“There’s a line between cute and horrifying. That line was crossed,” the Huffington Post argued. “Mountain Dew’s Puppy Monkey Baby Super Bowl spot is as odd as it is addictive,” Adweek opined. And in Forbes, the piece entitled “Why ‘Puppy Monkey Baby’ Was the Best Commercial of Super Bowl 2016,” began by admitting, “Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: the Puppy Monkey Baby is horrible.”
As soon as it aired on February 7, 2016, the Super Bowl ad for Mountain Dew’s energy drink “Kickstart” was trending online. The commercial starred a strikingly bizarre creature with the head of a pug, the body of a monkey and the legs of a baby. Diaper-clad, the strange critter kicked open a trap door in an apartment where three dudes were chilling on a couch. He carried a bucket of Mountain Dew Kickstart and repeated his name — “Puppy Monkey Baby” — in a haunting, repetitive, Pokémon-like manner. He then distributed the drinks, licked a man on the face and led a conga line with the men out of their apartment. The end.
The response was as polarized as could be, with a mix of disgust and adulation exploding online. And though you may not think being called a “Horror-Hallucination of Brand Awareness” was a good thing, it turns out that that’s exactly what creators Monty Pera and Don Marshall Wilhelmi were going for.
Monty Pera, creative director and art director of “Puppy Monkey Baby”: In 2016, Don and I were working for BBDO advertising agency. We’d met at McCann years earlier and became friends. Then I encouraged him to come over to BBDO, and we became creative partners.
Don Marshall Wilhelmi, creative director and copywriter of “Puppy Monkey Baby”: “Puppy Monkey Baby” was our first assignment for Mountain Dew. We were on some other account and we got a call in July or August before the Super Bowl and were put on this assignment.
We didn’t know that it was a Super Bowl ad at first though. We knew it was a TV spot, but they hadn’t decided yet if it was going to be a Super Bowl spot, so we were just going about our business trying to create a concept. Then we got a call telling us it was for the Super Bowl, which just ups the ante on everything. A Super Bowl spot to a client is huge. It’s probably the biggest TV investment that they can make because it’s one of the few times during the year where people pay attention to ads. So when a brand chooses to do one, what they’re looking for is to get attention — they want to get talked about.
That being said, there’s kind of this running gag in the ad world that, in Super Bowl spots, the most popular ads have cute puppies, babies doing something silly, or there’s a monkey, as there were a few years in a row where monkeys were in everything.
Pera: Those are kind of all the familiar tropes of the Super Bowl ad. Those are the ones that win the ad meters and various ranking systems that the industry uses to measure these things. For creatives, it’d become kind of a cliché to have a talking baby or a monkey or a dog, so we thought, “Let’s try using them all.”
Wilhelmi: It was really just an inside joke between us. They wanted a Super Bowl ad, so why not just take all the great Super Bowl ads and mash them together and see what happens? But it tickled us so much when we were talking about it that we decided to write it up.
Pera: While it started out as a joke, it ended up being sort of serendipitous for the product because, strategically, Mountain Dew Kickstart had these three main ingredients: Mountain Dew, caffeine and fruit juice — or, something that was just barely legally fruit juice. Once Don found that connection, we thought that maybe it was more than just some silly idea.
Wilhelmi: TV shows like to kind of inflate what it’s like to pitch an idea to a client. They make it seem like there’s this one big meeting and you pitch it and then it’s this big deal. It’s not really like that. While every client is a bit different, you generally pitch a few different ideas and you have scripts and a few mood boards for each, which are just these still images that get you in the headspace for what you’re talking about. This was probably the second or third time we were pitching to them on this assignment and “Puppy Monkey Baby” was our favorite and our boss’s favorite, so that was the recommend.
Pera: I can’t remember what any of the other ideas were, but that was definitely the favorite. Though I do remember, just before the meeting, we had the script and the mood boards and I’d made this really bad, Frankenstein-like Photoshop image of him, which was wisely deemed not appropriate.
Wilhelmi: Our boss was very much like, “I like this, get rid of that because that’ll just scare the shit out of them.”
