Brown students watching NFL playoff games over break may have noticed a familiar face during the commercials. Michael Littman, professor of computer science, starred in a television commercial for TurboTax that first aired in January.
The advertisement is part of the tax software company’s latest campaign to show consumers that “it doesn’t take a genius to do your taxes.”
Each 30-second ad has a similar plot. The scene opens with a user navigating the TurboTax app on a smartphone. A narrator explains that the user thinks it takes a certain form of expertise to do taxes correctly. Next, a famous expert in the referenced field appears to offer help. But ultimately, each expert does little more than read directly off the app’s interface, demonstrating to the user in the commercial and the audience that taxes can be done easily and correctly with the TurboTax software.
In the case of Littman’s commercial, a character named Anna believes you need a PhD to do your own taxes. When Littman enters the frame, his credentials appear: “Dr. Michael L. Littman, Computer Scientist, Brown University.”
But it’s more than just his academic credentials that allowed Littman to land his starring role.
“We wanted different types of geniuses in terms of their personalities, and Michael had a fun personality that the director liked,” said Scott Kaplan, one of the creative directors on the campaign.
Kaplan, who worked for Wieden+Kennedy — the Portland-based advertising agency known for its Nike, Old Spice and now TurboTax commercials — is also a family friend of Littman. Last spring, Kaplan and his daughter visited campus and sat in on Littman’s class, CSCI0080: “A First Byte of Computer Science.” At the time, Kaplan and his partners were searching for exceptional people to fill their genius roles.
During the visit, Kaplan asked Littman for a list of colleagues who would be a good fit.
“I kind of slipped my name into that list,” Littman said.
After narrowing down the possibilities based on availability during the filming period, the commercial’s director, Randy Krallman, determined that Littman was the best option. The production company watched several videos of Littman on YouTube, including ones of Littman singing and dancing with his wife and children, educational music videos and a video of Littman performing in the University’s 2015 Dancing with the Profs event, which influenced their decision, Kaplan said.
That fall, the agency paid for Littman to travel to New York and stay in a hotel. Oct. 21, he was picked up and driven to a New Jersey neighborhood where a house had been rented for filming, and specialized trucks lined the otherwise typical suburban street, he said.
“Apparently they call this particular part of New Jersey ‘Hollywood East,’” he added.
Two commercials were filmed for the campaign that day, so all of Littman’s work had to be completed in the morning. “They end up hiring a lot of people to just make sure that everybody’s time is used efficiently,” Littman said. “So from the moment that I got there until the moment that I left, everything was all scheduled out.”
Kaplan was not able to be there during Littman’s filming but said that “everyone loved him when he was there. They were actually calling me from the set.”
In addition to those that appeared during the playoff games, an ad from the TurboTax campaign will air during the Super Bowl Feb. 7. While the ads have already been seen by millions, the Super Bowl ad is projected to reach an audience of over 100 million.
Though Littman has yet to see his commercial on TV, several people, including some he has not talked to in years, sent him photographs of their televisions with him on screen.
“The whole thing is a little bit surreal … This is not my day job,” he said.
“Michael was a perfect choice as an overqualified tech genius,” said Ugur Cetintemel, professor of computer science and chair of the department. “He was simply being himself. He is a natural.”
“Forty-one different people from all parts of my life have reached out to say that they saw it,” Littman said.
As for another role with TurboTax in the future? “My sense is that this was a one-time thing,” Littman said.
But, he is still open to new roles, he said. “When I left the set I did say explicitly to them, ‘I’m here if you need me.’”
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article noted in the summary deck that the ad would be played during the Super Bowl. In fact, it will be played during the NFL playoffs. The Herald regrets the error.