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Doritos and the decade-long scam for free Super Bowl commercials

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Jacob Chase, Doritos finalist

This Sunday, Doritos will continue its tradition of crowdsourcing its Super Bowl commercials. In its decade-long run, what began as a supposed opportunity for aspirational filmmakers has become a cheap and tacky campaign that exploits creators of free labor and promotion. Like the snack it’s selling, the campaign will leave a bad taste in your mouth.

In 2006, Doritos solicited amateur filmmakers and Hollywood dreamers to produce the junk food maker’s Super Bowl ad on spec — industry jargon for "without pay." Doritos selected five videos from over a thousand submissions, and asked website visitors to vote for which ad would air during the Super Bowl. The chip maker awarded the five creators $10,000 and trip to Detroit, where they attended a Super Bowl party but not the actual football game.

The campaign was a smash hit, spurring good press, tracking well in USA Today’s annual viewer approval polls, and winning Frito-Lay’s PR agency Ketchum a Golden World Award. The campaign instantly became a tradition, and for every Super Bowl since, Doritos brass have awarded the top couple creators varying cash bounties and publicity, while cultivating hundreds of fan-made ads, peppered across YouTube in perpetuity.

The majority of user-made ads receive no payment

While the majority of entrants never received pay for creating Doritos ads, there was a time when the campaign appeared to serve its tacit function as an industry door opener for folks living hundreds of miles from New York and Los Angeles meeting rooms. In a miracle of meta-commentary, the winning video from 2009, created by two brothers from Batesville, Indiana, was titled "Free Doritos." The video helped the Indiana brothers launch their own ad company, Herbert Brothers.

In short order, Doritos gradually evolved the promotion, titled Crash the Super Bowl, from a user-generated gimmick into a neo-millennial brand activation. The voting component became the point; the emphasis on the filmmaker shifted to the fans who could share the commercials en masse over social network. The campaign began to feel like American Idol for commercial directors.

This year’s campaign was produced like a reality television show, replete with its own fan site, hashtag, video shorts, and Crash the Super Bowl Hall of Fame. In recent weeks, the company whittled down hundreds of entrants to three men vying for the single Super Bowl spot. Each contestant got a custom sound bite reel, press sheet, and profile page, including a relatable anecdote and impossibly humble ad budget. Jacob Chase, a Los Angeles movie and TV writer, claimed his commercial, "Doritos Dogs," (above) cost $1,000. That figure hardly covers the rental of one high-end camera, much less location fees, actor and crew rates, and the VFX work for a pile of walking dogs in a trenchcoat.

The gear alone cost $1,000

Fans helped elect a winner by watching the commercials, then voting once "per day, per device." Surely competitors’ doting spouses, parents, friends, and distant relatives flooded their social streams with pleas for everyone they know to vote too, hoping to help their loved one win a million dollars and, exclusive to this year, a chance to work with Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder on an unnamed project in an undefined capacity.

Though Doritos frames the contest like a Hollywood Golden Ticket, winning doesn’t guarantee entry into the film industry. Ryan Thomas Anderson won the campaign in 2014, and hoped to parlay the good will and attention into a successful Kickstarter. Of its $300,000 goal, the untitled movie raised just short of $14,000 pledged from 70 backers. Anderson’s IMDb page only includes one other credit, a film called IMperfect with a TBD release.

More recently, the campaign has become an opportunity for industry vets to leverage pre-established success, producers and assistants hoping to make the transition to director. Last year’s winner, Scott Zabielski, is an executive producer on Comedy Central’s Tosh.0, where he’s worked since 2009. Zabielski beat over 4,900 other entrants — most of whom, it’s safe to assume, have never been executive producers on popular cable TV shows.

Doritos no longer bothers to conceal how its promotion has abandoned the initial premise of being an opportunity for amateur filmmakers and fans of the snack food. The other two contestants in 2016’s promotion are a Los Angeles-based talent manager and a commercial filmmaker in Melbourne. The hopeful upstarts cut along the way gambled time and money on a rigged table.

After a decade, Doritos’ Super Bowl campaign is truly tasteless.

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