Pera: Definitely the right choice.
Wilhelmi: I remember the meeting because it was in an odd place. Typically we would have the meeting at the agency or at the client’s headquarters, but this was in a rented office space in Midtown. Monty and I tend to have this bad habit of working on a presentation all the way up until the last minute, and while we were presenting, some of the people on our own team hadn’t seen it yet. As we were presenting, one of the people on our team was just crying laughing, so we thought that was a good sign.
These are all people who work in the ad world, so they got the joke about puppies and monkeys and babies pretty quickly. While the ad would get a reputation for being super weird, in a strange way, it made a lot of sense to the client. Like Monty said, there was this product with three things put together and we’re going to take three things from Super Bowl ads that people love, so it was weird but also on-brand and something Mountain Dew would definitely do given their reputation.
Pera: We had a lot of conversations about this during our meetings with them, but there’s something about Mountain Dew that’s sort of an anomaly — that’s sort of baked into their DNA. It’s this bright green drink with a bunch of sugar and caffeine, it’s not this homogenous drink like Coke and Pepsi.
Anyway, they see Mountain Dew as really unique, and there is this amazing amount of loyalty for it. There are some really hardcore Mountain Dew drinkers and that’s their thing, so it’s a very unique product and that certainly informed the tone of their advertising, which is why they went for “Puppy Monkey Baby.”
Wilhelmi: The pitch went over really well — like, surprisingly well. Everyone seemed to like it right away. But, in advertising, that’s just the first step.
Wilhelmi: Typically what happens, if this was just a regular old ad, the client says, “Great, we love this one, go make it,” but with a Super Bowl ad it’s a much higher profile because it’s such a big investment. So this had to get buy-in all the way to the top and part of that is testing. The thing is, it’s really tough for an ad like “Puppy Monkey Baby” to go through testing.
Pera: There’s different kinds of testing, but in the case of “Puppy Monkey Baby,” we made what’s called an animatic, which is a really low-fi animated version of your commercial. This is before you hire a director or anything, so it’s purely from us and what we’re thinking about.
Wilhelmi: The testing went really bad.
Pera: Oh yeah.
Wilhelmi: It went very, very poorly. The client hires a third party to test these things and they claimed that this was the most polarizing ad they’d ever tested, and polarizing isn’t good in the testing world. Most clients don’t want half of the people hating their ad. If you were looking for a reason not to do it, they had lots of reasons not to do it.
The good thing was that the people who liked it really, really liked it, but the testing company very specifically didn’t recommend the ad. They told them not to do it. To the client’s credit though, they said, “Nope, we’re gonna do it anyway.”
Pera: Mountain Dew really stuck their neck out, both with the testing and internally. Mountain Dew is owned by Pepsi and Pepsi does a lot of conservative advertising, so the Mountain Dew brand manager, Greg Lyons, had to sell it up the chain there. It took a lot of courage.
Wilhelmi: Once you pull the trigger, you have to go make it, and “Puppy Monkey Baby” was one of the weirdest productions ever. When you make a character like this, drawing it is easy because there’s no physics involved, but when you make it, there are a lot of decisions to be made. What is a Puppy Monkey Baby? What breed of dog is your puppy? What kind of monkey is your monkey? Which piece is what?
Pera: Also, what is the age of each part? It’s a baby and a puppy, but is the monkey a young monkey, or could it be an adult? We had a lot of weird intellectual conversations about it.
Wilhelmi: We were helped a little bit because we knew that the puppy was going to lick the face of one of the guys in the commercial. We knew it was going to be “Puppy” — lick — “Monkey” — lick — “Baby” — lick, and that was there from the very beginning, so the head made sense as a puppy. The diaper was a big help too, as we wanted to be able to separate the monkey from the baby, so the legs just made sense for the baby. That left the monkey for the middle, which worked because the long arms are really fun.
There were also a lot of production realities with how you want it to look. We didn’t want it to be a slick CGI character that was just placed in a room. We wanted a more Muppet-puppet-type thing, so we wanted to do it as practically as possible.
