PHOENIX-It was perfect.
The screaming began as soon as Mary Ann Brandt opened the front door to find four blue jacket-clad big city marketing executives framed by lights and cameras. Not only was Mrs. Brandt, 62, winner of the $10 million Publishers Clearing House prize, she-and her howling next of kin-were unwitting stars in the magazine subscription company's first almost-live commercial.
In a 30-second spot aired shortly after the Super Bowl, what was left of ABC's TV audience learned that a shell-shocked Mrs. Brandt, still swallowing her Super Bowl supper, had grabbed the brass ring.
"She looks like she's about to faint, and that's good," said Dave Sayer, Publishers Clearing House executive director of advertising, after seeing the commercial that was shot just before halftime.
The spot's winning line-"$10 million dollars?!"-belonged to Mrs. Brandt's son, Michael Claus, 44, a bottled water salesman. His wife, Kelly, supplied thescreams and tears.
"You couldn't have cast the winners any better," said Donny Deutsch, CEO of Publishers Clearing House agency Deutsch, New York.
Publishers Clearing House hopes it was also a winner.
The sweepstakes company started hyping its "live" post-Super Bowl spot before Christmas, hoping to stoke last-minute entries. The Prize Patrol members, also the company's top advertising and marketing executives, shelled out $310,000 for the 30-second after-game slot via media agency Ogilvy & Mather.
"If this works, we want to get a halftime slot on the Super Bowl next year," Publishers Clearing House Director of Marketing Development Todd Sloane said while staking out Mrs. Brandt's home in Phoenix the night before Super Bowl Sunday.
Technically, it certainly worked: While crews from "Dateline NBC," "Extra," and reporters from Advertising Age and People loitered in Mr. Claus' home, a massive production truck positioned in front of the modest house edited a tape of the winning moment into the best several seconds. More than 2 hours later, Mr. Sloane, standing in front of the Claus house, provided a live introduction to the family's taped reaction.
"Given the limitations, they did the best they could do," Mr. Deutsch said. "It was technically the best you could hope for. It felt `live.'*"
It was also well choreographed.
Messrs. Sayer and Sloane arrived in Phoenix 48 hours before making Mrs. Brandt rich. They found where she lives and called to listen to her voice on the answering machine. At that point, they knew very little about their prizewinner.
In fact, only two things were certain: Mrs. Brandt was an alternate winner, meaning the holder of the first randomly assigned number drawn didn't return his or her entry. (Let this serve as a lesson.)
The other thing the Prize Patrol knew was that Mrs. Brandt, like a majority of sweepstakes winners, did not order magazines with her entry. Prizes are funded by the sale of magazine subscriptions and merchandise.
At 10 a.m. the morning of the big game, the Prize Patrol made initial, anonymous contact with the winner. Soft-spoken Advertising Coordinator Carroll Rotchford posed as a market researcher and phoned Mrs. Brandt.
When queried about her plans for the Super Bowl, Mrs. Brandt said she would watch at her son's home nearby. Ms. Rotchford casually scored that phone number and address, saying she'd phone at halftime to ask questions about game spots.
About 7 hours later, the Prize Patrol rushed to the house armed with roses, balloons, two bottles of Korbel champagne and an initial check for $100,000. They were trailed by a convoy that included cameramen, producers, several media members, three Deutsch staffers and a couple of curious onlookers in a white Camaro.
"Where's Ed McMahon?" one neighbor asked. "I thought he brought the check himself."
Mr. Sayer admits that Mr. McMahon, a celebrity spokesman for competitor American Family Publishers, poses an "interesting advertising dilemma" because he's often mistakenly associated with Publishers Clearing House. For a while, the company countered by courting celebrity spokesmen who personified wealth. Finally, in 1988 the more pedestrian Prize Patrol was formed. Along with Ms. Rotchford, Messrs. Sayer and Sloane, it includes Assistant Ad Manager John Ebeling.
"The reason our advertising works doesn't have to do with wealth," said Mr. Sayer, the team leader. "It has to do with security. Many [winners] don't have happy lives."
Like the wealthy benefactor in the early TV show "The Millionaire," Mr. Sayer clearly relishes his role of forever changing the lives of strangers. He awards Jaguar cars and prizes ranging from $10,000 to $10 million throughout the year. In the past three years, he has increased ad spending 33% to $20 million as the advertising has included more prize winners and the Prize Patrol.
And this most recent ad campaign is especially important. Last year, in an agreement with attorneys general in 14 states, the subscription company agreed not to use the word "finalist" in its mass mailings and to name a grand prize winner even if no one returned the original winning number.
Mr. Sloane maintains the company was "nearly in 100% compliance" at the time of the agreement. While news of it was definitely not good public relations since some Americans are inherently leery of sweepstakes, he said the number of sweepstakes entrants was barely affected this year.
Indeed, it seems the only real disappointment was that Publishers Clearing House's spot was almost lost in the clutter. During the post-game show, when the spot aired, ABC averaged a 24.7 rating. Even so, that was well below the average 39.3 national rating in the last half hour of the blowout game.
"If we did this again, we'd put the spot in right after the game ends," Mr. Sloane said from company headquarters in Port Washington, N.Y., last week. "We feel from a commercial production standpoint, it went just as planned .*.*. In a perfect world [Mrs. Brandt] might have been more excited, but we can't control that."
OK, so Mrs. Brandt didn't actually keel over. The friendly, now-rich Phoenician was still noticed.
Last week, representatives from "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show" invited her on their shows. She had not responded to the invitations by press time.
Then again, Mrs. Brandt is probably very busy. Her first planned purchase: A Dairy Queen franchise.