'ER' Actor Becomes Hispanic Commercial Producer

The Good Karma and Savvy Eye of John Leguizamo

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- These days, when actor John Leguizamo isn’t playing the controversial new doctor Victor Clemente on NBC’s “ER,” he can be found on the other side of the camera.
John Leguizamo (left) on the set with Daniel Marrero, partner and co-creative director at Creative On Demand, VW's Hispanic agency.

Volkswagen spot
Mr. Leguizamo’s first branding spot for Volkswagen of America’s New Beetle, breaks on Spanish-language TV this month.

The story of how he became involved with VW is worthy of one of his acting roles. Mr. Leguizamo spotted storyboards for the VW commercial on the fax machine at CFM International, the New York production company that represents him. Intrigued by the spot, called “Good Karma,” he submitted a detailed treatment and a bid.

“I saw the opportunity to tell a story with a cool vibe for a great brand,” Mr. Leguizamo said by e-mail from the set of "ER." “I think what I really wanted to bring to this spot was trying to make the car a chick magnet, a roadster and still personalize a car commercial. You know how tricky that is. And I wanted to portray our hero as a modern Latin man --cool without trying, un-self-conscious, smart, hip and self-assured.”

Conjuring a smile
The spot relies on the Beetle’s aura as an iconic brand that conjures a smile and thoughts of 1960s flower power. A guy heads toward his car and tosses part of his bagel to birds. As he drives away, he is protected from a series of mishaps by the good karma that surrounds a Beetle owner. The car runs over a big nail, but a kid’s discarded bubble gum

John Leguizamo's latest commercial for Volkswagen is called 'Karma.'
The first spot he directed for Burger King was called 'Blingo.'

seamlessly plugs the puncture. The driver heads toward a railroad crossing as a train approaches but avoids a collision when birds lower the stuck barrier.

“When you do good things, the forces of nature conspire to help you,” said Daniel Marrero, partner and co-creative director at Creative on Demand, Miami, VW’s Hispanic agency, which made the spot and chose Mr. Leguizamo to direct it.

Strong market
Ayana Waddell, Volkswagen brand-marketing specialist, said Hispanics are one of the stronger markets for the New Beetle, particularly because men also buy the car.

“Males are accessorizing the vehicles, and people are having fun with it,” Ms. Waddell said. “In the general market, women are the majority of the buyers.”

That seems to have been Mr. Leguizamo’s own experience.

“My uncle had a yellow VW Beetle when I was a kid, [to] which he had added a fiberglass Rolls Royce front,” Mr. Leguizamo wrote in his e-mail. “It was the first PT Cruiser. The whole family would pile inâ€"Latin style -- and we always got parking in Manhattan.”

First foray into directing
Mr. Leguizamo’s first foray into directing commercials was a general-market Burger King spot last year for Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami. In “Blingo,” he directed himself as a rap star who descends with his entourage on the local Burger King, loaded with bling featuring the number 99, to rap and dance about the restaurant’s 99-Cent Menu. The VW spot is his second as a director.

In a world where Latin music, food and performers increasingly cross over into the general market, Mr. Leguizamo, 41, is the ultimate crossover. Born in Colombia, with a Puerto Rican father, and raised in New York City’s Queens, his career as a writer, comedian, actor and now a director both draws on the Hispanic experience in America and is part of the mainstream culture that is itself increasingly Latin influenced.

“John epitomizes what being a Latino in the U.S. is all about,” Creative on Demand’s Mr. Marrero said. “He understands the culture, its nuances and how to truly connect with Latinos.”

Written four one-man plays
Mr. Leguizamo has written four one-man plays, all made into HBO specials, including “Mambo Mouth” and “Spic-O-Rama.” His film roles include drag queen Chi Chi Rodriguez in “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” and diminutive painter Henri Tulouse-Lautrec in “Moulin Rouge,” a role Mr. Leguizamo had to play mostly on his knees. Last year he made his first movie in Spanish, “Cronicas” (“Chronicles”), playing a Miami reporter who goes to Ecuador in search of a serial killer.

Word of mouth about Mr. Leguizamo’s commercial-directing talent is spreading. Lou Addesso, CFM’s president and executive producer, said there is interest from two agencies in hiring him to do Anheuser-Busch and Volkswagen spots, both for the general market.

Savvy about the ad industry after appearing in commercials for Radio Shack -- where he met CFM’s Mr. Addesso and expressed interest in directing -- and other marketers before he turned to directing, Mr. Leguizamo said paid product placement is “the wave of the future.”

Part of the story line
“Just find an organic way of using the product in the story line without featuring it and if the product is cool it will subliminally sell itself,” he said.

In a reference to his new 12-epsiode role as ER’s Dr. Victor Clemente, he said, “I might even take a shot of Hennessy in an empty exam room.”


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