Pera: In our director search, we had some directors who thought it would be a CGI animal, but the guy we ended up hiring, Ulf Johansson, had worked a lot with practical effects and he had a really quirky style. He was based in London and he had a lot of relationships with puppeteers in London, so he had a strong vision for how to pull this off. We awarded him the job and shot it in London because all the resources were there already.
Wilhelmi: Ultimately, it took five puppeteers to control Puppy Monkey Baby. One guy was on the floor doing the feet and imitating this sort of toddler shuffle, then there was a puppeteer on each arm because each arm had its own stuff to do. The head had to be upright the whole time so that’s another puppeteer, plus someone for his tail and his torso. There was also a choreographer to be sure all five puppeteers moved in concert. This was all happening while those three actors were on the couch pretending those puppeteers weren’t there — they did a great job.
It was mostly practical, but the puppy head was done separately. The puppet had a head and a tongue too, but we wanted more realistic movement and expressions for it, so we auditioned a bunch of pugs for the role of the head. Ultimately, we went with a dog named Lottie because she was calm enough to sit for a 3D scan of her head.
Then, separately, we shot the dog being carried around on a green screen and licking peanut butter off of a balloon for the licking part. We probably have 15 minutes of footage somewhere of a dog just licking a balloon. Anyway, we took that footage and put it on the puppet in post.
Pera: Later on, when it came out, people were criticizing the “bad CG,” and we were like, “We spent so much time making this puppet!”
Pera: The shoot took two days in December, and it went really smoothly. There were all of these happy little accidents with how weird and jerky the puppet’s movements were, which is something we never could have had with CGI. Post took about four or five weeks and it went pretty smoothly too, but we did have a problem with his voice.
Wilhelmi: From the beginning, we knew that he was only going to say his name. That was always in the script because it had this nice cadence to it — “Puppy Monkey Baby” — but it was tough to figure out what he was going to sound like. We cast a pretty wide net for casting, but we didn’t want word to get out about the ad either, so we had to audition people with other words like, “Funky Money Lady” or something like that.
Pera: We auditioned some heavy hitter voice talent, but ultimately, it ended up being Don. The client had heard him doing it in the meetings and he always liked Don’s voice for it, so it was the client’s idea to just use Don.
Wilhelmi: Yeah, that’s me, with some effects on my voice.
Pera: They made a doll of it later and each of my kids have one. Every so often, I just hear Don’s voice say “Puppy Monkey Baby” out of nowhere. It’s very strange.
Wilhelmi: The ad was coming together really nicely in post and we were thrilled with the final product. We loved it, it was just everything we hoped it could be. The people at Mountain Dew loved it too, so it was just smooth sailing from there.
Pera: Someone on the account team was in the war room, monitoring social media right after the commercial aired, and the response was huge.
Wilhelmi: Apparently it was trending even before the next spot was over. It was a big response, so it was exciting. It was a good start for sure.
Lara O’Reilly, Business Insider, February 7, 2016, excerpt from “Mountain Dew’s Weird ‘Puppy Monkey Baby’ Super Bowl Ad Completely Split Viewers’ Opinions”: Some think it’s the best of the game; others think it’s the stuff of nightmares. The 30-second spot, created by BBDO New York, depicts a “Puppy Monkey Baby,” a hybrid creature drawing on some of the best stars of Super Bowl ads from previous years.
The Frankensteinesque Puppy Monkey Baby monster prowls around a living room, repeating the words “puppy monkey baby.” Then the creature licks a man’s face. The surreal spot was polarizing. Judging by the Twitter response, people either loved it or hated it. In any event, it grabbed attention among the dozens of other brands airing ads on game day. The #PuppyMonkeyBaby hashtag was trending on Twitter long after the ad aired.
Wilhelmi: We knew it was going to be polarizing, and we liked that it was polarizing. Though I couldn’t tell if people were leaning into the fun of it being creepy or if they were genuinely creeped out. I think it was mostly fun though, because people were also making birthday cakes of it for five-year-olds.
