Sudafed: Helicopters, Avalanches and Wolves

Things to Do – Find four feet of skiable snow in North America in late October.

The Sudafed client just approved a new national TV campaign I’d written. The idea was simple. The shoot wasn’t. To demonstrate that Sudafed works without any drowsy side effects, we enlisted endorsements from first responders organizations – public safety groups that require 100% mental clarity.

With more than 28,000 members, the National Ski Patrol is the leading U.S. authority for on-mountain safety.

Medically speaking, Sudafed has no drowsy side effects. None. Consequently, the National Ski Patrol gave us permission to use their name in a commercial.

So far, so good, but here’s the rub. The commercial would start running in November. That meant we needed to shoot no later than October to make the air date.

Good news: The Canadian Rockies seemed the best bet to have skiable snow in late October. Bad news: You needed a helicopter to get to it. No problem. Up, up and away!

Next stop, Banff, Alberta, Canada (where elk literally roamed the streets). We prepro-ed at the Banff Springs Hotel for a few days before heading to our shoot destination at Revelstoke.

Easier said than done. It’s a harrowing three-hour drive through the mountains in frigid temperatures. At dusk, a wolf pack sauntered across the desolate two lane road, their eyes gleaming in our headlights. (If our car had a flat, we would have sent our young Account Executive out to fix it. He was our human spare.)

King of the Mountain – Breathtaking views from Mount Mackenzie, outside Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada. At 5,620 feet, it’s the longest vertical drop in North America.

The town of Revelstoke is a rustic gem, quietly known for its heli-skiing. There, well-to-do ski aficionados pay handsomely to be airlifted to the mountain peak, then snake their way down through mounds of virgin powder on fat-boy skies.

We arrived in Revelstoke. The caffeine-fueled helicopter ski instructors trained us in avalanche safety (oxymoron), proper use of transceivers, plus the importance of emitting a blood-curdling scream if you’re about to be buried alive. (So rescuers can note your last known position.)

We were ready to shoot, but the weather said no. Snowstorms kept us grounded for the next two days. Tension mounted. So did costs. We were paying for an entire production crew to be on standby. Late in the night on Day Two, we learned there might be a slight break in the weather for a morning takeoff. 

Shortly after dawn, with the snow still coming down, Art Director (and expert skier) Mark Driscoll prepared to board the Bell Ranger with the production crew. Visibility was near zero and the rotors whipped up a stinging blizzard.

I looked at Mark in his bright red snow suit. His face was pale, lips tight and throat clutched. I don’t believe either of us thought this takeoff was a very good idea. But neither said a word. There was too much at stake: the deadlines, preparations and costs. Ready or not, it was go time.

Over the propeller noise, I shouted I’d buy Mark a beer when he got back. In my mind, I hoped I’d wouldn’t have to tell his wife if something went bad.

The helicopter lurched skyward, swallowed by the grey overcast. The chop of the blades faded as the snowflakes drifted down. An eerie stillness.

Happy ending: Mark and the rest of the crew all returned safely. And admittedly, the mountain footage they captured is spectacular. (Watch the commercial below.) But you have to ask: Was it worth the risk? For a cold medicine commercial? Well, it did improve sales…

Click this link to see the other Sudafed commercials in this “First Responders” campaign. Each another story for another time.

ACD/Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. ACD/Art Director: Mark Driscoll. ECD: Mark Schwatka. Producer: John Caffera. Account Executive: John Darrow. Agency: Bates. Director: Don Guy. Editor: John Monte. Client: Steve Robins, Warner-Lambert.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary media history.