Alcoa Presents Fantastic Finishes

Twenty-five years have rumbled by, but I still wait for the trumpets. Don’t you? Every single NFL game, the two-minute warning comes – “Baseball has the seventh inning stretch,” George Carlin used to say, “football has the two-minute warning” – and the game is close, and the tension builds, and the players walk to the sidelines for last instructions, and the screen goes to commercial, and where are those trumpets?

Well, wait, it did not begin with trumpets. First, there was a black screen. Then a drumroll. A logo would appear in the middle of the screen, a boxy logo that looked something like the letter “A.” And then the blaring sound – were those even trumpets? They sounded more like bugles. They always sounded just off key, as if someone mistakenly bumped the record player while walking by. Each note was a little bit higher. “Wa-wa-wa-wa, wa-wa-wa, wa-wa-wa, WAH!” And between the fifth and sixth “Wa” the voice of John Facenda or Harry Kalas intoned.

“Alcoa presents … FANTASTIC FINISHES!”

Can you still hear it? If you are 40 or older, I’ll bet you can. Every now and again, a thoroughly 1980s thing will just pop in your life – a Ms. Pac-Man machine glows in the back of a restaurant, the song “Come On Eileen” plays on the radio, you see someone trying to solve Rubik’s Cube – and a wave of nostalgia rolls over you. But Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes are different. Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes somehow don’t feel like a part of the past. They feel urgent and current. For six or seven years or eight years -- nobody seems too sure about the length of time -- every two minute warning at every pivotal football game on Sunday would lead into a the Alcoa’s Fantastic Finish.

Example: Kalas (at first it was Facenda, the voice of God, but he died in 1984) would say a year. He might say: 1985.

“1985,” Kalas would say. Then a football scene would pop on the screen. It might be Philadelphia. Overtime. Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski drops back to throw. “Jaworski throws a pass to Mike Quick,” Kalas would say. “Which he is! Very quick!” I can still hear Kalas saying those words in his inimitable voice – “Which he is! Very quick!” -- and then we all watch Mike Quick run away from defenders, a 99-yard touchdown catch, and the Eagles win!

Then, there would be a 30-second Alcoa spot about recycling or the importance of aluminum in making lighter cars or something. Alcoa stands for the “Aluminum Company of America.”

And then we would go back for the last two minutes of the real football game with another Fantastic Finish possible.

They would do this during every game. They would do it so regularly that announcers like Dick Enberg or Pat Summerall would often lead into those commercials by saying something like, “And here’s another Alcoa Fantastic Finish.”

It was such an extraordinary and perfect blend of timing and marketing and advertising that it didn’t seem like any of that. It all felt part of the game, part of the moment. And if phsyiologist Ivan Pavlov’s dogs began to salivate whenever they heard a bell, I still tend to sit up straight at the two-minute warning and wait for those trumpets.

But the best part of the story is how Fantastic Finishes came to life in the first place.

* * *

First, you have to put yourself in the time. It was the late 1970s, and there was an energy crisis going on. In those days, an energy crisis did not mean gas prices skyrocketing over two or three or four dollars a gallon. No, it meant there was no gas to buy at all. Gas stations would close except for a couple of hours every day. There were odd days and even days when, based on the last digit of your license plate, you were often not even allowed to buy gas. The lines were so long that people were regularly running out of gas while waiting to buy gas.

And Alcoa had a problem.

For the most part, Alcoa had stayed under the public’s radar, which was fine with them. They were, at the time, the world’s leading producer of aluminum. America needed lots and lots of aluminum, for beverage cans and aluminum siding and countless building materials and a million other things. Alcoa was happy to stay in the background and keep producing.

But the energy crisis changed things in America. The Alcoa people met with the people at their ad agency, HBM/Creamer Advertising. The Alcoa brain trust was not especially savvy about marketing or advertising or anything like that because they did not need to be. They explained the problem: Alcoa used four percent of America’s energy. FOUR PERCENT. One company.

“That’s a real number,” says Alan Linderman, who was media director for HBM/Creamer and was in the meeting. “I mean, you don’t forget a number like that. Their fear was that as America waited on gas lines, odd and even days, all that stuff, that people would turn on them. They worried people would say, ‘Wait a minute, let me get this straight: I’m on a gas line at 4 a.m. so you can drink soda out of a can?”

And so the task was clear: HBM/Creamer was to get out the message that aluminum is very important, vital even. They gave Linderman and his group a $10 million budget, which was not in the ballpark of what, say, Budweiser or GE was spending on their marketing and advertising.

“It was a significant chunk of change,” Linderman says. “But it was not enough to tell the world how essential aluminum is. … The thing we had going for us was that Alcoa was not particularly insightful about any of this. They didn’t understand marketing. They didn’t understand advertising. They did not pretend to understand any of it. They gave us the mission and then left us alone.”

