By Tim Larew

This past Sunday, in the midst of an otherwise uneventful and rather disappointing American Music Awards, this commercial for Pine Brothers Cough Drops starring Waka Flocka Flame aired during one of the breaks and immediately set the internet ablaze.

The equally absurd and hilarious 30-second spot is set up to look like a spoof: Waka sits in a smoke-filled room, holds up three pouches of the Pine Bros Softish Throat Drops and assures viewers that he “can’t live without my Pine Brothers, straight up.” After providing a very brief overview of the ingredients, he closes the ad by imparting the following advice: “Next time you need sore throat relief—for whatever reason—take your Pine Brothers.”

The commercial is a trip from start to finish, but Waka’s facial expression as he glances at the smoke machine while he says “for whatever reason”—making the not-so-subtle weed joke clear—is perhaps the highlight of it all.

Many who caught the ad live were perplexed. Was it real? Did what they watched really just air on national television? How did it happen? Who was responsible?

As it turns out, the trail of credit owed is short and leads back to three young creatives from Boston: Warren Lotas (19, nephew of Pine Brothers CEO Rider McDowell), Kalin Stoyanchev (19), and Alec Ceccon (20). Lotas, who works for a concert promotion company called Leedz Edutainment, connected with Waka after a show in January, organized a meeting with his partners and Waka’s management the following day and just like that, the ball was rolling. The trio had a vision for appealing to a new demographic the company’s previous spokesperson, Martha Stewart, wasn’t able to reach, and thus developed a campaign that allowed Pine Brothers to do just that in one fell swoop.

The commercial, as well as bonus spots that can be found on the company’s website, has gone viral over the course of the past 36 hours and been covered by every publication from The New York Times to Worldstar. We caught up with Warren, Kalin, and Alec to talk in detail about how it all came together what the firestorm has been like since the ad’s national television debut.


What’s each of your involvement with the company?
Warren
I’m the Director of Youth Marketing, Kalin is the Operations Manager, and Alec is the Social Media Manager.

How big is it?
Warren
Our CEO is Rider McDowell who founded Airborne, which is still around but he sold the company. I guess we classify ourselves as a small business at this point. I would say there’s maybe 20 people.

And Rider is your uncle?
Warren
Yeah.

How long have you guys been involved?
Warren
I’ve been involved for three years, Kalin and Alec got involved probably last year.

Kalin
Yeah we started getting involved last fall, October of 2013, and started getting deeply involved with this campaign in January 2014.

How do you guys know each other?
Warren
I’ve known Alec for around eight years, and I met Kalin when I used to do music a few years ago, he’s producing, and I met him through a mutual friend. Once I stopped doing music we just kinda wanted to pursue business.

So what was the idea with this campaign from the beginning, were you looking for a spokesperson? How did this even get started?
Warren
So probably about two years before that—because my uncle bought the company three or four years ago—I started trying to convince him to take this kind of controversial approach because Martha Stewart was our previous spokesperson, and I figured taking this new angle and using the polar opposite approach with this campaign with Waka was so obscure and bizarre that it couldn’t possibly fail.

Kalin
We basically wanted to provide the shock and awe that the social media campaign ended up providing. We met Waka after a show in Boston in January, and we sort of approached him after the show, got to talk to him and his manager, then actually had lunch with his manager the next day and outlined what we were looking for, and they were on board. We got the paperwork signed obviously, and it turned into the marketing campaign that you saw yesterday

Alec
Our main goal with this was—Pine Brothers was kind of out of commission for a while, so older people like 35-plus grew up with these and knew about them, but everyone younger who’s actively involved with anything to do with hip-hop or social media had no idea what Pine Brothers was. We wanted to attack that market and hit that demographic, and we did it pretty well.

Warren
It’s also kind of a double-edged sword in the sense that you don’t need to know who Waka is to understand that he’s a unique individual. You could be 80 years old and you see this dude on a commercial, you don’t know who he is, but the way that the commercial is set up, it’s just so ridiculous that it becomes more about the context. It just ended up being the perfect combination

Kalin
Yeah Waka’s the perfect guy. The reception that we had, it’s crazy. There was the 30-second one, then the 11-second one. He’s just—he’s the perfect amount of quirky, of hip-hop, of just… out there.


