Behind the Scenes of Olay’s Star-Studded, Space-Themed Super Bowl Spot With a ‘Coded’ Message

Taraji P. Henson, Lilly Singh and other stars help skin-care brand make a giant leap for women and tech

Taraji P. Henson and Lilly Singh in spacesuits in Olay ad
The Olay ad follows Singh and Philipps as they attempt to answer the question 'Is there space in space for women?' Maggie Shannon for Adweek
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Key Insights

It was a beautiful day in Los Angeles, with temperatures in the mid-70s and the tops of palm trees dotting a cloudless sky. That California-in-December bliss, however, was nowhere to be found on Stage 1 at The Lot Studios, a film and TV production complex nestled in West Hollywood.

Nate McCain for Olay

Something celestial was happening, in more ways than one. At the center of the stage was what appeared to be the front end of a rocket ship—a silver hexagonal cylinder topped with an industrial-looking nose, with countless buttons and controls lining the interior.

It’s not just the astronomical set that was radiating star power, but the people, too. Sitting inside the rocket ship were actress Busy Philipps, comedian Lilly Singh and retired astronaut Nicole Stott. That morning, Katie Couric shot a sequence in a makeshift TV studio. And the day before, actress Taraji P. Henson was in command at a mock mission control.

Adweek was there, too, invited to observe and document the creation of this year’s Super Bowl ad for Procter & Gamble-owned skin-care brand Olay. This is its second year in the Big Game, this time working with Badger & Winters to produce a 30-second, star-studded, space-themed spot over the course of a three-day shoot.

It was an experience that stunned even the spot’s stars. “The Super Bowl is literally the Oscars of commercials,” Henson tells Adweek during a break between takes, laughing. “I feel like I made it!”

The ad follows Philipps and Singh as they endeavor to answer the question “Is there space in space for women?” with the help of Henson back at mission control, Stott in the co-pilot seat and Couric reporting on the mission back on Earth.

Olay's final Super Bowl ad

Though it’s humorous—as any ad with Philipps and Singh would be—the spot has a deeper message. Olay is teaming up with Girls Who Code, the nonprofit organization that hosts coding classes for young women to prepare them for careers in STEM, donating $1 for every person who tweets #MakeSpaceForWomen throughout the Big Game.

The cause is fitting when you consider why Olay was inspired to get into the Super Bowl in the first place: The brand wanted to “make space” for a greater number of women to be shown—and see themselves represented—on the biggest stage in advertising.

Back in the game

Super Bowl commercials are typically synonymous with a certain type of brand: automotive, beer, snacks—namely, those that are traditionally associated with men. And with that, only 27% of Super Bowl spots feature women in the leading role. That number, however, is at odds with the actual demographics of the NFL’s fan base: According to a 2018 survey from Taylor Strategy, 45% of NFL fans are female.

That stat led Olay to get into the game last year, Kate DiCarlo, Olay’s senior communications manager, tells Adweek—its first time advertising during the Super Bowl.

The brand ran a 30-second horror-film spoof ad, featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar as a woman who distracts a masked home invader with her “killer skin.” The ad was humorous and “made a splash,” says DiCarlo, but at its core, it was about product efficacy.

Singh and Philipps experience weightlessness, courtesy of wires.
Nate McCain for Olay

For its second go-round, Olay is shifting focus to its brand ethos—in particular, its “Face Anything” tagline. DiCarlo says the brand decided around July of last year to get back in the game, and to “come back [to the Super Bowl] with something that really helps continue ‘Face Anything’ in a way that makes a positive change in the world.”

And who better to handle creative than Badger & Winters, the shop behind the “Face Anything” campaign that launched in 2018 and encourages women to shed the labels and expectations that others place on them.

“The concept was Face Anything 2.0,” says Madonna Badger, co-founder and CCO of Badger & Winters. “And we wanted to do something that not only entertained people, but made them think.”

Helming the spot is director Jamie Babbit, whose credits include The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Russian Doll and Silicon Valley. This is her first Super Bowl commercial, but she's not stressed. 'Women directors everywhere, we thrive under pressure,' says Babbit. 'So I'll take the maximum pressure possible.'
Maggie Shannon for Adweek

Badger says that in the same way she was drawn to the double meaning of the word “face” in the “Face Anything” campaign, the word “space” also stood out to her. It could mean making space for women in STEM, making space for women at the Super Bowl and, in the most literal definition, outer space.

