When we decided to create a 5-second Super Bowl commercial, we knew we’d need an ad that both grabbed people’s attention (and fast!) while also motivating our large learning community to do their daily lesson. 

While developing a marketing campaign, our teams do a lot of initial research to gather insights about what resonates with the audience. Given the amount of time on screen was so limited, we used social listening tools to figure out which Duolingo memes and images resonated most with the audience (while avoiding some of the more… terrifying lore our learners have invented). 

Last year, our illustrators created some cheeky images of Duo for our smartphone widget and the learner community loved them! It was clear that Duo’s butt was the easiest way to catch learner’s attention in a short amount of time—after all, that image took up just a few pixels on learners’ home screens and it still went viral. We hoped the same would be true for our commercial.

Many people have asked us, “How in the world did you get this idea approved?” That was actually the easy part. When our marketing team presented the idea to our CEO Luis, he said: “This is weird. I like it.” That’s one of the best things about working in marketing here, there’s a lot of freedom. Leadership encourages us to listen to what our learners like and have fun with them. 

We decided to pair the ad with a coordinated push notification, which would hit learners’ phones right after the commercial aired, reinforcing the idea that Duo is always watching 👀

The hard part came next: Our teams had never attempted a coordinated push campaign at this scale, and we didn’t know if it was even technically possible to send a push notification to 4 million learners in 5 seconds without crashing our app. 

Ultimately, what made this possible was thoughtful collaboration amongst our artists, marketers, and engineers, driven by a shared mission to encourage and delight our learners. 

Here’s how we did it.

We developed the creative in-house. 

Many companies hire an ad agency to make their Super Bowl commercials. But some things are more meaningful when done in-house. We decided to develop the ad in-house with our marketing and design teams because: 

  • We understand our brand better than anyone. We know how to toe the line between funny and too far. 
  • It’s faster. One of our operating principles is “ship it,” and if we own the process, we can ship it quickly without sacrificing quality! 
  • We love the chance to collaborate closely with other teams and bring a seemingly-impossible idea to life.

Our designers and studio artists have a deep love for their craft and our characters, and focused on some nitty-gritty design details to get Duo’s butt ready for primetime. 

  • Animators pored over how to get the light, shine, and shading of Duo’s butt just right. Each style frame took 6 to 10 iterations.
  • One of our Creative Directors recorded more than 200 clips of his own armpit fart sounds because we weren’t happy with the fart sound effects available for purchase. 
  • Duo himself went to get a butt-lift with Dr. Miami
Sketches of Duo's image with special attention to his... curves. The sketches are annotated by a designer to show the different angles and details that they paid attention to when designing.

“There’s music to farts. They have an emotional range – from happy to defeated. We knew we had found the right sound when we hit on a fart with a smile.” - Nicholas Forshee, Creative Director
Sound effect research (NSFW)

We work hard to get our craft right because we want our learners to have a great product and experience. But we’re not too buttoned up, because if we’re not having fun, then our learners probably aren’t either.

“I take my job seriously, but with a lot of the Design Studio projects, the artist dynamic is to joke around and have fun with what we’re doing. I want my work to be good so badly, and the humor takes the pressure off.” - Rachel Suggs, Illustrator

Finding a technical solution was tricky, but worth it. 

While our studio artists were perfecting green butt cheeks, our engineers were faced with something a little thornier: How do we send Duo’s tush to 4 million learners in 5 seconds (the length of the commercial) without breaking the site? 

An image of an iPhone with a Duolingo push notification on the screen. It says "Hi, it's Duo. No buts... do a lesson now!" It includes a photo of Duo's butt.

In the past, the biggest push notification sent went to 500,000 learners in 60 seconds, and that caused a few crashes (oops!). In other words, we had never attempted this, not even close. What’s more, none of our tooling at the time was up to the task, so we had to invent something new. 

“Getting people together and focused on a singular thing they’re passionate about is usually a recipe for success.” - Paul Rothenberg, Senior Technical Program Manager

We brought together 3 teams of engineers to create a proof of concept. Beginning in October, we started testing and experimenting with notifications on a smaller scale, which helped us understand that our current system couldn’t support our ambitions. We needed to redesign the entire system to support the volume, and while we did this, we conducted continuous tests to ensure we didn’t break anything on Duolingo’s backend system. Each iteration of the new system got the same response from our engineers: “Okay, but now better and faster.” 

The marketing team stayed close to support engineering, and together, we got to a place where we could reach more than 4 million learners in mere seconds—a volume and speed previously unheard of. We also developed extensive contingency plans: on the day of the game, our engineers were on standby for errors, with a step-by-step guide for resolving issues in a number of different scenarios.  In the long run, the new system improves site reliability, and our learnings ensure our app is more stable in the future. (When a butt is on the line, we finally fix much-needed tech tooling limitations!)

“Marketing and engineering working together taught us that there’s a lot that we can do.” - Briana Woods, Marketing Program Manager

Once the work was done, it was time to tune into the game! We had team members in all of the cities where the spot would air, waiting to see Duo on the screen (we knew roughly which quarter it would happen, but not the exact moment). Once the localized team members confirmed the spot had run, Paul and Briana were on deck to “push the button” and send out the much-awaited, hard-earned push notification to millions of learners. The result? We sent the push notification to 95% of eligible learners within 3.9 seconds and 99% within 5.7 seconds of the ad airing.

Score! 🍑 🏈

If you’re interested in working collaboratively to create fun (and weird) solutions from top to bottom, check out our current job openings.