Ad Report Card: Super Bowl Special

Update: A generous “Moneybox” reader comes through with the excellent tip that pretty much all the Super Bowl ads are available for viewing at this site, using either Windows Media Player or RealPlayer. Additional links to company Web sites that have archived specific ads can be found within the story below.

The Super Bowl itself happened to be right here in New Orleans this year, but all that meant to me is that I had to remember not to drive anywhere near the Central Business District yesterday, as tight security had apparently turned the whole area into a multiblock hassle zone. At game time, I had to be in front of a television so I wouldn’t miss any ads. So I settled down with a bowl of gumbo (really!) and a succession of Shiner Bocks to stand in judgment of what, despite a slightly softer ad market, remains the biggest event of the commercial season. In fact, perhaps the only thing more eagerly anticipated by marketers than the Super Bowl is the special Super Bowl edition of the Ad Report Card.

First, the overview: It wasn’t pretty. Normally, the ads are better than the game. This year, the ads were not only worse than the game, they were worse than the halftime show! Why? Probably a combination of post-Sept. 11 uncertainty about finding the right tone and a general lack of money to burn as the dot-com bonfire definitively flickers out and advertisers in general pare back on their spending in a less exuberant economy. On to the specifics.

The 9/11 effect: The aftermath of the September terror attacks influenced the ads in ways both obvious and subtle. Probably the most striking manifestation of this came in two ads from the White House, or rather its Office of Drug Control Policy. Both spots, which were added to the lineup just days before the game, ran in the second half. One started out like one of those “priceless” Mastercard ads, listing the prices for various things, such as a trunk full of AK-47s. This was sort of jarring. Eventually it came to the point, which is the argument that narcotic-buying Americans are bankrolling international terrorism. The second spot featured clips of kids offering excuses (“I’m not hurting anyone”) and articulating the alleged end result of their drugging. (“I helped a bomber get a fake passport,” “I helped blow up buildings,” etc.) It’s fine to make people think about the consequences of their consumption habits in a global economy, but what’s the implication here? American dope-smokers funded al-Qaida? Come on. Of all the various attempts to use tragedy to make a point, this is among the most transparently manipulative. ( Here’s the counterargument.) D. 

Another spot featured Rudolph Giuliani, filmed in black and white with the Empire State Building in the background, expressing his pride in and thanks to all Americans for the response to Sept. 11. “We are one nation,” he concluded, before the screen went dark and the words “A tribute made possible by” appeared on-screen. (By the time of a second ad later in the first half, the company has had a dot-com-ectomy and is now simply Monster.) Shameless opportunism? Yes! But we just can’t get enough of Rudy. C-minus.

And then there was the Clydesdales ad. Part of a general Bud onslaught (see below), this spot has the iconic Clydesdales tromping through bucolic landscapes and, eventually, across the Brooklyn Bridge. From a field, the horses observe the Statue of Liberty, and, indeed, they bow down before it. This is almost certain to be the most-mocked ad of the game. And yet, I found it oddly moving. Probably this reflects very, very badly on me. B.

The post-dot-com effect: Probably the most-anticipated single ad was this year’s E*Trade spot. (See it here.) E*Trade’s ads have been favorites of recent years, and it’s one of the last survivors of the dot-com-heavy period of Super Bowl big-bang advertising. The recurring character is a monkey, and he’s back—wearing a shiny green tux and starring in a musical number; the lyrics extol the all-new E*Trade (which is desperately trying to get out the word that it’s more than a tool for the three or four remaining active day traders; the company has changed its name to E*Trade Financial). The musical number ends, and we cut to E*Trade’s CEO reading a newspaper blasting the ad as a big flop. “A musical number?” he says to the monkey. “What were you thinking?” He tells the monkey that he just doesn’t fit into the company’s “new image” and sends him off to Florida, where he is blasted into space. Nothing funnier than punishing a monkey, is there? I tell you, whoever made this ad must have been a real artist. So what’s new about the new E*Trade? I have no idea. D.

The other visible post-dot-com effect was the relative dearth of other dot-com ads.