So when you first got him on board, were you considering anyone else, or did things just fall into place with Waka because you happened to meet him?
Warren
Well to be honest, we were actually considering Curren$y. We were in talks with his manager. They’re great people, no issues there, it was just kind of a—communication petered out, and then this new opportunity took its place and we just saw it as a much more lucrative one in terms of how Waka has become more known in the EDM world, so the crossover is ideal.

What was the vision for the campaign from the beginning? Did that include the commercial? What else?
Warren
So the campaign essentially is commercials, a one-year spokesperson deal where we have the option to renew next year, and we’re also planning on giving out a sponsorship in Waka’s name—that was Alec’s idea. Waka is most likely gonna make an appearance at a drugstore in Atlanta, we have one set up, and basically just putting out content in addition to that. Funny content. Things that will resonate with people and help people understand the value of our product while promoting Waka. It’s a symbiotic relationship in that sense.

What’s it been like working with him?
Kalin
When we first met Waka—I had listened to his music for a long time, so I’ve always expected him to be a friendly guy—but the way he came off, he was genuinely excited to talk to us about these opportunities and to show us new music and share tour stories backstage. When we first got to talking with him we realized his personality would fit with our campaign. We got to spend time with him again in April when he performed at Tsongas Arena (Lowell, MA) with Big Sean.

We were in the green room joking around and he was really excited to start the campaign with Pine Brothers, and I think for the most part, we honestly couldn’t have chosen a better person to work with. He’s always ready to go, always has a positive attitude, very smart guy, very funny guy, and I mean Warren can tell you even on set he was talking to Rider, cracking jokes and really just with it the whole process.

What I said to him was: “Hey Waka, wanna make some of that cough drop money bro?” And he was like, “What you mean?” And I was like, “Cough drop money bro.”

Warren
Yeah I remember at the Middle East—I work for Leedz Edutainment so that’s how linking with Waka was possible—I was taking everything down after the show and literally verbatim what I said to him was: “Hey Waka, wanna make some of that cough drop money bro?” And he was like, “What you mean?” And I was like, “Cough drop money bro.” He put me on with his manager, me and Kalin followed up the next day and had lunch, and that was it. Then about two months ago—and people have been wondering where it happened—we shot the ad at the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre house.

My uncle was really adamant about that because it’s such an interesting place, and on set that day Waka comes out of his Escalade, he’s stretching, and he gives me a bear hug. I kind of had this expectation that when you meet people who’ve reached a certain point in their career you expect them not really to remember you, but he was like, “What up Warren, what’s good?” I guess we created the contract with him so we’re benefitting him but either way, the whole time—I mean I showed him Stizz’s record (“Shoutout”) and he wanted to hear it.

I was like, “Yo this dude’s poppin’ out of Boston, Cousin Stizz, he’s really like the next thing to actually blow up.” And Waka was like, “Alright, let’s hear him.” Not many dudes would take the time to actually listen to someone else’s music, and after listening he was like, “Yo call him up right now.” That just kinda shows how ambitious and willing to connect he is.

Kalin
He’s just a real person, and that stands out especially in an industry full of—I mean we’ve dealt with people who’ve just been, for lack of a better word, assholes, and it’s so refreshing to see someone who’s actually interested in talking to you as a person and not as a celebrity to someone lesser than you.


So what was it like seeing the commercial live for the first time?
Warren
We fuckin’ lost it. We were in Alec’s grandfather’s apartment, shoutout to his grandfather.

Alec
Real artisan paintings in there.

Warren
We were huddled around his TV that looked like an Etch-A-Sketch, and we just saw this light up. At first we saw it on Complex Music and we were just like yo, this shit got on Complex, and then it was just a domino effect. We were flipping out, we smoked some premium filtered cigarillos, you know, we were having a classic time.

Kalin
It went like this—we started watching, we were joking around, then all the sudden the tweets started pouring in because the commercial hadn’t aired in Boston yet but had aired in other regions. We got Complex first, then Rolling Stone, then it just didn’t stop pouring in. We had the Wall Street Journal, NY Post, MTV, Time Magazine, basically every single publication. I’m Bulgarian and even the biggest Bulgarian newspaper, the Standard Times, wants to write about us

Warren
Coming from Bulgaria, that’s like crazy. Putting on for our country like that is possibly one of the most satisfying things we could ever do. Alec wanted to pop a bottle of champagne, he was so happy, he couldn’t get enough of that.

Did you guys live there?
Warren
I left when I was one.

Kalin
I left when I was eight, so very much rooted in the culture.