Linderman and his group went to work. Of course in those days, no information was digital, so the staff poured over millions of actual pages of data in trying to find out how they could get the word out about aluminum. Nielsen ratings. Opinion surveys. Circulation numbers. One of Linderman’s enduring memories was seeing all those young people digging into the research. It took months.

They had decided the best way to get the message out on aluminum was to reach the most influential people – the business leaders, the local politicians, the people who called into talk radio shows, the presidents of Optimists and Kiwanis Clubs – and so they tentatively planned to make it a magazine campaign. They thought they would plaster their advertisements all over Forbes and Business Week.

But, as they pored over the data, they kept finding something odd. The people they wanted were not necessarily readers of Forbes. The researchers looked at news programs on television, but they couldn’t find enough of their audience there either. They looked at prime time television. They looked at newspapers and other magazines. They looked at sports too, things like college football, but no matter where they looked they kept running into walls. No single thing seemed to capture the people they wanted to reach. And then, gradually, strangely, they came to realize that the data was pointing in the same direction.

Their audience – the one that would best get word out about aluminum – was watching NFL football.

* * *

Everything was just less sophisticated in sports television then. The graphics were huge so people could actually see them on tiny televisions. The camera angles were limited. Highlights were rare – people would gather around their televisions for halftime of Monday Night Football (narrated memorably by Howard Cosell) because, for most people, it was their first and only chance to see highlights from Sunday’s games.

The advertising system was straightforward. Everybody from Miller Beer to the smallest advertisers was put into a rotating pool – what was called a “horizontal and vertical rotation.” Your commercial might be in the first quarter this game, in the second quarter next game, in the third quarter the following game and so on. Your commercial might be at the beginning of the quarter this time, at the end of the quarter next time, and so on. The company had no control over when their commercial appeared. The idea of sponsored time in sports television did not exist then.

But Allan Linderman wanted to change that. He wanted the two-minute warning.

Their voluminous research showed that not only was their target audience watching football, but they were at their fevered peak at the end of games. Makes sense. The two-minute warning was where it was at – Linderman and his team HAD to have it for Alcoa.

Two small problems. Well, not so small.

One, the system didn’t work that way. You couldn’t just GET the two-minute warning. It wasn’t for sale. Companies spending much more money than Alcoa could not get a fixed spot like that.

Two, even if they could convince the networks and NFL to give them the spot, they could not really afford. It. All they could afford was a 30-second commercial in two NFL games a week. The two-minute warning, in those days, lasted a full minute and was good time.

What followed was a series of creative solutions. It began when HBM/Creamer creative director John Waldron came up with an idea. He asked: What if they attached their 30-second commercial to a football vignette of some kind and made all this part of the game? It could be like a partnership between the NFL and Alcoa? Again, this had never been done on television. The millions of sports sponsorships to come – the “You Make the Call” commercials, the Toyota Halftimes, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowls, the Sports Authority Fields, on and on -- were all but unthinkable in 1980. Waldron thought it was worth a try.

So he went to NFL Films to meet with Steve Sabol and he pitched this idea: Could they gather some of the greatest finishes in NFL history to pair with Alcoa commercials? Waldron had only two requirements. One, the ending could not be a field goal. Field goals are boring. And two, the clip had to be in color.

Sabol – never one to miss an opportunity to promote the NFL – saw the possibilities immediately. Together, they found 15 or so great endings that worked well. They called John Facenda to say a few words behind each highlight. Waldron named it: “Fantastic Finishes.” Sabol, who also appreciated alliteration, loved the name.

“It was such a simple but beautiful idea,” Sabol would say before he died in 2012. “It would be the last two minutes of a game and then you would watch a Fantastic Finish. And man, you were really pumped up after seeing that.”

Linderman would always remember when Waldron came back to Pittsburgh after his meetings with Sabol. Waldron just sat in his office. He stared out the window for a long time with this beatific look on his face. “With creative directors at ad agencies,” Linderman says, “you learn to sort of leave them alone. They march to their own beat. So I just sat there quietly while John just kept looking out the window.

“Finally, he looks at me, and he still has that same smile on his face. And he says, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this.’”

* * *

Coming up with the idea for Fantastic Finishes was only the first hard part. The second part – even harder in many ways -- was getting anyone to go along with it. They went to CBS and NBC and pitched the concept. The networks were surprisingly willing to help Alcoa lock in at the two-minute warning. But for that to happen, the networks needed Alcoa to buy the whole 60 seconds. They could not afford to just lose 30 seconds in advertising.

And then came another breakthrough. This time it came from a CBS ad salesman named Joe Abruzzese, who is now president of advertising sales for Discovery Communications. Linderman remembers that Abruzzese really wanted to make this thing work but couldn’t come up with a way to make the money add up.

Then he came up with an idea: What if the NFL reformatted the broadcast so that the 30-second football piece in Fantastic Finishes was not considered a commercial but was instead just PART OF THE GAME. That means the NFL would pay for it, and CBS or NBC could add a different 30-second spot somewhere else during the game.

