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Sean Burns
Courtesy of Sean Burns

Some people don’t give any damns about the Los Angeles Rams (or the New England Patriots) in Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII football game. But the Super Bowl ads? They are the highlight of their Super Day.

Sean Burns is ecstatic that thousands of people will watch the game just for the ads. Burns, a Racine native, is the writer of “Close Talker,” a 30-second spot for Colgate Total toothpaste chosen to air during the third quarter.

A little bit of Racine in Super Bowl LIII

Advertising time for this year’s Super Bowl is selling for more than $5 million for each 30-second spot. Burns’s ad is one of a half-dozen that he and his two-person team at the Red Fuse Communications agency in New York City developed, touting the different strengths or benefits of the reformulated toothpaste.

“We would play with each one and play out each one in a loud way,” Burns said. “What can you do with whitening…with sensitivity…with the breath? It would be good for someone who is a close talker.”

All the Super Bowl LIII ads will run on television, but only “Close Talker” will air on Super Sunday. The spot stars actor Luke Wilson. The ad can best be easily described with a cliché: It is an “in your face” ad for the product it promotes.

Burns, who graduated from Washington Park High School in 1984, had his first turn at the advertising world’s international spotlight in 2013 when “Ship My Pants,” an ad he wrote for Kmart’s Store to Home shipping service won four awards at the prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

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How they snagged the gig

Requests for proposals for a Colgate Total ad for the Super Bowl were sent to Red Fuse and affiliated agencies seven months ago…when NFL teams were just starting their pre-season summer training camps. About a hundred scripts were submitted. None were accepted. Then Burns and his team – writer Brandon McCoy and art director Jay Machain – began brainstorming.
Their ad went through vigorous testing, including screenings for preview audiences, before it was accepted by Colgate-Palmolive.

A dozen directors are typically auditioned before an ad is shot, Burns says. That was not the case with “Close Talker.” Only one director, Bryan Buckley, who The New York Times once dubbed “The King of the Super Bowl,” was approached for the assignment. The Colgate Total ad will be his 59th Super Bowl commercial.

How Burns got his start in advertising

Burns credits his parents, Jo Ellen and the late John Burns, as encouraging him. Both were educators. Park’s theater is named after his father.

“It always comes back to family and what they encourage you to do,” Burns said. “What do they let you run with? You get some crazy idea in your head and they don’t say ‘no.’ I had a sense that whatever I wanted to do with my life would’ve been okay with them.”

He was drawn to advertising watching the “amazing” Michael Jordan television ads for Nike.

“Nike ruled the television when I was a kid…the old Spike Lee Nike commercials,” he said. “They just seemed very fresh and culturally relevant and influenced a culture: Go out and buy Nikes!”

He studied journalism and advertising at the University of Wisconsin. The advertising world is famously not conducive to long-term employment. When an ad agency loses an account, jobs are also lost. Burns has previously worked for four other agencies in Milwaukee, New York, and Chicago before moving back to New York last year to work for Red Fuse. Red Fuse, which is part of a larger agency, was created to service all of Colgate-Palmolive’s global advertising needs, Burns explains.

The flame of inspiration

Inspiration can come to an advertising copywriter at any time. Burns keeps a pad and pen next to his bed.

“It’s always when you are outside of work that you come up with the ideas. When you are just living your life. I think your subconscious does a lot of work for you,” he said.

His wife, Jess, is also in advertising and marketing.

“She is completely sympathetic and empathetic to it (the idea that his creative processes are always on),” he said.

More than the game, Burns is focused on the estimated 110 million people who will be watching his 30 seconds of the four-hour broadcast of the hour-long game. The Super Bowl is the television context for his creative work.

“It has just become a spectacle for everyone,” he said. “It is the last event we all watch television for. Someone called it the last American campfire, the last thing we gather around and watch.”

When is Super Bowl LIII?

And so, gather your hot dogs and S’mores, gather around the campfire, and watch Racine’s contribution to Sunday’s big television spectacle. (The ad is estimated to air between 8:30 and 9 p.m. Central time). But kickoff for Super Bowl LIII starts at 5:30 p.m.

Rams or Patriots? Burns does not care who wins.