How CVS made an ad during the pandemic that looks nothing like an ad made during the pandemic
The new brand ad above for CVS Beauty is something of an anomaly in the slew of user-generated, stock footage, emotionally heightened montages that have come out in recent weeks.
It captures a variety of women having fun with their beauty routines at home, primping before mirrors, exercising and running through hallways. With its mix of playful shot angles, crisp photography, clever scene transitions and upbeat vibe, it feels as if it were made before the coronavirus halted film production across the country earlier this year. But, from start to finish, it was created in under a month, smack dab in the middle of the pandemic.
According to CVS Health Senior VP-chief marketing officer Norman de Greve, the original brief to its agency Standard Black nearly two months ago “was to communicate our ‘Beauty in Real Life’ positioning in a way that celebrates authenticity but also creates some aspiration.”
CVS had tapped Standard Black back in 2018 to introduced that brand platform, the centerpiece of which was the brand’s much-buzzed-about initiative to go airbrush-free with all of its campaigns. For this next round of the effort, Standard Black Founder and CEO Michael Sharp explains, “we started out concepting, and one of the things we wanted to focus on was getting more real depictions of people. What if we shot real people in their spaces?”
Little did his team know, however, just how real it was going to get. A week after the idea was approved, the virus took its toll on the country so to shoot the ad as initially imagined—requiring a full production crew and stylists in various locations, seemed like a near-impossible feat.
But “we decided to keep going,” Sharp says. “We thought, what could be better than shooting people in their own spaces, but with their own clothes, furniture, dogs and roommates doing their own makeup? It couldn’t get any more real than that.”
Working with production company division7 and directing team Similar But Different—aka Charlotte Fassler, former visual editor and producer at Man Repeller, and Dani Girdwood, a protege of veteran director Reed Morano (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “I Think We’re Alone Now")—the agency came up with an alternative plan to produce and shoot the entire spot remotely.
“They did all the legwork to make it happen,” de Greve says.
Every aspect of the shoot, from the casting and location scouting to the styling, directing and post production, was done with everyone staying safely at home.
But from the outset, the team vowed the ad wouldn’t aesthetically appear that way. “From the get-go, we wanted to create something that still feels like we’re replicating the traditional scope of what we would do on a traditional shoot,” Fassler says.
Real world, replicated
“With a client like CVS Beauty, we wanted the beauty to be front and center,” Fassler adds. But the look had to be elevated. Seeing people perform their beauty rituals at home has become commonplace, thanks to YouTube and its sea of beauty tutorials, so the agency and directors wanted the spot to stand apart from that vibe. “We really didn’t want people to feel like this was a selection of influencer footage put together,” Fassler says. “We wanted it to feel more curated and designed.”
The directors say casting was key to the process because the chosen talent not only had to have the right look and performance ability, they also had to have the right home to be shot in—and in some cases, roommates or family who could help assist in the shooting. The production company and agency “virtually” met with the talent and also made sure to scope out their spaces.
They ultimately landed on nine different locations and 14 actors, all in Los Angeles.
The team then sent production kits to all the cast—what’s become a common practice during COVID-19 times. But what came in those kits would be key to the spot’s outcome.
According to Girdwood, along with the beauty products the talent would need, the kits included iPhones to shoot themselves with—but they were “supercharged” with special lenses as well as an app that gives the subject and the DP (from afar) more manual control of the camera. They also came with gear like suction mounts to help position the cameras at unique angles.
Prior to shooting, various members of the production team met with the cast to help select the right areas in their homes in which to shoot and also make any recommendations on props, art direction and lighting. Stylists also met with them in advance to scour their closets for wardrobe and also provide makeup instruction.
During the shoot itself, the team tried to recreate as closely as possible having everyone on set, albeit virtually, using a remote video village with multiple Zoom channels in which the directors could bounce back and forth between talent, crew, client and agency.
“It was like a ‘Matrix’ of production, each piece feeding into each piece,” says division7 Managing Director Kamila Prokop.
Details and craft were key
A key aspect of the spot that makes it feel especially polished is how it transitions from scene to scene.
“All those moments were intentional and rehearsed,” says Sharp. “One of the things we were trying to do was find motion throughout the spot to carry us through—a hand touching the camera, movement going around in half-circle.”
“We wanted to set up a visual language that acknowledged what we were doing,” adds Girdwood. The directors looked to “break the fourth wall” with scene shifts deliberately triggered by the movement of the device, a nod to the fact that the women were “in real life” and shooting themselves.
It helped that Similar But Different had a very specific and detailed shot list, from wide shots to POV shots that required affixing the iPhones to a mirror or computer so the talent could engage with them directly, Fassler says.
The spot also has a decidedly lively feel, and during the shoot Fassler and Girdwood played some of the tracks that had been shortlisted for the spot so talent could move along with it during the shoot.
As for the message, the spot’s buoyancy is also a refreshing lift from all the somber ads out there.
“In a time of crisis, brands connect by helping people in a meaningful way, and I’m not always sure if that’s done by creating messages of hope and reminders of social distancing,” says de Greve. “It’s like, what do you have to offer that’s going to really help me right now?”
CVS also recently created an ad about its free delivery, for example. “My general view is to help in a meaningful way, not just by telling people it’s going to be alright," he adds.
With this latest spot, “we weren’t trying to make it a beauty COVID ad,” de Greve says. “We just wanted to manage the context we are in today, but also create a message that could last through the year.”