They first appeared during the Super Bowl, and it probably made you do a double-take: A Taco Bell commercial with a bunch of old people doing young-people things, set to the sounds of fun.'s pop megahit "We Are Young." Standard enough idea, but with one very notable twist—the version of "We Are Young" being played is entirely Spanish language, with garbled lyrics courtesy of Google Translate. It's a simple twist, but a creative one, and it makes the commercials clear standouts in a sea of boring ol' English-language pop-soundtracked commercials.
We talked with two of the guys at Deutsch, the ad agency behind the series of ads for Taco Bell—Senior Copywriter Brian Siedband and Senior Art Director Gordy Sang—to gain some insight about the motives and inspirations behind the slightly surreal commercials.
POPDUST: What was the thinking behind the commercials? Who first came up with the idea?
Gordy Sang, Senior Art Director: Brian and I are on the same wavelength, all the time, sort of uncomfortably, and this idea was our collective brainchild. We were just kind of thinking of, 'What kind of says Taco Bell?' We were given the "Live Mas" tagline, and Taco Bell internally and externally claimed to be an American fast food company that serves Mexican fast food, and even their tagline, "Live Mas," is half-English, half-Spanish. We were thinking "What embodies that best?" We stumbled upon this rich area of just doing these American pop culture songs in full Español.
Brian Siedband, Senior Copy Writer: It's kind of like a musical celebration of what Taco Bell really is, kind of a unique American/Mexican/Spanish fusion.
Was the idea hard to sell to your superiors? Did they understand what you were going for?
Gordy: What we did immediately was do demos of the songs in Spanish. People seemed to like them.
Brian: Yeah, people sparked to them, people connected to different songs in different ways. The key for us was to have 8 out of 10 people recognize the song, because if people didn't recognize the song, they were just lost and confused.
Gordy: It took us a while to find the zone on how to execute song songs, because if they were perfectly translated, it just kind of sounded like the Spanish market version, which didn't seem that special.
Brian: It was a little awkward, because when the songs were translated into Spanish, it was ten syllables per American syllable. It was fun, but difficult to fit all the syllables into a shorter verse. It gave it a kind of charm, it made it kind of awkward and funny.
Did your superiors get it? Did they give you any pressure to, like, translate the songs more accurately?
Gordy: No, I don't think so, throughout the whole course, we found the happy mild ground of treating the song reverentially—we didn't want to make it a total goof…
Brian: Yeah, we tried cartoony-ish voices, or voices against the style of the originals…
Gordy: But our goal was to have that instant recognition, "Oh this is 'Hello,' by Lionel Richie, the silky smooth sounds of Lionel Richie, but in Spanish. We wanted to capture that, treat it reverently, but at same time, the cramming of the words gave it a twist.
Did you worry that the commercials would offend people, like Spanish speakers?
Gordy: It crossed our minds, no question. We have Spanish speakers in the office, we have friends who are fully Hispanic, and they heard that, they weren't offended at all.
Brian: Yeah, totally. We just wanted to make sure we weren't saying any horrible curses, accidentally.
Did you have any of those songs with lyrics that were a little more contentious?
Brian: When we did 'Big Poppa,' it was slightly more risque, we had to choose words more consciously.
Gordy: We didn't want to have the "Gun up in the waist" line in an ad for Taco Bell!
Were there any songs you wanted to use, but didn't end up using for whatever reason?
Gordy: We had some ideas, recorded some scratch tracks that sound beautiful in Spanish. The other thing, we kind of wanted to hit every genre, hit that range of not just using current popular songs—we tackled that with fun., but "Big Poppa" was more of a 90s hip-hop thing, and then we went with the classic '80s "Hola" with Lionel Richie. The other songs…we scored "In the Air Tonight," "Maniac," "Regulate"—we have a scratch of that, it's pretty wonderful. "Eye of the Tiger."
Are you ever going to use these for future commercials, or are they just gonna end up as b-sides?
Gordy: We can only cross our fingers. We'll keep pushing for it.
Brian: I think it'll depend on what purpose they're serving. We kind of use them to tell stories. "Live Young" tells the Taco Bell brand story of "Live Mas," "Big Poppa" tells about the "big daddy of all burritos," and "Hello" is the "light at the end of the tunnel," people who love Taco Bell and are dying for Cool Ranch Doritos. The next one will depend on what next product offering is.
Were you guys part of the process of asking the artists for permission for their songs? Were there any hang-ups with that?
Gordy: We had a music producer who got in touch with some of the bands, First off bat was Fun. Nate [Ruess, fun. lead singer] apparently really sparked to it, really enjoyed it. That was fun. We wanted them to be the vocal for the ad, but they were too caught up in the Grammys and such.
Yeah, so who did record the vocals for those commercials? What was that process like?
Gordy: Just voice talent, different musicians. The Lionel Richie one is Coffey Anderson. He was on [Nashville Star] at one point.
Brian: We work with a music company called Elias, they gave us a selection of vocal talent.
Did you give specific instructions in the studio about how to sing the songs?
Brian: We were probably annoyingly specific how we wanted it to be sung. Most of the guys, we made sing worse than they really sang. Dumbing it down, making it worse for us...
Have you found that the commercials have been getting a good response?
Gordy: Yeah! I've only seen positive responses…
Brian: I'd say it's more positive than negative. Of course there's a couple people who think it's like an insult to the song, but I think that's in the minority. Most people are seeing the fun, the nonsense in it.
Gordy: Yeah, some people are like "How could you ruin the Notorious B.I.G.? He'd be furious right now!" But we're just having fun.
Brian: We do it with love.