The latter topic was on the team’s minds thanks to the all-female spacewalk that took place last October, the ongoing solar probe and the ramping up of the Artemis program, which is set to send humans back to the moon for the first time since 1972.

“We’re living in pretty anxious times,” notes Badger. “When things on Earth become so stressful, there’s something about space that gives us permission to dream.”

Once Olay signed off on the space theme, it was all systems go. Badger & Winters started working on creative, which it nailed down about six weeks before Badger, DiCarlo and the rest of the 70-person production team descended on Los Angeles.

Retired astronaut Nicole Stott spent 27 years with NASA—and went on five missions to the International Space Station—before retiring in 2015. Stott says that the spacesuits made for Olay's space mission were incredibly similar to the ones she wore for NASA—only this time, it's ‘a little more fashionable.’
Nate McCain for Olay

Down to Earth

The shoot for the spot stretched out over three days, just a few days before Christmas. The soundstage was decked for the holidays, with garlands strung along the walls and craft services filling plates with Christmas cookies for the crew. The holiday cheer and knowledge of an upcoming extended break added to an already lively mood on set, where every day brought the promise of a new celebrity appearance.

Though the spot is just 30 seconds long, it encompasses several different scenes and settings, from a mission control center to a moment that sees Philipps and Singh “in space,” filmed with the actresses on wires in front of a green screen.

But there’s no denying the pièce de résistance: the rocket. The spacecraft’s time on the Super Bowl screen is brief, but production designer Steve Saklad considered every detail.

“We’ve made us a spaceship that’s incredibly strong but uniquely feminine at the same time,” he tells Adweek.

Taraji P. Henson says playing seminal NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures drove home the importance of spotlighting women in STEM. ‘Representation is everything,’ she says. ‘Young women don't know the dream if they don't see other women doing the things that they aspire to be.’
Maggie Shannon for Adweek

There are round, red accents throughout, in a nod to Olay’s signature jars of Olay Regenerist moisturizer. The rocket’s walls are lined with pink padding, in an effort to make a space that’s traditionally sterile and stale feel more feminine. But with that, there’s an undeniable legitimacy to the spacecraft—likely thanks to the controls, once part of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. It’s so appealing that when it’s not in use for a scene, it’s a photo hot spot for the crew.

A few feet away, rows of desks sit in a mock mission control center, covered in computer screens and Olay-ified desk accessories, from pens to cups to the signature red jars. Olay red is everywhere on set, from the buttons in the rocket to the shoes and dress that Couric wears. Even Singh’s and Philipps’ spacesuits feature patches in the shape of Olay’s red jars, as well as personalized name tags—lest viewers forget who they’re watching. Capturing it all on film was director of photography Janusz Kaminski, an Oscar winner for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

Every scene was shot one by one, with Henson’s taking up the bulk of the first day. Couric kicked off Day 2, and after lunch, Stott, Singh and Philipps suited up for their in-rocket scenes. Day 3, a Saturday, saw Stott, Singh and Philipps finish off, on wires and in a dramatic prelaunch walk.

Katie Couric is a longtime partner of Procter & Gamble, Olay's parent company. Increasing female representation in all realms, but particularly in advertising, is a cause close to her heart: She also serves on the advisory board of the Association of National Advertisers' #SeeHer initiative.
Maggie Shannon for Adweek

Every cast member was chosen for a reason. Couric is a longtime P&G partner. Henson is at mission control because of her role as NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Having Stott, an actual NASA alum, brings an “authenticity” to the spot, says Badger. Singh and Philipps, the heroes of the ad, have both worked with Olay in the past and are tasked with bringing their comedic touch to the proceedings.

“These are all our first choices,” notes Badger. “And everyone really wanted to be here.”

Humor, with heart

The hope is that this deliberately chosen mix of women will strike the right balance of heart with humor. Audiences need to be captivated long enough that they’ll tune in when Olay puts out the call to action, asking audiences to tweet #MakeSpaceForWomen to donate to Girls Who Code. But they also need to inspire people, so much so that they’ll actually pick up their phones and tweet.

“Comedy is a real way into people’s hearts,” Independent Media’s Jamie Babbit, the spot’s director, says after the first day of shooting wrapped. “If it becomes too sincere, then people tune out.”

