Ad Report Card: Why ESPN’s Ads Always Score

Last week’s Ad Report Card complained of an overdose of irreverence in advertising. That doesn’t mean, however, that all irreverence is bad. In the context of commercials, irreverence is perfectly fine, as long as it’s a) funny and b) an appropriate tone to strike on behalf of whatever it is that’s being sold. I suppose you’ll want an example. OK: I think that the broadcast advertising for ESPN, the cable sports network, has been consistently good in this regard. There are lots of ESPN ads at if you haven’t seen them and want to peak at some, including a West Side Story parody, a spot about coach attire, one involving a “Big Buddy” program, and older “behind the scenes” ads, including one about catch phrases and one on how the network’s anchors are greeted  every morning.

The ads: Obviously I’m not going to rehash every one of these spots in detail. But I particularly enjoy the “Big Buddy” ad: SportsCenter anchor Dan Patrick explains that he and his colleagues are involved in the (obviously fake) charitable program because “we want to give back to the community.” In the clips of ESPN-ers playing basketball with the children the program supposedly benefits, the grown-ups bully, scream, and intimidate their young charges. (“When I pass you the ball, give it right back. All right now, give it back!”)

The West Side Story ad riffs on a supposed “feud” between ESPN anchors and field reporters. (“You want a piece of me, desk jockey?”) In the attire spot, an ESPN-er advises a college football coach on the wardrobe he needs to be “legendary”: tall black socks, polyester shorts, and ill-fitting, pit-stained golf shirt.

One of the older spots revolves around the painstaking manufacture of ESPN anchors’ seemingly off-the-cuff remarks to accompany the day’s highlight clips. (“It’s never iffy, if it’s Griffey.” Pause. “That blows.”) In another old one, when an anchor arrives at work, the lobby lights are dimmed, rock music blares, and he’s bathed in a spotlight as an announcer thunders that “His highness of the highlights!” has arrived.

And so on.

Why they work: Sports scores are the same no matter who reports them. And actually, the highlights are pretty similar from station to station as are the sound bites from coaches and athletes, the latest rumors about trades, and so on. So what’s the great differentiator in sports “news”? Well, there’s sheer volume of course, but the real key to what ESPN offers is its style. Sure, that style presupposes obsessive sports knowledge, but the selling point is exactly what’s in the ads: smart-alecky, testosterone-driven, unapologetic, theatrically self-aware irreverence. The ads (like the network) assume that the target fan is someone who: cares a little too much about hyper-analyzing professional sports in all their trappings and trivia; realizes as much; but, perhaps most crucially, doesn’t feel the least bit guilty about it.

So I’d give ESPN an A. Not because the network’s ads unraveled some secret code of irreverence that other advertisers can copy and use to sell anything under the sun. But because the ads and their tone are right in sync with what’s being sold. To often with irreverent ads, that’s not the case.