How Merman Made a Shoppable Holiday Rom-Com for Walmart
Love meets commerce in "Add to Heart," a lively 23-episode rom-com-style campaign for Walmart from Publicis Groupe agencies and production company Merman.
Launching Dec. 2 across Roku, TikTok and YouTube, the shoppable interactive series centers on an NYC-based interior design assistant named Jessica, whose boyfriend proposes to her.
They've only dated for six months. Is he really the one?
We think not. Especially after witnessing a chance encounter Jessica has with her ex-boyfriend Javi during the holidays. Their meet-cute takes place at Walmart, of course!
We discussed "Add to Heart" with director Erica Dunton and Merman global managing partner Kira Carstensen, who served as an executive producer on the series.
Muse: Erica, why were you interested in directing "Add to Heart?"
Erica Dunton: I come from a 20-year career in independent filmmaking with my features winning at Sundance, Tribeca and other festivals. Recently, I have done more television—Ted Lasso, Julia, The Summer I Turned Pretty. But I bet the project more people have seen than all those projects put together is Holly and Ivy, a Hallmark Christmas movie from 2020.
What I learned with Holly and Ivy is that Christmas movies provide true joy at what can be a very stressful time for families. They have become part of the American tradition. So, when Merman came to me with this opportunity to create a holiday rom-com for Walmart, I jumped at the chance. It's my first branded experience. This project had the added benefit of being an interactive experience, with a shoppable element. Right from the get-go, as a creative team, we wanted to make sure that element encouraged audiences to connect to the story even more.
Rom-com fans live for the tropes. Can you tease some of the tropes that have been slipped into this series?
Kira Carstensen: There are many fun rom-com tropes throughout—the love triangle, missed connections and misunderstandings, second chances.
Dunton: I did the rom-com episode of Ted Lasso in season two. I was very familiar with the format. And while we always looked for the funny, we also made sure to find the heart in every performance. We did the same here, adding humor but keeping the story grounded and emotional.
Take me through the casting process for your leads.
Carstensen: We used Tamara-Lee Notcutt, who did a nationwide search. There were over 3,000 submissions for Jessica. Our final choice of Katelyn Sparks was a huge discovery. This was one of Katelyn's first roles, and we were surprised at her effortless emotional accessibility on screen. She will be a big star—just wait and see. We also had other incredible actors like her romantic interest played by Giancarlo Vidrio; her gay bestie played by the incredibly funny Dylan Adler; and, of course, Meg Stalter as Holly.
Dunton: The agency was so great with the world-building and creating on-screen families. We did marathons of live auditions and callbacks. Working with the actors, with the agency giving notes, was a wonderful thing. I got a sense of what they were looking for, and they got a sense of what I would bring in terms of getting the performances.
I was so excited when I saw Meg Stalter in the teaser. Can you tell me about the character she plays and what it was like to work with her? I am wondering if she stuck to the script, or if there was room for the improvisation.
Carstensen: Meg Stalter plays Holly, a possibly magical Walmart associate who instigates the cute reunion between Jessica and Javi. Meg is so funny and talented. We had scripted lines, but also gave her room to improv. But even the scripted lines she made her own. She delivered them in a way only Meg could.
This is an ambitious 23-episode production. [Each segment runs 2-3 minutes.] Where did you film "Add to Heart," and how much time did you have?
Carstensen: We shot over 15 days in Los Angeles at a combination of practical locations and studio backlot. We had a month to script and prep before filming.
Can you talk about your approach to integrating products?
Carstensen: Because the series is shoppable, integrating Walmart products was one of the most important considerations. We had to film in both vertical and horizontal aspect ratios and make sure our hero products were seen in each size frame. We had an incredible team from Walmart and the agency working with our art department—led by production designer Curt Beech—to ensure the right products were featured in the correct episodes. Everything is from Walmart—from the clothes they wear to wreaths on doors to the coffee they drink.
Dunton: It was very important to me to honor the actors' experience. Rather than shield them from the products, I involved them with complete transparency. When we blocked scenes, we did product rehearsals, and I would point out to the cast and camera operators what was shoppable. When we had that down, and after we created choreography that would highlight those products, we would dive into the words, the emotion. By separating the two, we made sure the actors were doing both jobs—selling a character and selling a product.
And how did you strike a balance between entertaining your audience and letting them know about some of the things they can purchase at Walmart?
Dunton: The feel-good entertainment factor had to come first. Everyone from the top down was on board with that. As storytellers, we always felt supported and seen. Whatever you are making, be it feature, TV show or a commercial, you can shoot all the pretty pictures in the world—but if your audience doesn't feel for the characters, doesn't root for them, or doesn't understand them, then all is for naught.
Production Company: Merman
Director: Erica Dunton
Global Managing Partner/EP: Kira Carstensen
Executive Producer: Jessica Miller
Creative Executive: Jack Taylor Cox
Line Producer: Amantha Clark Altham
Branded Episodic Producer: Sabrina Spiantzi Ballard
DP: Peter Kowalski
Production Designer: Curtis Beech
Casting Director: Tamara-Lee Notcutt
Costume Designer: Heidi Higginbotham
Makeup: Melissa Rogers
Hair: Elizabeth Cho
Editorial: Harbor Picture Company