Toyota has made a habit of telling strong stories in its Super Bowl advertising, with a dash of heroism and inspiration for good measure. Two years ago, the automaker and its longstanding agency Saatchi & Saatchi told the compelling story of eight-time Paralympic gold medalist Lauren Woolstencroft. Last year, the brand and agency partnered with Burrell Communications to tell the story of football phenom Toni Harris, the first woman to receive a college scholarship for a non-kicking position.
This year, the hero comes in the form of Stumptown actress Cobie Smulders, as she calmly and cooly navigates a crisis. Several familiar movie tropes are woven into the action of the 60-second spot, with Smulders taking them all in stride as people in peril—including her son—hop into her Highlander, the vehicle Toyota has chosen to focus on this year.
The ad is satisfying on several levels, especially the witty quips that, if you don’t pay attention, might fly by. And unlike some Super Bowl ads that go for the more over-the-top approach, Toyota knows its brand well, and its self-awareness plays to its advantage.
“The Monday Morning Quarterbacks ask if we were successful if we’re not in the top spot on the USA Today Ad Meter,” said Ed Laukes, group vice president of marketing for Toyota Motor North America. “We love being the top 10, or top three among auto brands, but that’s never the intent. We want to showcase something about our brand that we want to talk about.”
“We built that spot to launch the 2020 Highlander campaign,” added Saatchi & Saatchi executive creative director John Payne. “That was our No. 1 priority. We want to make a big splash in the game, but it also needs to create a wave that pushes the campaign in the right direction.”
Helming the action was first-time Super Bowl director Tim Bullock, who assembled an all-star crew including cinematographer Trent Opaloch (who has worked on several blockbusters including Avengers: Endgame), production designer Jess Gonchor (known for several Coen brothers films) and costume designer Courtney Hoffman (who worked on The Hateful Eight and other high-profile projects).
“Compared to the relentlessness of filmmaking, this was a breath of oxygen,” Bullock said. “But what I found refreshing was that everyone was completely committed. They didn’t take their foot off the gas at any point and were as invested in this the same way they are for a blockbuster film.”
Even though the Super Bowl is among the most-watched events on the planet, the Australian native stripped the project down to its essence.
“You’ve got a script, and you have to do what’s best for the script, and do the right thing for the story and characters,” he said. “You can’t think about how many millions or billions of people are going to be watching it. When you’re working with great people and have support from the agency and a brave brand like Toyota, then you’re in a perfect place to make the work live up to the script.”
“We went through hundreds of scripts before we got to this one,” added Payne. “It had all the right stuff: explosions, cowboys, an alien and a movie star. The other thing we really liked about this idea was the way it put the Highlander front and center in the action.”
While the star for Toyota is the Highlander, its undisputed partner in the spot is Smulders. While shopping the concept around, Laukes received feedback from directors who had worked on Super Bowl ads before that pointed to the Canadian actress being the overwhelmingly right choice.
“When they saw the script, they came back and said, ‘You should really think about Cobie, because she fits exactly what you’re trying to portray in the spot,’” he recalled. “She’s confident, tough—but not over-the-top tough—and it feels like another day in the park when she goes out and saves everyone in the ad.”
Indeed, Smulders, who honed her comedy chops on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, carries the tongue-in-cheek weight of the material, infusing the right level of gravity while still imbuing the work with a sense of accessible humor. It’s a balance that isn’t necessarily easy to strike, yet she makes it seem effortless.
“Even if Cobie wasn’t a celebrity, she would have been perfect in the role,” Bullock said. “She’s relatable and so likable, and this doesn’t feel like the borrowed interest of a celebrity. And there’s some cynicism around that, but Cobie was such an inspired choice and trod a fine line between being a great action hero and, in this case, an amazing mom character as well.”
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