Warren
Yeah shoutout to Bulgaria, I remember Waka snapchatted “Shoutout to Bulgaria” once, that was great.

Warren
But yeah, we had Martha Stewart before, and the reaction was not nearly–it was just Waka was a way better investment in terms of reach and the viral factor. We also have a Facebook post on Waka’s page where we were doing a giveaway where all you had to do was share the post, and you could win a free trip to Hawaii, 1000 dollars on Amazon, and Canada Goose jackets. Right now that post has close to 60 thousand shares, the views broke—we don’t even know what those are on—but like, the numbers we’re putting up… we were at a point where we were getting a share per second.

Kalin
The idea was basically to put this commercial out in as many different places as possible so you couldn’t really go anywhere without hearing about it, so by doing all these things we just swept media, it was awesome.

Warren
Yeah the sales have honestly tripled already. The numbers are ridiculous.

Did you guys have specific goals whether it was sales or social media, or did you just go in hoping to make a major splash?
Kalin
I mean we honestly just wanted to give the world something that it hadn’t seen before. We didn’t have specific set goals, obviously we wanted to boost the sales, we just wanted to make an impact, and during the AMA’s and especially given how the flow of the show was going, when it dropped, it was just like—people were in shock. The reception exceeded all expectations. Even Waka’s pumped about the campaign, so the past 24 hours have just been a blur.

Warren
Yeah seriously, we’ve been getting hit up by all different sources, different places wanting to get insider info, but you know we had to work with the homies first.

Kalin
For Boston.

Warren
Boston’s really the next thing. Not much more to say about that. We’re just waiting to see what the future holds.

Was there one person that wrote the script for the ad or was it a collaborative effort?
Warren
My uncle loves the creativity aspect of guerrilla marketing, so he basically directed the commercial. We came up with the smokers angle, but it was definitely all him and the team we had behind us, the film crew, who came up with the shots to figure out what looks funny.

Kalin
The quality of how the video looks—we wanted it to look corny.

Warren
People didn’t know if it was real or not, it looks like an SNL skit, and that’s what we wanted. I can’t talk budget numbers, but we could have accomplished this with next to nothing.


It’s definitely one of our goals to establish ourselves as Cough Drop Dons, so to speak. We’re the self-proclaimed Cough Drop Dons.

It doesn’t seem like you were, but were you guys worried about any type of controversy or backlash?
Warren
No, the more controversy the better. I’ve heard so many different interpretations of the ad, we had to go with that kinda stoner edge. That’s the point, like we want people to be like, what the fuck is this? That’s perfect! But a majority of the reactions we got were like, this is the greatest commercial I’ve ever seen.

Kalin
Complex called it “the hottest cough drop commercial to drop this fall.”

Warren
It’s definitely one of our goals to establish ourselves as Cough Drop Dons, so to speak. We’re the self-proclaimed Cough Drop Dons.

Kalin
That was our goal.

Warren
That should be the headline: Self-Proclaimed Cough Drop Dons.

With anything like this, not to say it’s easy, but people have done these type of things where you get a ton of chatter on social media but it kinda comes and goes because that’s the way of the world. So looking at the success you’ve had just off this one piece of the campaign, how do you now retain these people that are paying attention now and turn them into loyal customers?
Kalin
The thing is, we wanted to boost brand awareness with this whole campaign. Obviously we achieved that, we went above and beyond, but now what we’re gonna do is basically slink back into the shadows and then hit them with something even bigger than this, whether that comes in the form of another TV ad, some kind of social media takeover—the possibilities are endless for us, and we understand that sometimes advertising can be oversaturated which is why with this whole campaign we just wanted to provide shock and awe, and our whole goal with this and all subsequent marketing campaigns that we do is to just be different and unique, and create groundbreaking opportunities for whichever brands that we’re boosting. I think it’s just important to always refresh, experience new things and work on being as unique as possible.

Alec
I just feel like we hit such a new demographic of people who’ve never heard of Pine Brothers before, so now any smaller thing we do is gonna get so much more attention. As long as we keep hitting them with reminders, people aren’t gonna forget about this. When they think of cough drops, nothing else comes to mind now other than Waka and Pine Brothers.

Warren
Fuck Halls, fuck Luden’s, we’re Pine Brothers.

Kalin
On the record!

Warren
On the record baby, we’re Pine Brothers. Everybody is a Pine Brother in spirit. You gotta love your brothers, straight up. Whatever anybody has to say, man, Pine Brothers are the future of throat lozenges.