Again, this was all brand new. Nobody knew if the NFL would go for it. Linderman and Abruzzese went to visit with Val Pinchbeck, who was the head of broadcasting with the NFL. Pinchbeck was something of a legend, the guy who annually would construct the NFL schedule by hand. Linderman and Abruzzese had a big pitch planned, complete with visuals and video and numbers. They did not get to present it. After explaining the concept in broad terms, Pinchbeck stopped them.

“He sort of said, ‘Well, of course, that’s fine,’” Linderman says. “It was almost like he was saying, ‘Why are you even bothering me with this stuff? Go ahead. Do whatever you want.’”

And so, Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes were born.

* * *

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton used to have an Alcoa Fantastic Finishes exhibit. This was in the days when there wasn’t much in the way of interactive displays at the Hall of Fame. Mostly there were photos and bronze busts. So the Alcoa Fantastic Finishes display seemed the cutting edge of 1980s technology. There was a television. There was an old fashioned telephone receiver. You would press a button, put the phone to your ear, and watch Alcoa Fantastic Finishes. I recall it being the most popular exhibit at the Hall of Fame.

Well, of course it was. The idea is indelible. The NFL, more perhaps than any other league, has had these amazing endings. I can still see many of Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes in my mind. They are surprisingly difficult to find on the Internet, but in my memory I can see the one where Roger Staubach’s pass to Drew Pearson beat the Vikings, the original Hail Mary (well, not really the ORIGINAL – the term was used before that pass – but it was the play that popularized the term).

I can see Ahmad Rashad catching a Hail Mary against the Cleveland Browns, one of the low moments of my life (I would always turn the channel when it came on). Though Linderman says that the Fantastic Finishes could not be field goals, I’m fairly sure I remember them showing Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal.

There was the Holy Roller, the play where, Oakland’s quarterback Ken Stabler fumbled the ball forward and tight end Dave Casper bobbled and pushed the ball forward until he fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown that beat San Diego (the play would not be legal today). There was Philadelphia’s Herman Edwards picking up that last minute fumble against the Giants, the Miracle at the Meadowlands. There was a play where Seattle won late on a Curt Warner touchdown.

For Super Bowl XVI, the advertising people tried something bold and unprecedented. They wanted to make the Super Bowl Fantastic Finish the Dwight Clark catch that had gotten the 49ers into the Super Bowl just two weeks earlier. These days, that would be easy to do but in 1982 it was like trying to get mail across the country by Pony Express. Linderman says they barely made it. But they did make it. And by then, Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes was a part of professional football.

“I remember one of my business school fraternity brothers was working for Miller Beer’s agency,” Linderman says. “He called me one day before the Super Bowl, and he said – excuse the language – ‘You (bleeped) me.’

“I said, ‘How about saying hello?’ He said, ‘I’ve got three minutes in the Super Bowl, and I can’t get near the two-minute warning because of you.’ As you might imagine, I took great joy in that.”

By the end of the Fantastic Finishes run – and nobody seems exactly sure when that was, though it seems to be around 1986 or 1987 –Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes had been seen by more than two and a half billion people. OK, it was not two and a half billion DIFFERENT people, but still. Alcoa kept a metric of how people perceived aluminum, and their approval rating skyrocketed over 70% after the Fantastic Finishes. Alcoa has been a member of Fortune’s “Most Admired Metal Companies” list every single year for 30 years.

After a while, the energy crisis lessened and Alcoa switched the theme of its own commercials from “Aluminum is essential” to “Please recycle.” Steve Sabol would note that recycling soared while the commercials were playing. All the while, the Fantastic Finishes stayed the same.

In the end, every move forward just needs a start. Legendary CBS producer Frank Chirkinian was the first to put a camera in the Goodyear Blimp, but he would always say that if he had not done it someone else would have. Companies and television and sports were all coming together in the 1970s and 1980s, and it was inevitable that there would be more and more involved deals and a closer relationship among them all.

Still, the Alcoa deal was a breakthrough. In time, Alcoa started doing similar things in other sports. The IBM “You make the call” commercials – where they would show a play and ask the television audience to play official or umpire – brought an interactive feel to sports television advertising. The Apple 1984 commercial – shown only once, at the 1984 Super Bowl – was one of the first, if not the first, big event commercials. Miller Lite’s commercials where they would have sports stars argue whether the beer was less filling or tasted great had its own impact.

Then, that’s all business and marketing. What made Alcoa’s Fantastic Finishes so original and so influential was that it blurred the lines between what is advertising and what is the game – a line that is all but gone today. With two minutes left in the game, you did not go to the bathroom. You did not run off and get a snack. You watched Fantastic Finishes. I was 13 when they started in 1980, around 20 when they ended around 1986 or 1987. And it doesn’t matter how much time goes by, with two minutes left in the game, a part of me still listens for the trumpets.