To trigger that hoped-for humor, Babbit lets Singh and Philipps play with the dialogue, improvising lines that prompt stifled giggles from an attempting-to-be-quiet crew. In between takes, Singh and Philipps chat about their shared career history—both have hosted late-night shows within the past year, Singh with A Little Late With Lilly Singh on NBC and Philipps with Busy Tonight on E! Throughout the shoot, Badger and Babbit let the actors offer input on their dialogue. Couric suggests tweaks to lines to make them sound more authentic to an actual broadcast. Henson tests out different responses to a call from the spaceship, from a sassy “Well, who did you think it would be?” to a more official “Taraji P. Henson here!”

Busy Philipps, the actress turned social media phenomenon turned talk-show host, called starring in Olay's spot 'the most exciting thing I've done,' particularly because of the women she's working with. 'We've all built our careers at a time when it was hard to knock down doors,' she says of Babbit and Badger.
Nate McCain for Olay

The humor is plentiful. But without the heart, Olay likely wouldn’t have this powerhouse cast. Singh says that she’s turned down opportunities to star in Super Bowl commercials before when it wasn’t the right fit.

“I just always felt that if I’m part of a Super Bowl spot, I want to make sure that it’s something meaningful,” she says. “I really felt like this hit the mark exactly where I wanted to be.”

Sending a message

Olay’s ad, at its core, is for everyone—you don’t advertise in the Super Bowl to reach a niche audience, after all—but it’s also an important step for inclusivity. Of the 70 people involved with the spot, 66% of them are female.

Badger, for example, was a big fan of Babbit’s and brought her into the fold. And Arcade Edit, founded and owned by females, handled the editing, with the company’s co-founder and co-owner, Kim Bica, as the lead editor on the Olay spot.

“I wouldn’t say it was all on accident or all orchestrated,” says DiCarlo, “but there was a deliberate choice to use more women, because it just never happens on a stage like the Super Bowl. We knew we wanted to have a female cast because it is so incredibly rare. But some of these [other] things really did fall into place.”

Comedian, actress and talk-show host Lilly Singh, who was featured in Olay's first ‘Face Anything’ campaign, plans to use her large social following—she has over 9 million followers on Instagram alone—to promote the #MakeSpaceForWomen hashtag. ‘I'm going to get everyone to tweet!’ she says.
Nate McCain for Olay

The spot also features a group of young girls clad in metallic silver bomber jackets covered in STEM-inspired patches and varsity letters spelling out Olay, “working” at mission control during Henson’s scenes. Their presence was poignant, as they’re not just a random assortment of extras, but actual Girls Who Code students.

During the filming, after Henson said her line “We have space!”—meaning that there is, indeed, space in space for women—the girls cheered and hugged one another. They cheered countless times, take after take, and their energy levels never dropped.

“For young girls, I think there still is very much a ‘see it, be it’ thing that needs to happen,” Stott observes. “This is looking at it from the standpoint of women having strength, women having presence and putting them in this space-exploration scene that I think is very powerful for young girls to see.”

Is there enough space?

With just over a month between when shooting wrapped and the commercial’s airdate, Bica notes that the turnaround had to be quick—especially because teasers would be needed even earlier. Condensing three days of shooting and six different scenes into a 30-second spot is a difficult assignment—and tough decisions had to be made. Clips of Couric imitating Walter Cronkite’s gleeful “Oh, boy!” from the 1969 moon landing (this time, she says “Oh, girl!”) and countless quips from Philipps and Singh don’t make the cut.

The Girls Who Code’s jackets bore STEM-inspired patches.
Maggie Shannon for Adweek

“Gosh, we could cut longer versions,” Bica says at Arcade Edit’s New York City location in January. “It can be like a movie. It has that scope.”

For now, though, it’ll remain a Super Bowl spot. And, with luck, a talked-about one. More than anything, says DiCarlo, Olay wants to start a conversation with #MakeSpaceForWomen about the ad, but also about gender parity in STEM, in the Super Bowl and more. The goal, she says, is “to write a gigantic check to Girls Who Code.” That, of course, won’t happen unless the ad successfully inspires people to tweet.

And, of course, Olay has its own skin in this game. Spots like these are crucial to evolving the brand, DiCarlo says, giving new consumers a reason to love it, while retaining the affinity of those who have always been loyal.

“Olay as a brand has so often been referred to as ‘my grandmother’s brand,’” says DiCarlo. “And we have made a lot of progress over the last two years, helping to inspire that next generation of young women to trust their skin to Olay. But this is one opportunity where we have the chance to reach a very wide audience with a powerful message that hopefully mom, grandmother and granddaughter can connect with.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.