in this case, a room filled with 1,500 people. It was both the most terrifying and most satisfying experience I’ve ever had in advertising. On the one hand, it’s live and the show is now totally out of your hands, but on the other hand, you get the constant real-time laughter topped off with a standing ovation. I wish more things I worked on got standing ovations.

What did you learn?

AW: Every day was a learning experience on this project. The biggest learning? To embrace the fear. I haven’t felt this outside my comfort zone since starting out in advertising. When you don’t know what you’re doing, you have a freedom to explore creative ideas that historical experiences would otherwise prevent you from exploring. There was something incredibly liberating about getting to experience that level of naivety again.

PJMS: Brave ideas and a commitment to really give the audience something inventive and creative is a very rewarding form of marketing and engagement.

If other brands try to follow in your footsteps, what would you advise? 

AW: Don’t. It’s been done. Find your brand’s truth and bring it to life in an original way that makes it impossible for the world to ignore.

PJMS: Everyone needs to fully commit, step out of their comfort zone and pull together a first-class team from within the medium where you are trying to make a mark. Ari was very clear from the outset on being authentic to the theatre world and taking the step into unknown territory. No safe decisions made. The primary guiding goal here was always to make a standout, first-class piece of theatre. It always felt like there was a real commitment to creating something truly engaging that would actually earn the attention of the audience on its creative merits. It felt good to be a part of something that was actual entertainment rather than interruption. It would be great to see more commitment to entertainment in the advertising world.

What do you want consumers to get out of this?

AW: We’re talking to the most astute, commercially savvy demographic the world has ever seen. We wanted our consumer to appreciate the candor by which we were handling a Skittles desire to participate in the biggest marketing moment of the year, but in a way that earned their respect, as opposed to just bluntly forcing it in front of their faces.

Is this, as one article said, a big FU to advertising? 

PJMS: I don't think so. If anything, it felt like an FU to taking an audience for granted and, like, a confident champion and lighting flair for creative advertising.

AW: Yes and no. But mostly no. Skittles is all about disrupting the ordinary. The big game is all about celebrating the best of advertising. You disrupt that by saying advertising ruins everything – while still being advertising all along. This was clearly a very big advertisement and we wanted everyone in on the joke with us.

Should brands be trying to do more weird things instead of traditional ads? If so, how can you do that in a genuine way without turning off consumers?

PJMS: There is a genuine hunger for things that don't feel so disposable or predictable and for brands to give some sort of truly engaging experience to an audience. There is so much "content clutter" out in the world today and competition for our attention. It seems common sense that a way to cut through all the white noise and really engage an audience is to give them something interesting and compelling.

AW: I’m not sure that I would use the word "weird", but I definitely think brands need to be doing things that are more interesting. There are more branded communications in more channels than ever before. If you’re going to get your brand talked about, you better be doing something that is worthy of your audience’s time. We’re incredibly lucky to have a marketing team at Skittles who sees the value in that. The only problem now is: what do we do next year to impress them?