Fantastic Finishes

The ad campaign that changed NFL games forever

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More than 25 years have rumbled by, but I still wait for the trumpets. Don’t you? Think of when the two-minute warning comes in NFL games. The game is close. The tension builds. The players walk to the sidelines for last instructions. The screen goes to commercial.

And where are those trumpets?

Do you remember? First, there was a black screen. Then a drumroll. A logo started coming at you, a boxy logo that looked something like the letter “A.” And then there was that familiar blaring sound, like trumpets, maybe bugles, a little bit off-key: “Wa-wa-wa-wa, wa-wa-wa, wa-wa-wa, WAH!”

And between the fifth and sixth “wa,” the voice of John Facenda or Harry Kalas intoned.

“Alcoa presents … FANTASTIC FINISHES!”

* * *

Can you hear it? There are so many memorable things about the NFL in the 1970s and 1980s, silly things that people of my generation naturally and pointlessly cling to. NBC showed the AFC then, CBS showed the NFC, and I maintain to this day that each network had its own hue, its own color tone. NBC games seemed more colorful and brilliant and fun somehow. And CBS games seemed darker, more solemn, more important.

And, of course, ABC had Monday Night Football, the biggest night of the year, with Howard Cosell’s famed halftime highlights. Those highlights were often the only ones we saw, and each one felt like an uncovered treasure, especially with Cosell’s powerful voice shouting, “Look at Mike Pruitt run!”

Everything about the NFL was so overwhelming. Here’s an obscure one, but something you just might have felt if you are of my generation: Remember the “60 Minutes” ticker? Of course, it’s still going on, but in those days that sound of the stopwatch ticking would start and it would sound like a funeral march because that was the signal that football was over (there was no Sunday Night Football then, of course) and all that was left was school and work and a week of drudgery.

And, perhaps best of all, right at the two minute warning of every game …

“Alcoa presents: Fantastic Finishes! Nineteen seventy. Tom Dempsey will try to do the impossible: Kick a 63-yard field goal. Joe Scarpati gets the ball down. Dempsey caught it solid. And it’s … it’s good! Tom Dempsey has just kicked a 63-yard field goal with no time left on the clock. The Saints beat the Lions 19-17!”

That was the voice of the late Harry Kalas, the great announcer of the Philadelphia Phillies. NFL Films in those days had two amazing voices. John Facenda, the voice of God, was sort of their black-tie formal affair announcer who did the dramatic stuff. Kalas was a bit more dressed down.

Every game, Kalas would celebrate one of the NFL’s great endings. And then there would be a 30-second Alcoa spot about recycling or the importance of aluminum in making lighter cars or something. Alcoa stands for the “Aluminum Company of America.”

And then we would go back to the drama of the final two minutes.

Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes was such an extraordinary blend of timing and marketing and advertising that it didn’t seem like any of that. It all felt part of the game, part of the moment. And that was the whole point.

In many ways, it changed the course of sports and advertising.

* * *

Like many great things, Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes was created out of dread. In the late 1970s, there was an energy crisis in America. Gas prices leapt, but that’s not what made it a crisis — the crisis was that gas was often unavailable at any price. There were only certain days you weren’t even ALLOWED to buy gas, depending on the last digit of your license plate. Gas lines were so long that people were actually running out of gas while waiting to buy gas.

And Alcoa had a problem.

Alcoa used to stand for “Aluminum Company of America” — it is now simply Alcoa Inc. — and until the late 1970s few people thought about who was making aluminum. There was no reason at all for Alcoa to advertise. People needed aluminum — beverage cans, aluminum siding, business materials — and Alcoa was the leading producer of aluminum. Until the late 1970s, you would never see an Alcoa commercial on television.

But when the energy crisis hit, Alcoa had a real problem: Alcoa used FOUR PERCENT of America’s energy.

“That’s a real number — I mean, you don’t forget a number like that” says Alan Linderman, who was media director for HBM/Creamer, Alcoa’s ad agency. He remembers the meeting when Alcoa executives explained their predicament.

“Their fear,” he says, “was that as America waited on gas lines, odd and even days, all that stuff, that people would turn on them. They worried people would say, ‘Wait a minute, let me get this straight: I’m on a gas line at 4 a.m. so you can drink soda out of a can?’”

HBM/Creamer was given the task: Get out the message that aluminum is vital. They gave Linderman and his group a $10 million budget and told them to get the word out.

“It was a significant chunk of change,” Linderman says. “But it was not enough to tell the world how essential aluminum is. … The thing we had going for us was that Alcoa was not particularly insightful about any of this. They didn’t understand marketing. They didn’t understand advertising. They did not pretend to understand any of it. They gave us the mission and then left us alone.”

