It was a TV ad that made viewers cringe, perhaps say "euuuuw," maybe chuckle.
But they couldn't turn away from 34 seconds of a woman intently watching TV as she almost mindlessly consumed a stick of butter while Patsy Cline sang "You Made Me Love You" in the background.
With the TV's blue screen flickering off her face, the woman treats the butter stick like her favorite source of food, licking her fingers, picking a dollop of spilled butter off her shirt in order to get every morsel.
She treats her alone time like a naughty secret until, with her upper lip glistening with butter, she looks at the camera with a glance that seemingly says, "What have I just done?"
Earlier this month, that ad, for the YMCA of Greater St. Paul and Metropolitan Minneapolis, won a national award in the "low budget" category of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers show. The ad will now be permanently archived in the New York Museum of Modern Art's film department. It even got airtime on NBC's "Today" show, where host Matt Lauer called it "gross."
The ad was totally homegrown. It was created by the award-winning Minneapolis agency Preston Kelly, produced by Drive Through TV, a Minneapolis production and post-production shop, and featured actress Jennifer Edwards of Independence as the butter eater.
Its goal was to drive membership for the nearly two dozen YMCAs in and around the Twin Cities metropolitan area. It ran from the last week in December through January.
"We did research and found that people on average gain four to seven pounds during the holidays," said Chris Preston, creative director at Preston Kelly, a 45-person agency formerly known as Kerker. "So we went right to the base source of that weight gain: butter."
With the work of art director Peter Tressel and writer Tim Naylor, Preston Kelly created and produced the butter ad in less than two months.
Nearly all of the creative and production work was donated by the agency and the producer for the nonprofit Y. The resulting ad cost less than $5,000 in total, part of which included the purchase of 25 pounds of butter.
Auditions were given to a half dozen actresses using Snickers and Three Musketeers candy bars as props for the butter.
Edwards, 42, who has a theater background and does voice-overs for radio commercials, was selected because of her acting ability to eat the prop almost as an afterthought while engrossed in something else -- in this case, watching TV.
"We weren't looking for a fashion model," Preston said. "We wanted a young mom, a regular gal, someone who was comfortable in sweatpants and a sweatshirt." Edwards' pierced nose had to be covered with makeup.
The ad was shot in the Excelsior living room of executive producer Mark Setterholm, the president and owner of Drive Thru TV.
Just before the shoot, Setterholm went to the Byerly's in Chanhassen to buy the butter. "There was so much butter in my cart I felt I had to make excuses. I told the checkout crew that, no, I wasn't addicted to making Christmas cookies."
When Edwards arrived at the set early on a November morning with a cup of coffee in hand, she was greeted by a crew of 20 and two coolers packed with sticks of butter.
"That's when it hit me that I'd really be eating butter," Edwards recalled.
Until that moment she had been imagining how many different ways a person could eat a stick of butter. Her ideas swayed between eating a candy bar, an ear of corn, a banana, or all of the above.
The shoot lasted until early afternoon and involved more than 25 takes and 42 sticks of butter. Edwards was allowed to spit the butter in her mouth into a plastic bucket between takes and was fed bottles of Coke to wash away the aftertaste. But by the end of the day she estimates she ingested the equivalent of two butter sticks.
"There was a lot of time to play and get some fun, intimate moments like dropping some butter on my shirt and licking my fingers," Edwards said. "Then they asked me to swallow a bite of butter, and when my face turned green they said I didn't have to do that."
Meanwhile, permission was obtained from the estate of country legend Patsy Cline to use her version of "You Made Me Love You" as the musical voice-over for the commercial.
YMCA loved it
The Y was elated with the results.
The butter ad, along with a second ad showing a man gaining weight by stuffing meat into his clothes, helped lure new members, said Bette Fenton. "It worked very, very well. We more than met expectations."
Preston Kelly and the Y have a 10-year relationship doing the post-Christmas membership ads.
"It gets people into the Y. There's a lot of traffic in January after all those New Year's resolutions," said Chuck Kelly, who along with Preston moved the agency from Edina to northeast Minneapolis three years ago. "This ad is a truism about what goes on in people's lives, and sometimes it's not always pretty."
As for Edwards, who was the original Tina in the Twin Cities version of "Tony N' Tina's Wedding," she is back eating butter again after several months of avoiding it.
"When I went home that day I was rear-ended. No one was hurt, but I had to get out of the car with butter all over my face and smelling of butter," Edwards recalled. "When I got home the first thing I did was brush my teeth, and then I took a shower."
The butter ad is in good company with the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, sponsor of the awards show.
Other winners include "The Old Spice Guy," the mini-Darth Vadar from Volkswagen's "The Force" commercial, and Allstate's "Mayhem" spots.
David Phelps • 612-673-7269