The unlikely star of NFLs pregame Super Bowl commercial: A walking, talking Vince Lombardi – USA TODAY

In the wake of a tumultuous 2020, the NFL decided to take a different approach to its pregame Super Bowl ad this year.

It started with a simple thought.

“If Vince Lombardi were to come back,” NFL executive vice president and chief marketing officer Tim Ellis told USA TODAY Sports, “what would he have to say to us?”

The league will attempt to answer that question in a commercial that will air before the coin toss at Super Bowl 55 next week, with the help of an unlikely star — a walking, talking likeness of Lombardi, the late NFL coaching legend whose name now adorns the league’s championship trophy.

Jan 2, 1966; Cleveland, OH, USA; FILE PHOTO; Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi talks to quarterback Bart Starr (15) against the Cleveland Browns during the 1965 NFL Championship game at Cleveland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Boss-USA TODAY Sports

While the real Lombardi died of colon cancer in 1970, Ellis said fans will see a likeness of the coach “walking through everyday America” in the NFL’s ad while delivering a speech, which will replicate the tone and cadence of Lombardi’s voice and use his own words.

“This speech is an amalgamation of his speeches that are essentially rearticulated for today,” Ellis explained. “And I think what comes through is a very strong, positive, human, compassionate, inspiring message for all of us.”

“You’re going to see Vince Lombardi,” he later added. “And it’s going to sound just like him, as well.”

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In an effort to recreate Lombardi more than 50 years after his death, the NFL partnered with creative agency 72andSunny and Digital Domain, an award-winning visual effects studio. The studio used historical footage of Lombardi, practical footage of an actor and “Charlatan,” which the company described in a news release as its “proprietary face-swapping technology.”

Ellis said the NFL also worked hand-in-hand with the Lombardi family throughout the process, including on the development of the script.

“They were very excited,” Ellis said, “because they felt like this was a realistic human portrayal of their father, and it found a way to express the best things about their father.”

The Lombardi ad will have a more serious tone than the NFL’s most recent Super Bowl commercials, which were more of light-hearted spectacles, packed with star cameos. The league won USA TODAY’s Ad Meter with its 2019 ad titled “The 100-Year Game,” and finished sixth last year with a fun, adventurous spot starring 13-year-old Maxwell “Bunchie” Young. (This year’s Lombardi-centric commercial is not eligible for Ad Meter, because it will air prior to the coin toss.)

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Ellis said the shift in tone this year is deliberate, and in line with the league’s overall marketing strategy throughout 2020.

“We, without a doubt, (are) one of the biggest cultural entities in the country,” Ellis said. “So it’s not only important for us to be a good cultural citizen, but also how do you have a hand in shaping culture? How can you be a unifying force and cultural guiding light, when necessary?

“This year, there’s never been a moment in history where I think the country really needed the NFL to be that cultural guiding light and kind of show a level of strength and resilience and compassion.”

To that end, Ellis said the NFL will also air a separate 60-second ad during the game, which will focus on the league’s social justice initiatives. That spot will build on the league’s season-long “It Takes All of Us” brand campaign.

“It essentially says that while our season is ending, our fight for social justice is not,” Ellis said. “So it’s a true stake in the ground and a commitment, which I’m very proud of.”

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.