Ad Report Card: The Super Bowl Special 

It’s possible that I would have enjoyed Super Bowl XXXV more if I’d been down the street at Liuzza’s By the Track, our local watering hole. But no. I watched at home, and I kept on watching even after Greg Gumbel announced that the record for the most punts in a Super Bowl had just been broken, all so I could carefully scrutinize every one of the more than 50 commercials that aired during the game and share my conclusions in this, the Ad Report Card Super Bowl Special.

There was a peculiar amount of hype about Super Bowl advertising this year as it became common to observe that the commercials now seem like a bigger cultural event than the game itself. Advertisers paid a reported $2 million a spot for their time. CBS aired a special on the best Super Bowl commercials of the past on Saturday night. The site set up special sections on ads from last year and the year before. And the Wall Street Journal’s Vanessa O’Connell wrote a piece about Adcritic’s setup this year. (There are links below to those spots that are up on the site or elsewhere as of this writing.) Anyway, it’s probably inevitable, given all this, that the evening was not exactly the cornucopia of commercial brilliance everyone seemed to be hoping for. Some highlights—or at least some noteworthy ads—follow.

E-slap of the Night: E*Trade, the online broker, ran several spots. In one (see it here with Quicktime or here with the Windows Media Player) that was slightly reminiscent of the end of Logan’s Run, a chimpanzee wanders a ruined landscape, recognized as our own formerly dot-commed civilization, now abandoned and tattered. At one point the chimp holds up the remnants of the puppet, and he sheds a tear like the Native American at the end of those save-the-environment ads from the 1970s. “Invest wisely,” is the tag line selected by E*Trade, whose shares currently trade at about one-third of their 52-week high. I’ll give the spot a B-plus on the theory you can’t come down too hard on a crying chimp. But what’s most interesting here is that in a burst of “I know you are but what am I?” chutzpah, the sport of dot-com mockery has now been co-opted by another dot com.

The Sociological Implications of Whassup: First let me say that this series is right on the verge of overstaying its welcome; this should be the end of it. Anyway, two new Whassup spots aired last night, one involving an alien bringing the phrase back to his fellows as the sum total of what he has learned among Earthlings. The other—click here  or here—features a series of dopey WASPs in pastel sweaters re-enacting the familiar chain of phone greetings while drinking “an import” (clearly Heineken), checking on the stock market, and shouting “What are you doing?” in a prep-nerd style. The spot, which I’ll give a B, ends with two of the original Whassupers, puzzled at this display of clueless inauthenticity. (The spots’ tag is always “True,” and obviously those cred-less Poindexters are the antithesis of legit.) Now, you don’t have to be Ken Burns to consider this bit of cultural expression against the backdrop of race. The original Whassupers, who were black, were unstudied, creative, cool, and true. These Heineken drinkers have missed the whole point and have a comical lack of soul besides. They are to the original Whassupers as Pat Boone was to Chuck Berry, as Vanilla Ice was to Public Enemy. Discuss.

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Spot after spot turned on the surprise ending last night, and of course the cumulative effect was a sort of unsurprising sameness. Probably the most effective use of this tactic came in an ad—see it here, Quicktime only—that shows a couple of guys standing around a tree. Apparently they’ve lost something up there, and they throw various objects up into the branches to get their prize to fall. Finally it does: And it’s a Volkswagen GTI. One guy mutters something about letting the clutch out more slowly next time, the implication being this car really flies, etc. Not bad. An A-minus. But for me, no surprise last night topped my discovery that Nash Bridges is still on the air.

Herding Squirrels: One of the most celebrated spots during Super Bowl XXXIV was an EDS commercial in which cowboys were shown herding cats. This year we have a play on the running of the bulls in Pamplona. (See it with Quicktime or Windows Media.) A local explains earnestly that “the one thing you can never do is show fear.” Then someone releases … the squirrels. That’s right, it’s the running of the squirrels. It’s funny, but the ad goes on rather longer than it needs to, vamping on this one joke for a full minute. The point is that you shouldn’t worry too much about the big competitors because the really scary rivals are the nimble ones. And EDS—a tech consulting firm with more than 120,000 employees—can help you compete with the nimble. (The nimble competitor, incidentally, is almost as much a business cliché as herding cats.) This one may well be an ad fan favorite, but it didn’t do much for me. C. 

Bob Dole, Hard-Up Spokesman: Apparently all the snickering about his past shilling for Viagra didn’t faze Dole: He reappeared last night—Quicktime version here, Windows Media version here —strolling the beach, talking about the “little blue friend” that’s making him “feel like a kid again” these days. It’s a can of Pepsi! Heh, heh. An angry candidate Dole once berated rap-promoting entertainment executives by asking, “Is this what you intended to accomplish with your careers?” Perhaps it’s time some asked the senator that question. D.

Express This: Cingular, a wireless phone company, ran several spots on the theme of “self-expression.” They got gradually more annoying as the night went on, climaxing with a gratingly exploitative commercial featuring an artist who describes himself as a “gimp.” I have no doubt that this man  is very accomplished, and I applaud his wherewithal and positive outlook on life. But equating his personal story with a wireless telephone company is plain old cyncism. F.

Curious Musical Selection of the Night: An ad for the NFL had as its soundtrack the Lou Reed classic “Perfect Day,” which seemed to me a little more effective as the background for a heroin overdose in Trainspotting, but what the hell. Maybe a future NFL spot could be set to the irresistible chug-a-chug of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” or even “Heroin”: Footage of an end-zone spike could be synced up to match the appearance of that word in the line, “When I put a spike into my vein. …” Or maybe not. C-plus.

What’s Accenture Again? Well, it used to be Andersen Consulting, as discussed in a recent column. Last night the firm spent millions of dollars for four spots. (Here’s one, via Quicktime  or Windows Media.) In each we are presented with a sort of futurescape, presumably meant to blow your mind and finishing on some fanciful headline about “virtual surgery” or whatever. Tag line: “Now It Gets Interesting.” I certainly hope it gets more interesting than this campaign. The only thing the spots left me wondering is whether Gumbel was counting them among the record-setting number of punts. Anyway, I’m giving them an F. And next year, I’m going to the bar to watch.