When Darlene Rodriguez first read the script for a holiday commercial her 13-year-old son, David, had been invited to audition for, the tears started flowing immediately.

“I got emotional,” she said of the co-branded spot for Coca-Cola and Walmart, which premiered earlier this month. “I said to myself: ‘This is going to be one of those commercials that makes you cry and stays on your mind long after you’ve seen it.’”

"Earn It" tells the story of a teen boy who spots his dream bike in a Walmart flyer, then does everything from selling ice-cold Coca-Cola, to chopping wood to earn enough money to buy it. The closing scene features a touching twist when he surprises his little brother with the bike on Christmas morning.

David, who had never acted before, ended up landing the lead part. He filmed the ad in Toronto the first week of November.

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David Rodriguez on set with director Aaron Ruell.

Darlene Rodriguez

“Like the young man in the script, you couldn’t help but root for David to succeed and get what he was working for – from the audition through the shoot,” said Wes Whitener, group creative director for FITZCO\\McCANN, the agency behind the film. “His enthusiasm was infectious." 

Director Aaron Ruell (who played Kip in the cult-favorite 2004 film, Napoleon Dynamite) helped David bring to life the ad’s message of generosity and hard work. “Aaron felt like the viewer needed to feel the sacrifices the kid was making – from how cold it was when he was shoveling snow, to the time he was giving up with his friends,” group creative director Mitch Bennett added. “The twist at the end hits you all the more harder because you realize he went through the ringer to surprise his brother.” 

Tara Mathew Sahu, Coke’s senior manager for integrated marketing content, said the “Earn It” script tested well with audiences because it celebrates a core value Coke and Walmart share – generosity – in the context of the season. Successfully pulling off a co-branded holiday commercial meant clearly communicating the roles both brands play in the young man’s holiday quest.

“Coke inspired him to take on the effort of earning money, and Walmart made the bike attainable and affordable,” she explains. “We created a spot where we needed both brands for the story to make sense.”

Walmart ad
David and Jaiden Cannatelli, who plays his younger brother, during the early-November shoot in Toronto.

Darlene Rodriguez

“Earn It” complements Coke’s “Make Someone Happy” holiday campaign rolling out in countries around the world, Sahu added.

“It’s a big anthemic spot,” she said of the global ad featuring Santa Claus. “The spirit of this spot is similar… it tells the story of how one teen can make a difference in his own way and ladders up to idea that everyone has a way to make someone happy.” 

Darlene Rodriguez, a veteran TV journalist who is the current co-anchor of Today in New York on WNBC and a TODAY show contributor, got a copy of the ad’s final cut before it aired. “My director had it ready to play in the studio when I called my husband so we could watch it together,” she recalls. “But when it started, I completely forgot about him. It’s such a sweet, emotional tearjerker. Different parts still make me cry... the spirit of generosity at Christmastime is powerful.”

She continues, “Any parent with more than one child wishes and prays that they’re kind to each other, so when you see something like this, where an older sibling sacrifices free time to do something special for his younger brother, it’s beyond heartwarming.” Friends have told her how authentic and believable David is in the ad, given his genuinely thoughtful nature. 

In fact, one unexpected outcome is that David’s younger sister is now hoping for a similar Christmas gift to the one his character delivers in the ad.

“She’s expecting it,” he clarified with a laugh.