At the Joy of Dance studio in Toronto, a 50-year-old man in baggy dad jeans is working on his "stank face."
Mugging for the camera crew recording him on this sunny July morning, Michael Hope pulls a tough-guy scowl to go with the hip-hop routine he is rehearsing. But it soon morphs into a frown of concentration. His 10-year-old daughter, Lauren, is showing him up. The pint-sized dancer executes every move with precision. He is perpetually half a beat behind, glancing nervously at the unforgiving wall of mirrors. He stumbles slightly, wipes sweat from his brow.
"I went the wrong way."
In five days, they will perform this dance in front of nearly 1,200 people. He has never danced on stage before.
For dad and daughter, it's a chance to spend some time together and to surprise Lauren's mom, Lynne Hoppen – who will cry, of course she will – at the dance school's big summer recital. For the marketers at Quaker Oats Co., it's a way to latch on to an advertising trend: Featuring real people in surprising, emotional situations is one way to attract impatient viewers on digital media that are crowded with advertising messages.
Tugging heartstrings is a popular way to override people's urge to skip ads, and Toronto-based video production agency Studio M has built a particular expertise in this type of work. It's the shop behind those Christmas videos for WestJet Airlines Ltd. Studio M also helped Telus Corp. thank a customer with an unexpected plane ride and a field full of flowers spelling out her name. For a Kraft Canada campaign, they made a mom weep when she was surprised with a storybook about her written by her family.
The agency is like an emotion factory.
"They all want to have the impact that WestJet had," said Mike Mills, executive producer with Studio M. "But there's still a lot of questioning on how exactly to do it. … It's a challenge to tell those stories in unique ways, and to resonate."
That is what PepsiCo Inc.-owned Quaker is hoping to do. The 138-year-old brand has traditionally had a relatively small digital presence. This year, it issued a challenge to all its advertising agencies to change that.
"Mom is spending more time online," said Lindsay Ho, marketing manager for Quaker in Canada. "There's so much content and so much advertising. This is a really great way to tell an authentic story that traditional advertising doesn't allow you to do."
Much of Quaker's conventional advertising has focused on functional nutritional details, Ms. Ho said. Without an emotional connection, it is harder to be seen online.
Pulling off the surprise took months of preparation. Studio M had not worked with Quaker before; they pitched the company on the idea just before Christmas. Then they began contacting dance schools to find families who might be willing to appear in an ad for Quaker. Lauren told her parents she wanted to audition.
When her family was selected, Ms. Hoppen was told that it would be a "documentary-style" commercial following the kind of busy real-life family that uses its products. The camera crew filmed scenes in the kitchen featuring oatmeal and snacks of granola bars in the car on the way to activities.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hope began taking clandestine hip-hop lessons and secretly practised his moves.
When Joy of Dance school's recital day arrived, a morning rehearsal allowed the camera crew to record some closeups of the daddy-daughter dance – details such as hands or feet moving. All footage of their faces onstage had to be live. When the audience filed in to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition grounds, the auditorium was wired for sound. Six cameras were tasked with different shots, transmitting footage directly to a control booth at the back of the theatre. The director communicated with the crew through walkie-talkies.
These types of campaigns take far more planning to execute than the average ad shoot, since there is just one chance to capture the story.
"If you miss the moment, it's gone," Mr. Mills said. "That is, obviously, a big difference to traditional commercial production, where you can get to take 39 of the milk pour."
Ms. Hoppen had a camera on her in the line to get in, for what she thought was a straightforward Quaker ad. With her family in the spotlight, it was a bad time for her husband not to show up.
The ruse was that Lauren had forgotten part of her costume. Mr. Hope left to retrieve it, and in reality, he went backstage. Under the direction of the Studio M creatives, he sent text messages to his wife telling her he was rushing to get back for the performance. The crew around her feigned ignorance.
"She was annoyed," Mr. Mills said. "Yeah, she was super annoyed."
When the lights went down, Mr. Hope's seat was still empty.
Lauren appeared from the wings, and dedicated her performance to her mom and dad. The seat was still empty as Lauren began to dance. Suddenly, as Ms. Hoppen watched, her husband appeared on stage too.
"I went from laughing to tears," she said afterward. "The whole place went crazy."
The video is fine-tuned for maximum sniffles. In a voice-over, Mr. Hope talks about the feeling that haunts all parents: That in the blink of an eye his three kids will be going off to college, getting married and building lives that won't allow him to see them every day. He speaks of the pressure to make this time count.
For Quaker, the hope is that this will hit close to home for the parents who are its target customers, and that they will share the video in the types of social-media posts where friends and family are instructed to "get out the Kleenex."
Studio M is also hoping for success, of course, but Mr. Mills worries it could become more difficult to surprise people.
"One thing we've talked about is, do we need to start going in with aliases," he said. "You Google any of our names and you get WestJet Christmas pretty quickly ... We'll just put on wigs and have those little detective mustache-noses."
The Hope family, who were paid an honorarium for their time, enjoyed the WestJet commercial, and are crossing their fingers that this story has a similar heartwarming effect.
"If they're done right, they're beautiful," Ms. Hoppen said of marketing videos featuring real people. "And if not done right, you don't get past the first 10 seconds."
"We hope it's something people can relate to," Mr. Hope said. "We hope it's not one of those things that comes on when you're trying to watch another video and you skip it."