By Cheryl Hall The Dallas Morning News
On Super Bowl Sunday, five finalists in the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl Contest will sit on pins and needles in a luxury suite at MetLife Stadium.
They'll pay more attention to the big-screen TVs than the action on the field as they wait to see whether their 30-second commercials are aired during the big game.
Ann Mukherjee, chief marketing officer of Frito-Lay North America, will watch with them, knowing she's about to change two lives.
"We've always done this as a way to ignite our consumers and open doors for them," Mukherjee said about the ad contest launched seven Super Bowls ago. "This is what their dreams are all about."
This year, the Plano, Texas-based division of PepsiCo is paying an estimated $8 million to air two commercials during Fox's telecast of the Super Bowl: the fan favorite and another chosen by the Doritos marketing team.
The finalists spent between $300 and $7,000 creating their ads.
The top choice of the fans will walk away with a million bucks, while the marketing team's choice will take home $50,000.
Both will get to work on the set of Marvel's "The Avengers: Age of Ultron."
Mukherjee will celebrate no matter which commercial wins.
All five ads will become part of Doritos' ad campaign for the rest of the year.
"We wouldn't have come up with even half of these ideas," Mukherjee said. "What you get back by opening your brand to the creativity of your consumers is mind-boggling."
The contest has gone from a risky gamble to a Super Bowl mainstay.
In the process, Mukherjee has gone from vice president of corn products, Lay's, Doritos, Tostitos, Cheetos and Fritos (a.k.a. "Corn Queen") to marketing boss for all Frito-Lay products in North America.
"It's more than just what Crash has done for the Doritos brand," Mukherjee said. "It's set a new tone for how we do marketing at Frito-Lay. It's opened our thinking and how we as an organization operate."
Mukherjee had been at Frito-Lay only a year in mid-2006 when The Marketing Arm in Dallas pitched the idea of letting a consumer create a Doritos ad for the Super Bowl.
She instantly saw a game-changer.
"From that moment, it was all about how I was going to sell this within the organization, because this was going to scare the pants off of everybody," she said. "And it did."
Mukherjee enlisted a powerful ally: Al Carey, Frito-Lay's new CEO.
"I walked into Al's office and said, 'You don't know me all that well, but I need $2.5 million to put on an ad during the Super Bowl. And oh, by the way, I'm not going to make it; a consumer will.' "
"He looked at me as if I had five heads," Mukherjee said.
But when Carey heard the strategy of targeting Doritos' core consumer, young males, he quickly signed on.
The first contest drew more than 1,000 entries. The winner spent $12.79 for his spot, which ranked No. 4 in viewer popularity on USA Today's Ad Meter.
Two contests later, the Crash winner was the most popular ad during the game, dethroning Budweiser, which had been king of the Ad Meter for a decade.
Crash winners have repeated that No. 1 feat three times.
In previous years, Frito-Lay gave its winner up to $1 million if the ad placed first, second or third on Ad Meter.
Last year's winner, "Fashionista Daddy," produced by Mark Freiburger for $300, ranked No. 4. That left Freiburger out of the money but still landed him a job with Michael Bay on the set of "Transformers: Age of Extinction."
"Michael was so enamored by the winner that not only did he invite him to Chicago, he then took him everywhere he went, even to Hong Kong," Mukherjee said.
Frito-Lay isn't using Ad Meter this year.
It opened Crash to all 45 foreign markets where Doritos are sold, and Ad Meter focuses on U.S. consumer responses, Mukherjee said.
This year's winner is guaranteed a million-dollar payday.
That drew more than 5,000 entries, down about 1,000 from the peak year of 2012 but up from 3,000 last year, which Mukherjee takes as an indication that the contest hasn't grown stale.
The five finalists were chosen by 15 screeners, including bigwigs from Frito-Lay, partner agencies and Marvel's Stan Lee.
There was one international finalist, a guy from Australia who is generating Internet buzz with his "Finger Cleaner" entry.
"One of the age-old issues about Doritos is: 'It gets my fingers messy. How do I clean my fingers?' " Mukherjee said. "This particular consumer found a very interesting way to solve that problem."
"Breakroom Ostrich" has animal zaniness that's a little like Geico's camel and "Hump Day." The ad cost $800 to produce, most of that for shooting footage of the large birds strutting around an ostrich farm.
Fans have until midnight Wednesday to watch the finalists and vote for their favorite at Doritos.com.
So far, the Doritos site has drawn 3.7 million unique visitors and 25 million views.
Doritos hires multiple ad agencies to work on the contest. But it has a special bond with The Marketing Arm and Andrew Robinson, who came up with the concept.
"They keep us honest and make sure we stay true to the idea," Mukherjee said.
That impresses Robinson, president of consumer engagement of the Dallas promotions agency. "Today's business and people dynamics make it increasingly difficult for a brand to stay authentic to its vision and principles for any length of time, let alone eight years."
Mukherjee won't say exactly how much Frito-Lay is spending to air its ads but said published reports of $4 million for 30 seconds are in the ballpark.
She might have serious questions about spending that kind of dough if Crash were just a one-night stand.
"This is about a relationship that we create for six months with our consumers," she said. "It's the connection and engagement that you get, with the Super Bowl being the crescendo of the program.
But (the Super Bowl) is not the be-all end-all."