Tales From the Vault: Ad Nauseum

Steve Seidman

 “…and remember, 13 out of 14 NFL teams fly the friendly skies of United…”

As a long-time NFL employee, I dearly love all the products that sponsor NFL football, official and unofficial, edible and drinkable, prescription and non-prescription, manual and automatic. I love your sugary soft drinks, your cheesy tacos, your domestic beers, and that bowl that combines fried chicken, cheese, mashed potatoes, and bacon. Hmmm-hmmm.  The actual ads for these products?  Well, some of those I’m not so crazy about.

Sometimes, I find myself wishing that the NFL and their sponsors could find a way to integrate the product into the game action. I mean, how great would it be if we saw a shot of a huddle, then hear the players talking about, say, erectile dysfunction medication? The quarterback could look at his wristband then explain the drug’s utility as authoritatively as he would bark out a playcall. When he’s done, another player, say a wide receiver, could chime in with a warning about side effects. Then the quarterback could tie it up by saying “I don’t know about that “4 hour deal”, but for the next 4 quarters, we’re going to make it hard on those guys on the other side of the ball.” That would be something, wouldn’t it?

You’re probably thinking this is a pretty far-fetched idea. Integrate commercials into the game? Who would even try something like that? Well, the 1960 Buffalo Bills, for one. In their highlight film from that season, we see some game action and hear the announcer intone, “What do football players actually talk about in a huddle? Let’s take our microphone into a Bills huddle and listen…” Then we cut to a huddle where the discussion is about a local bank. It’s a commercial, but it’s embedded into the highlight narrative. OK, so the “Bills” in this huddle are obviously played by actors (presumably from the Buffalo Light Opera company, because they’re not exactly in great shape), but still, whoever produced the highlight film laid the foundation for future ads-within-the-action.

Dick Butkus in a state of repose, 30,000 feet above sea level.

My own favorite of this type of ad can be found in the 1967 Raiders highlight film, when Oakland running back Clem Daniels is shown catching a long touchdown pass from Tom Flores. This is actual footage from a Patriots-Raiders game, and as the announcer describes how Daniels is outrunning the defense , there is a cut that shows Daniels continuing his run off the field. In this specially shot footage, Daniel scampers out of a tunnel beneath the Oakland Coliseum as opposing players (now played by actors – perhaps the same ensemble from the Buffalo Light Opera company)  continue to chase him. Hall of Fame Center Jim Otto blocks for Daniels as he climbs into a shiny new Chrysler. Then the narrator exclaims, “Man, this is really wild! He’s going to complete his run in a shiny new Chrysler Newport.” Daniels drives off to beat the post-game traffic crush on the Nimitz Freeway, then Otto gets into a Plymouth and follows him.

NFL Films refined the embedded ad approach with their highlight films for the 1965 season. This was the first season that the company produced 30 minute films for all of the league’s 14 teams. United Airlines sponsored 11 of those films. Each team had one United spot within the film, but each spot looked different. More crucially, the commercials were part of the content and used to advance the story of the team. In the Cardinals’ film, for example, we see highlights of the Cards’ win against Dallas, then there’s a cut to a United charter sitting on the tarmac. The narrator announces: “After their victory over the Cowboys, the Cardinals take to the airways for consecutive road games against the Redskins and Steelers.” Once inside the plane, we see various Cardinals enjoying tasty snacks and playing cards while a huge defensive lineman is shown reading Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past…. Just kidding about that last part.

United supplied the product-related footage, then NFL Films’ staff of writers tailored the copy to each team. What’s surprising about all of the United ads is how little of the copy actually extols the virtues of United Airlines. The Cardinals film notes that “In the friendly skies of United, the Cardinals receive the prompt attention that makes travelling anywhere a pleasure.”  But in the majority of the spots, the writing relates almost exclusively to the team’s chances in the destination they’re flying to. It seems United’s only stipulation was that each spot contain the tag line: “…13 out of 14 NFL teams fly the friendly skies of United.”* In most of the commercials, the tagline seems like an afterthought, as it is introduced with the words “Incidentally…” or “By the way…”

The United Airlines ads were also interesting from a cultural standpoint, insofar as they married two of the 1960’s most glamorous entities – pro football and air travel. The 60’s ushered in the “Jet Age” (not for nothing was New York’s AFL franchise named the Jets). These were the years when gleaming modernist structures defined airports such as JFK and LAX. There were stewardesses rather than “flight attendants,’ pilots gave well-behaved youngsters wing pins, and a bag of pretzels didn’t cost 8 dollars. Fliers dressed up whether they flew coach or first-class, and by “dressed up” I don’t mean they were wearing velour jogging suits. Add the booming popularity of the NFL into the mix, and flying looked even more fun. Moreover, shots of players “being themselves” on an airplane was a precursor to NFL Films’ burgeoning interest in showing the human side of the game. In the Rams’ highlight film, narrator Bob Kelly notes that pro football includes “sights unseen by the fans, for example the flight across the nation on United Airlines.”

The United Airlines spots were used for only one season. Steve Sabol recalls that one of NFL Films’ ace cameramen was on a United flight, en route to shooting a Lions-Bears game. It was a relaxing trip until a stewardess accidentally ran over his foot with the beverage cart, rendering him incapable of shooting the game. It was the only game this cameraman ever missed. But I doubt this incident caused any friction between United and NFL Films. In subsequent seasons, new highlight sponsors came aboard with more conventional commercials, although many of them prominently featured pro football endorsement dynamos such as Don Meredith (American Express) and Dick Butkus (US Army).

With the United ads, NFL Films became one of the first filmmakers to recognize that integrating product into the storyline is a lovely way to say “ca-ching.” We call it “product placement” today, and it has become closely associated with blockbuster film directors like George Lucas and Michael Bay. The secret of its success is that if the audience is comfortable with the narrative, they’re forced to watch any product plug that’s part of that narrative. When it comes to big box office, Lucas and Bay have nothing on the NFL, but it would be nice if the league would at least consider the possibilities of putting the commercials into the game.

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