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One garage, one garage band and a squirrel suit could land a TV spot produced by three Twin Cities filmmakers the Holy Grail of advertising -- the Super Bowl.
It's a bit of a long shot for the three buddies but close to a sure thing for Chevrolet, sponsor of the "Everyday Hero" contest for the best amateur 30-second ad touting the Chevy brand.
Nearly 40 finalist commercials out of more than 400 entries are currently available for viewing on the Internet at virtually no cost to the Detroit automaker. Should any of those entries go viral, it's like money in the bank for the Chevy brand.
But for Eric Sturm, Michael Yamerchuk and Erik Sudheimer, the opportunity to make a TV ad for Chevrolet is a dream of a lifetime.
"We all have video backgrounds. We've been making funny videos since high school," said Sturm, 36. "The difference now is that somebody is watching."
Chevrolet, which will reward the winning video with a $25,000 check, admits the contest's price is right but also likes the grass-roots input generated by amateurs.
"Anytime you can expose the brand, that's a good thing," said General Motors spokesman Tom Henderson. "People like to see how independent filmmakers interpret the brand."
Advertisers have long borrowed inspiration from ordinary customers. Denny Haley, the retiring president of BBDO Minneapolis, likens the drive for amateur TV commercials to the self-publishing of books on the Internet and independent film production.
"In the old days, companies used to have contests for a jingle, but with the tools available now you can do TV commercials," he said. "Talk about exposure. Where do you ever get to have an audition for [the Super Bowl]?''
For the advertiser, the grass-roots approach holds the potential to uncover a blockbuster video that could go viral.
"It's a siren's call for advertisers," said Minneapolis marketing consultant Paul Maccabee. "It's very attractive for corporations to look at YouTube and realize that millions of people watched "Charlie bit my finger" and say, 'Can't we do that?'" (The "Charlie'' video, which dates to 2007, features two toddlers. Viewers watch as the younger one bites the older boy's finger. More than 410 million people have watched the clip.)
Maccabee said the viral video success of Old Spice and former NFL player Isaiah Mustafa is a case in point of the power of the Internet. Old Spice sales more than doubled as Mustafa, billed as "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,'' went from YouTube to Facebook to Twitter.
But, while the Internet has proved to be more than a passing fancy, traditional advertising is still forefront when it comes to brand marketing and selling, especially for marquee events.
"With paid media, you know for sure where and when it will run, you can track its effectiveness to a degree, and you can have a good sense of where it fits into your overall marketing campaign," said Haley. "I think it's great that clients can tap into another media outlet. But if I was a client, would I use amateurs to make my commercials? No."
Super Bowl advertisers are paying up to $3.5 million per 30-second segment this year.
The Chevrolet ad finalists run the gamut from slapstick funny to quirky to poignant.
There's one where a zombie is distracted from his human prey when he gets a chance to sit in a Chevrolet sports car. In another, a pregnant wife announces to her husband that it's time to go to the hospital and ends up driving herself there when he collapses at the thought. A returning soldier knows he's home when he climbs behind the steering wheel of his Chevy pickup in an eye-moistening third ad.
The Sturm-Yamerchuk-Sudheimer entry features a retired man obsessed with keeping squirrels out of his yard. When he spots a big one, he jumps in his Chevrolet Equinox to chase the critter (portrayed by Sturm) down the alley.
Meanwhile a rock band plays "Grandpa's going to get that squirrel" in the old man's garage next to his Chevy Equinox and three groupie-esque women leave the band and pile into the back seat as grandpa, wearing goggles and a leather pilot's helmet, pulls out of the garage in pursuit of the squirrel.
The ad was shot in one afternoon on a budget of $250 using Sturm's garage as the set. None of the actors got paid. Some got their roles by responding to ads on Craigslist. The three groupies are sisters and the band's singer and guitar player is Sudheimer. Yamerchuk was the co-director of the spot.
"The toughest thing was finding a squirrel suit," said Sturm, who eventually located one at a theatrical costume shop in Minneapolis. "I'd have to say more than one or two of my neighbors put their heads over the fence to see what was going on."
In real life, Sturm, Yamerchuk and Sudheimer are video and media producers. Sturm and Yamerchuk work for UnityWorks Media in Bloomington; Sudheimer works for Patterson Companies in Mendota Heights.
As of Friday, their squirrel ad was the fourth-most-viewed among the Super Bowl finalists. Chevrolet will make the final choice in about a week.
This is the second time in three years that a local amateur commercial progressed in Super Bowl competition.
Two years ago Twin Cities filmmakers Ben Krueger and Cole Koehler took their 30-second "Snack Attack Samurai" ad all the way to the Super Bowl for Doritos and won $25,000 as a result.
"The whole experience was awesome," said Krueger. "The Internet has allowed a lot of creativity to get out there in ways that couldn't be done before. People say advertisers are taking advantage of us. I don't think that at all. They paid me in ways that are nontraditional."
Said Sturm, "I don't know where we're going with this, but hopefully it's not the equivalent of my big high school football game."
The squirrel video and other finalists can be viewed at chevroletroute66.msn.com/#/video/1330307277001.
David Phelps • 612-673-7269