Don Caldwell, internet historian and editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme: “Puppy Monkey Baby” was clearly a successful commercial. The viewership was huge, and it topped several lists as the best ad of the night. It’s also kind of obvious that the whole point of the ad was grabbing people’s attention and creating online buzz, which it definitely did.
When it comes to Super Bowl ads, there are a few examples of ones that really go viral. The best example is the Old Spice one with Isaiah Mustafa from 2010. That’s kind of the gold standard of the viral internet Super Bowl commercial. Since then, many other companies have tried to follow suit, though that’s true of a lot of advertising in general over the past decade — the point is to go viral online.
Generally, even for the biggest Super Bowl ads, the online buzz only lasts a short time and “Puppy Monkey Baby” was just like that. It blew up and died quickly, and that was basically it. I’m sure there are some who still love it though, as Mountain Dew has a huge place in internet culture.
Pera: What’s cool was — and this is a credit to Pepsi and Mountain Dew — they didn’t exploit the character in a commercial way afterwards. They did a doll and a few other things, but he wasn’t put on every point-of-sale and they didn’t make any more commercials with him. It was always about that one spot. It aired there and a few more times and that was it, so he kind of was able to remain special.
Wilhelmi: While “Puppy Monkey Baby” trending was cool, what happened after the commercial aired was even more exciting — that was really the best part of this whole experience for us. There was all this crazy fan art and cakes and cake pops and people making game mods with the character. It was so cool!
Kyle Burles, illustrator: I don’t know anyone who liked Puppy Monkey Baby as much as I did. Right after it aired, I drew him in a Dark Knight Returns parody cover, and I still draw him now sometimes. He was the best marketing thing ever. I just love people’s reactions to him. So many people were viscerally offended by him and tell me that they despise him, so that just makes me want to draw him all the more.
Wilhelmi: People made some very impressive costumes too.
Jose Cuellar, Puppy Monkey Baby fan: I usually like to plan out my Halloween costumes in advance, but in 2017, I was in the costume shop and I saw a pug mask and it occurred to me that I could make a Puppy Monkey Baby costume.
The response I got was kind of all over the place. People who knew the ad loved it and wanted to take pictures with me, but a lot of people were just confused. One guy wanted to fight me because he didn’t like that I was wearing a diaper to his party, so I got out of there before anything happened and went to a bar instead. Fortunately, they let me in with my can of Mountain Dew Kickstart.
Pera: There were also oil paintings and a crochet version of a doll. People got tattoos of him, too. It was touching, but it was also strange for it to be coupled with all these people saying they were so disturbed by it. I mean, for us, we knew it was weird, but we also found him to be kind of charming.
Wilhelmi: Some people called him a creepy demon, but we always saw him as this charming oddball.
Todd Hooper, tattoo artist and owner of Pacific Sangha Tattoo in Redondo Beach, CA: I saw the commercial when it first came out and I loved it. Right away, I went online and saved a picture of it in my phone for a tattoo. A few years later, I decided that I just had to fucking get this thing done, so I asked one of my artists and he just did it one day.
When people see it, there are two big responses I get. People who know the commercial say, “No fucking way! That’s so awesome!” Other people have no idea what it is, so I play the ad for them and they say, “It’s so disturbing!” Both reactions, of course, are great. That’s why I got it. I mean, the thing is weird as fuck and he’s highly disturbing, which, in my mind, makes it amazing. He’s a fucking beautiful disaster.
It kind of reminds me of that movie Freaks from the 1930s. It’s about a bunch of circus freaks, and the theme of the movie is that the “freaks” are the caring and cool people, while the stars and the “beautiful” people are total fucking assholes. That’s kind of my whole thing too. I’m kind of a weirdo. I’ve been in the tattoo culture most of my life, and in my experience, the weirdest-looking people are just the best people. That’s like my whole philosophy and Puppy Monkey Baby goes right along with that. He’s weird as fuck, but he’s fucking awesome. That’s why so many people still love the guy.