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Super Bowl LV: why the NFL resurrected Vince Lombardi to help it champion equality

It has been a critical year for the NFL, one that saw it seize the BLM moment and confront its past mistakes. Following its Super Bowl spot this year, marketing head Julie Haddon talks to The Drum about why it targeted this captive audience to champion equality and how it resurrected NFL legend Vince Lombardi from the dead to do so.

“If you're black or white, you're a part of the family. We make no issue over a man's color. I just won't tolerate anybody in this organization making it an issue. We respect every man's dignity, black or white.”

These are the famed words of Green Bay Packer's legendary head coach, Vince Lombardi, from 1968. The same year, the civil rights movement was thwarted by the assassination of Martin Luther King, at a time Lombardi was fighting to integrate his Black players into a world that wasn't designed for them.

“He wanted to overcome obstacles, regardless of race, creed, background, or sexual orientation," explains Julie Haddon, NFL's senior vice-president, global brand and consumer marketing. “He deplored prejudice of any kind, he would not tolerate bigotry in the 60s.”

A pioneering ally for social justice and namesake of the Super Bowl trophy, Lombardi's legacy is both a crucial reminder of how far we've come, but how far society still is from the goal line. This is why, 50 years after his death, the football league has decided to resurrect Lombardi through CGI, as the NFL attempts to confront its past.

Imagining what he would have to say to America in 2021, “Many of his words still ring true today. It's set the tone for us as a league. He's our north star,” Haddon explains.

“This is a different kind of Super Bowl, as it is a different time than any of us have ever experienced. There's never been a more of a moment where the country needs this cultural guiding light.”

NFL's decision to seize this year's Super Bowl as the moment to champion equality and social justice follows years of criticism from players and fans alike, over its handling of those that took the knee during the national anthem, in protest against police brutality.

However, in the wake of last year's Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell confronted the criticism, admitting fault for “not listening to NFL players earlier” when they tried to address racial injustice.

The NFL approached its 55th Super Bowl, after a decisive 2020 that saw it realign its overall marketing strategy throughout the season as part of its Social Justice Initiative.

“We began this season with a powerful moment, with a spot called 'It Takes All of Us'. It was our social justice spot that used a speech by NFL star LaDainian Tomlinson,” Haddon explains. “He talks about football as the microcosm of America - all races, religions and creeds, living and playing side by side.”

Haddon explains how the NFL aimed to build on this spot. “There is no better time to deliver a very powerful message than the Super Bowl, so we started thinking about what we could do to rally the country to show the country that the NFL is a unifier,” she recalls. “So we decided to take a different approach, in the wake of this 2020 season. We thought if Lombardi was to come back, what would he say?”

The team worked alongside Lombardi's family, the VFX studio Digital Domain and 72 and Sunny, which began utilizing historical and practical footage shot by director Max Malkin of Prettybird, to resurrect Lombardi using a blend of traditional CGI studio techniques and proprietary digital human technology.

While Haddon was working with her NFL hat on, this wasn't her first rodeo, as she is the former head of marketing and business development at Dreamwork's animation, where she led the marketing on Shrek, Ants, and Madagascar.

“I can talk you about it all day and night,” jokes Haddon on the experience of bringing Lombardi back from the dead through CGI. “It was a fun convergence to be back on the other side, being the one receiving the wizardry.”

“Re-using past speeches, we put together an amalgamation of some of his greatest moments,” explains Haddon. “We wrote a script using his words to narrate.”

The final ad sees Lombardi walking the streets of today's America, wearing his iconic fedora, and speaking about man's ability to unite and overcome obstacles, regardless of background, race, creed, or sexual orientation. It will arrive alongside Tomlinson's 'It Takes All Of Us', “using words from the NFL family through yesterday and today to help send us into tomorrow,” explains Haddon.

And so, on Sunday (7 February) the NFL carefully curated a game plan of social justice ads to unfold throughout the Big Game – amalgamating the voices of today, with voices of yesterday, in the hope of talking to the voices of tomorrow.

The ad debuted during a celebratory Super Bowl TV spot at kickoff, right before 'American the Beautiful' is sung, to be followed by 'It Takes All Of Us' during the half time break. It marked a poignant, watershed moment for the NFL, after a trying year that saw it hold up its hands and confront its past mistakes.