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Christmas Crunch: Frito-Lay Bets on Anna Kendrick to Catch Holiday Snackers

Anna Kendrick’s newest role puts her through what may be some of the most delicious torture of her career.

Kendrick, known for films like “Up In The Air” and “Pitch Perfect,” recently found herself on the set of a three-day shoot surrounded by bowls, bowls and bowls of chips, popcorn and other salty snacks that she could not touch, let alone taste. “They have everything so artfully arranged,” Kendrick told Variety from the set in late October. “I’m not allowed to eat anything, and it’s horrifying.”

While this project had some of the trappings of a blockbuster film, chances are most people won’t see it in movie theaters. Kendrick was in the midst of filming a massive two-minute commercial for treat-maker Frito-Lay, and her efforts are no doubt as important to executives at that PepsiCo-owned company as her next choice of film might be to a studio operated by Disney or Universal.

Frito-Lay, perhaps best remembered for hawking Doritos during the Super Bowl, is trying a different commercial maneuver. The company behind Cheetos, Lay’s, Ruffles and Tostitos is launching a holiday spot on Thursday that for the first time attempts to give extra crunch to its broad portfolio of snacks, rather than spotlighting a specific chip, dip or pretzel.

“This is a major occasion and moment, and dictates more of a portfolio approach,’ says Chris Bellinger, vice president of creative for Frito-Lay, in an interview. The commercial was conceived by the company’s internal creative team, he says, not by an outside ad agency, and is meant to put its tasty products top of mind just before Thanksgiving opens the holiday season. Frito-Lay anticipates consumers will take part in 327 million different gatherings over the next six weeks.

PepsiCo divisions have had opportunity in the recent past to test commercials that tout multiple products. In 2018, the company ran an ad in Super Bowl LI that spotlighted both Doritos and Mountain Dew – and won some good notice. Frito-Lay decided in mid-September to make a big push for holiday snacking, and devised a homage to Rogers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” with lyrics that play up how Lay’s and Its crunchy brethren might be part of family gatherings. The stanzas include nods to “eating Doritos on big comfy couches” and “Secret Santa with family and Cheetos.” Kendrick, who has acted in comedies and in musical pieces, was the company’s first choice, Bellinger says. “It was really short notice for her, too.”

Consumers will start to see different cuts of the commercial in big holiday events. A 90-second spot will appear during NBC’s broadcast of the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” while 30-second versions will surface in NBC’s Thanksgiving Day football broadcast and its coverage of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting. Another 30-second cut will show up in NBA games played on Christmas Day. And Frito-Lay is likely to use stills and short takes of the spot in its social channels.

In a different era, top movie stars would only do ads that appeared in distant markets like Japan or Singapore, fearful that U.S. directors might see them doing a pitch and take them out of consideration for a hot new film. But those days have faded, says David Schwab, an executive vice president at Interpublic Group’s Octagon agency who specializes in creating partnerships between celebrities and brands. TV networks are flooded with big-dollar ad campaigns featuring Jennifer Garner, Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey. Some celebrities see a chance to show off a different side of themselves, as Elizabeth Banks did in 2018 with a campaign for State Street Global Advisors that had her interviewing business executives for podcasts and online videos.

The rise of social media, Schwab adds, gives actors the opportunity to test all kinds of non-traditional roles. “In today’s landscape, there’s just more ability for someone to brand themselves outside of their professional work,” he says. “If you do something that isn’t liked by your fan base, you are going to have to deal with those repercussions and the chatter on your channels, but if you pick the right campaign with the right message, it can only add to that fan base – and the next opportunity.”

In recent years, Kendrick has developed a knack for picking ad campaigns that help burnish her sense of humor. She made an intriguing splash in 2014 when she took part in an “ambush” online ad for Heineken’s Newcastle Brown Ale around Super Bowl XLVIII that could never really appear in the game itself (Rival Anheuser-Busch InBev is the exclusive beer sponsor of the event). With tongue firmly in cheek, Kendrick sits in a makeup chair, getting her hair teased, while ranting about taking part in a Super Bowl ad that has no hope of appearing in the extravaganza. “Basically, the only thing I haven’t done is a nude scene, and get paid a s— ton of money to be in a commercial – for a beer I don’t even drink,” she tells the person combing her hair.

Some of the language she uses in the spot is even more salty than some of Frito-Lay’s best-known products.

“Luckily, I’m in a position where I get to push,” says Kendrick, who has also appeared in a humorous campaign for Hilton. “I’ve so far been able to push the brand even further away from a hard sell, and I always feel like that goes a long way with viewers,” she notes, adding: “It’s like, I’m here to try and sell you something, and I’m going to have fun and I hope you have fun, and let’s all not take any of this too seriously.”

Frito-Lay hopes viewers will not only want to hear Kendrick sing the song, but also watch the ad several times to catch some of the many interesting details presented in the background. Through multiple wardrobe changes, Kendrick sings alongside a gingerbread house festooned with chips and Cheetos and SmartFood popcorn; while sledding down a short hill; and as she flies off the ground while playing ping-pong.

Staffers working on the shoot had to transport pounds of man-made snow and ice for an outdoor winter scene that includes a snowball fight and a 30,000 pound “snowcat.” Frito-Lay even went so far as to employ a “chip wrangler” to make sure its products had their best edge featured. An errant can of Pepsi shows up on a table. “There are a lot of fun Easter eggs,” says Bellinger.

Kendrick says she quickly knows whether an ad campaign is for her based on the concept. “It’s just the creative comes to me, and I’m like, ‘That should be a blast,’” she says. “Obviously, I don’t want to make a whole career out of this, but why wouldn’t I want to sing about potato chips?”

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