Linderman and his group poured over millions of pages of data in trying to find out how they could get the word out about aluminum. Nielsen ratings. Opinion surveys. Circulation numbers. One of Linderman’s enduring memories was seeing all those young people digging into the research. It took months.

To get the message out on aluminum, they needed to reach the most influential people – the business leaders, the media influencers, the local politicians, the people who called into talk radio shows, the presidents of Optimists and Kiwanis Clubs. How? They tentatively planned to start a magazine campaign in Forbes and Business Week and those sorts of places.

But, as they pored over the data, they realized something odd. These people were not necessarily readers of Forbes or any other magazine. They  considered advertising on television news programs but again couldn’t find enough of their audience. They looked at prime time television. They looked at newspapers and other magazines. They looked at sports too, like college football, but no matter where they looked they kept running into walls.

The one and only place all of their audience seemed to be: In front of their television on Sundays watching NFL football.

* * *

Everything was less sophisticated in sports television then, of course. It’s fun to look back and see the absurd size of television graphics; they needed to be that big because people were watching on tiny and fuzzy televisions. For games, camera angles were limited. This was a generation or two before the RedZone channel and online streaming — you watched the game that was on your local channel.

And football advertising was a simple system: You paid your money, and your ad would get shown wherever it came up in the NFL’s “horizontal and vertical rotation.” It might be in the first quarter one week, the second quarter the next week, the third quarter the following week and so on. It might be at the beginning of the quarter, the middle of the quarter or the end of the quarter — there was no way to know and no way to place it. The concept of sponsored time in sports television was almost nonexistent.

But Allan Linderman wanted to get the two-minute warning for Alcoa.

Well, of course he did. The ad agency’s voluminous research showed that their target audience (like all NFL fans) were at their fevered peak at the end of games. They were nervous and excited and fully engaged — it was the PERFECT time to tell them about the significance of aluminum.

Linderman and his team HAD to have the two-minute warning for Alcoa.

Two small problems.

One, as mentioned, the system didn’t work that way. You couldn’t just GET the two-minute warning. It wasn’t for sale. If it had been for sale, Budweiser and Miller and GE — spending a LOT more money than Alcoa — would have grabbed it already.

Two, even if Linderman and company could convince the networks and NFL to give them the spot, they could not afford it. The $10 million allotted them just enough for a 30-second commercial in two NFL games a week. The two-minute warning in those days was a full minute.

And so, HBM/Creamer creative director John Waldron came up with an idea: Let’s attach a 30-second commercial to a football vignette and make it all part of the game. It could be like a partnership between the NFL and Alcoa. This had never been done on sports television. The millions of sports sponsorships to come – the “You Make the Call” commercials, the Toyota Halftimes, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowls, the Sports Authority Fields, on and on — were all but unthinkable in 1980.

Waldron went to NFL Films to meet with president Steve Sabol and he pitched this idea: Could NFL Films gather some of the greatest finishes in football history to pair with Alcoa commercials?

Sabol saw the possibilities immediately. Together, they found 15 or so great endings that worked well. Waldron named it: “Fantastic Finishes.”

“It was such a simple but beautiful idea,” Sabol would say before he died in 2012. “It would be the last two minutes of a game and then you would watch a Fantastic Finish. And man, you were really pumped up after seeing that.”

It changed the very idea of what sport advertising could be. Linderman would always remember when Waldron came back to Pittsburgh after his meeting with Sabol. Waldron sat in his office and stared out the window for a long time with this beatific look on his face. “With creative directors at ad agencies,” Linderman says, “you learn to sort of leave them alone. They march to their own beat. So I just sat there quietly while John just kept looking out the window.

“Finally, he looks at me, and he still has that same smile on his face. And he says, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this.’”

* * *

The second part of the idea — getting CBS and NBC to go along with it — was even harder than coming up with the idea. Money was again in the way. The networks were surprisingly willing to allow Alcoa lock in at the two-minute warning. Apparently, the reason they had never done it before is nobody had asked.

But to get the two-minute warning, the networks insisted that Alcoa buy the whole 60 seconds. The networks were unwilling to lose 30 seconds in prime advertising.

And then came another breakthrough. This time it came from a CBS ad salesman named Joe Abruzzese: What if the NFL reformatted the broadcast so that the 30-second football part of Fantastic Finishes was not considered a commercial but was instead just part of the game. In other words, the NFL would pay for it, and CBS or NBC could add another 30-second spot somewhere else during the game.

