Ad Report Card: Early Olympic Results

The fact of the matter is that I haven’t been watching the Olympics. But I gather, from readers and from the ad trade press and so on, that some interesting ads have been running. Certainly one of the themes of the run-up-to-the-Super-Bowl coverage was that a number of advertisers were skipping the Game to buy time during the Games. As a result, NBC has apparently sold $720 million in ad time, a huge improvement over what CBS sold in 1998. To view some of the ads making a splash so far, click here for a much-lauded Nike spot and here to see four commercials promoting Delta Air Lines.

The Nike ad: This spot debuted in 90-second form during the widely watched opening ceremonies. Its tone matches the mood of that event, a vague mixture of celebration and awe. The commercial is basically a montage of many athletes (including Olympians Apolo Ohno and Picabo Street), beginning with a jogger, cycling through individuals engaged in pretty much the full gamut of athletic endeavors, and finally circling back to the jogger again. The vignettes are linked by clever “match-on-action” shots, so that, for instance, a leap by a snowboarder cuts to a landing by a skateboarder. The soundtrack is dignified, but determined, piano-and-string music. You get a quick glimpse here and there of the Nike logo, and the “Just Do It” slogan flashes briefly.

Another gold? One would think that by now Nike’s advertising would have run out of gas, that we’d be sick of it, that they’d have exhausted all their ideas. But it hasn’t happened yet. This is a good spot, with a nice tone and skillful pacing that keeps you watching to see what will happen next. Sometimes I wonder how my consumption habits affect opinions about advertising, but Nike is a paradox for me on that front: The shoes are stupid; the ads are great. This one gets an A.

The Delta ads: You’re not still afraid to fly, are you? Hope not, because Delta has moved on from themes of reassurance to a straightforward, humor-based campaign. There are four spots, all of them set in a bubbling hot tub, surrounded by snow, presumably somewhere in Olympicland, Utah. One spot is called “Culture to Culture.” A dopey American guy in a knit cap is in the tub with a big Asian man. “Hi,” he says. He pulls a pin from his cap and hands it over. “Friend,” he says, explaining his gift. The Asian man stares at the offering in his palm, and then at the American. We cut away to the title “Culture to Culture,” and then back to the American, now holding a large, squealing hog. “For me?” he says. We close on the slogan: “Delta: Bringing the World Together.”

In “Rival to Rival,” the hot tub cuts out, and the two guys end up competing to get to the button to turn it back on. In “Fan to Fan,” one man rings a cowbell for a while, then his tub-mate, who for some reason has on a big cowboy hat, reaches over and grabs one of those air-horn things and starts blaring it. In “Spirit to Spirit,” there are five people in the tub. One, who I believe we’re supposed to see as an American (although there’s no way to know for sure, so don’t bother to write in pointing that out), yawns, stretching his arms straight up. The Asian man to his left watches this and leaps up with his arms raised; the other tubbers follow in sequence—they do the wave, in other words. The yawner looks on, puzzled. As the action fades to the “Bringing the World Together” slogan, we can hear the one woman in the group saying, “Yah, yah.”

All together now? These spots are all mildly amusing, if not exactly fall-over hilarious. In a campaign with the theme of bringing the world together, it seems a little curious to rely on cheap gags like, “Hey, that foreigner gave me a pig!” or “Those foreigners thought the yawning dude was doing the wave!” But perhaps it’s reasonable for us to laugh at our differences. Or something. Anyway, on a purely formal level, the setup is pretty effective: The first time you see one of these spots, you’re curious about what the people in the tub will do or say, and even after you’ve got the basic gist of the campaign, you’re still curious about how each subsequent scenario will pay off. It’s a B-minus effort.

Not a bad showing for Olympic ads so far, particularly after a Super Bowl in which most of the advertisers fell short of even bronze-medal performance. Does that mean I’ll be tuning in to watch, say, the “free dance” portion of the figure-skating competition? Well, let’s not get carried away.