Linderman and Abruzzese went to visit with Val Pinchbeck, who was the head of broadcasting with the NFL. Pinchbeck was something of a legend, the guy who annually would construct the NFL schedule by hand. Linderman and Abruzzese had a big pitch planned, complete with visuals and video and numbers. They did not get to present it. After explaining the concept in broad terms, Pinchbeck stopped them.

“He sort of said, ‘Well, of course, that’s fine,’” Linderman says. “It was almost like he was saying, ‘Why are you even bothering me with this stuff? Go ahead. Do whatever you want.’”

And so, Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes was born.

* * *

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton used to have an Alcoa Fantastic Finishes exhibit. Now there are hundreds of interactive displays at the Hall of Fame, but in those days — and I know because our school trip was to the Hall of Fame just about every year — there was nothing but busts and photos and clippings. Even for NFL nuts like us, it was pretty boring.

But the Alcoa Fantastic Finishes display seemed on the very cutting edge technology. There was a television. There was an old fashioned telephone receiver. You would press a button, put the phone to your ear, and watch Alcoa Fantastic Finishes. I recall it being the most popular exhibit at the Hall of Fame.

Well, of course it was. The idea is indelible.  I can still see many of Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes in my mind. They are surprisingly difficult to find on the Internet, but in my memory I can see the one where Roger Staubach’s pass to Drew Pearson beat the Vikings, the original Hail Mary (well, not really the ORIGINAL – the term was used before that pass – but it was the play that popularized the term).

I can see Ahmad Rashad catching a Hail Mary against the Cleveland Browns, one of the low moments of my life (I would always turn the channel when it came on). Linderman’s ad agency had insisted to Sabol that the endings never be field goals beause field goals are boring — but Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal was an exception to the rule.

There was the Holy Roller, the play where, Oakland’s quarterback Ken Stabler fumbled the ball forward and tight end Dave Casper bobbled and pushed the ball forward until he fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown that beat San Diego (the play would not be legal today). There was Philadelphia’s Herman Edwards picking up that last minute fumble against the Giants, the Miracle at the Meadowlands. There was a play where Seattle won late on a Curt Warner touchdown.

The peak of Alcoas Fantastic Finishes came during Super Bowl XVI when — through a dramatic rush of editing and will — they managed to use the Dwight Clark catch that had gotten the San Francisco 49ers into the Super Bowl just two weeks earlier. These days, that would be easy to do but in 1982 it was like trying to get mail across the country by Pony Express. Linderman says they barely made it.

“I remember one of my business school fraternity brothers was working for Miller Beer’s agency,” Linderman says. “He called me one day before the Super Bowl, and he said – excuse the language – ‘You (bleeped) me.’

“I said, ‘How about saying hello?”’ He said, ‘I’ve got three minutes in the Super Bowl, and I can’t get near the two-minute warning because of you.’ As you might imagine, I took great joy in that.”

By the end of the Fantastic Finishes run in 1986, Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes had been seen by more than two and a half billion people. Alcoa kept a metric of how people perceived aluminum, and their approval rating skyrocketed over 70 percent after the Fantastic Finishes. Alcoa has been a member of Fortune’s “Most Admired Metal Companies” list every single year for 30 years.

After a while, the energy crisis lessened and Alcoa switched the theme of its commercials from “Aluminum is essential” to “Please recycle.” Steve Sabol would note that recycling soared while the commercials were playing.

In the end, every move forward just needs a start. Legendary CBS producer Frank Chirkinian was the first to put a camera in the Goodyear Blimp, but he would always say that if he had not done it someone else would have. Companies and television and sports were all coming together in the 1970s and 1980s, and it was inevitable that there would be more and more involved deals and a closer relationship among them all.

Still, the Alcoa deal was a breakthrough. In time, Alcoa started doing similar things in other sports. The IBM “You make the call” commercials – where they would show a play and ask the television audience to make the umpire’s calls – brought an interactive feel to sports television advertising. The Apple 1984 commercial – shown only once, at the 1984 Super Bowl – was one of the first, if not the first, big event commercials. Miller Lite’s commercials where they would have sports stars argue whether the beer was less filling or tasted great helped build celebrity sports endorsements.

Then, that’s all business and marketing. What made Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes so original and so influential was that it blurred the lines between what is advertising and what is the game – a line that is all but gone today. With two minutes left in the game, you did not go to the bathroom. You did not run off and get a snack. You watched Fantastic Finishes. And it doesn’t matter how much time goes by; With two minutes left in the game, a part of me still listens for the trumpets.