Britney, Britney, Britney: This is the other spot, or pair of spots, that had a lot of advance hype. (See them here.) It, too, was a musical number, on behalf of Pepsi. The gimmick: Britney Through the Ages. The 1958 Britney sings at the soda shop. The 1963 Britney shimmies in a Supremes wig; 1966 is Beach Blanket Britney; 1970, she frolics with the flower children. Then, in a damning cultural indictment of two entire decades, we cut to 1989 Britney aping a Robert Palmer video, of all things. Finally she’s herself, reprising last year’s “Joy of Pepsi” song at the climax of a grand, multigeneration Britney Convergence. Later, the 1958 version, chosen by participants in its online poll, is shown in its entirety. To everyone’s relief, Bob Dole never appears. B.

Bud, Bud, Bud: Anheuser-Busch bought the most time in this year’s game, and the company used a grab-bag of commercial gambits to push Bud and Bud Light. You’ve already read about the Clydesdales. As a counterpoint, one spot featured a falcon that does the girl-impressing trick of flying from a guy’s balcony and returning with bottles of beer in its talons. Where does the bird get them? For the answer we cut to a sidewalk café, where patrons duck and run for cover as the animal attacks. Seems like slightly unnerving imagery in the post-9/11 world, but maybe not. This is likely to be a popular spot. Another ad spoofed those robot-fighting shows: A “robot” called minifridge opens to reveal a Bud Light, then sprouts a massive mechanical hammer that pounds its enemy to pieces. (Agreed: Drinking a Bud Light is a crushing experience.) The last Bud spot I’ll mention was a new iteration on the old Whassup thing. Remember the version of this that had a bunch of guys who seem like Scorsese extras saying, “Howyadoin” over and over in some neighbahood bar? Well: This guy walks into just such a bar, wearing a cowboy hat. There’s a small barrage of howyadoins, but the stranger’s response is a long-winded, “Well, I’m just fiiiine, thanks for asking, just got into town,” etc., etc. Every time a new guy comes in, the concise howyadoins are eventually cut off by the out-of-towner’s blabbing. Another play on archetypes, you see. Anyway: I admit it! I chuckled! Overall I’d give Bud an A-minus.

Does advertising work? E*Trade’s critique of its monkey mascot is outdone on the self-reflexive scale by Brisk, the canned iced tea drink that has used puppet representations of celebrities as its shills. (See the ad here.) In an ad-within-an-ad gambit, a spot featuring a Danny DeVito puppet is broken up by Brisk reps, who inform him that he’s no longer needed since Brisk “tastes so good, it sells itself.” DeVito flips and leads a puppet rebellion, which is “covered” by Al Roker and Pat O’Brien. The dispute reaches a peculiar climax when O’Brien tries a can, says it’s good, and the DeVito puppet calls him a “traitor” and attacks him. The implication is that if Brisk is any good, there’s no need to advertise it. Even as a joke, this is a weird message for an ad. The underlying idea seems to be that product quality is a small sideshow in the grand carnival of consumer manipulation: Deep down, we all know that no one would ever drink Brisk if it weren’t marketed aggressively. Or, ah, something. Anyway, those puppets creep me out. C-minus.

Back to normal? While dot-coms themselves were in short supply, a few echoes of dot-com ‘tude lingered. The most notable example was a spot for Quizno’s, a sandwich chain. It’s a great-looking spot, all washed-out pastels, in which a guy in an orange shirt, with disturbingly plastered-down hair, is running some sort of test. He asks his subject, a middle-aged woman, if she would prefer a toasted Quizno’s sandwich or some other, untoasted rival. She reaches for the former, but the guy shoots her in the neck with a dart, and she collapses face down on the untoasted sub. “The only way to beat a Quizno’s toasted sub,” an announcer concludes, “is to cheat.” I guess this would be the most prominent example of the we-can-now-go-back-to-our-old-crass-selves argument. (Actually the Playboy Bunnies edition of Fear Factor on NBC during halftime, which I assume did not feature any message from Giuliani, probably trumps it, but that’s another story.) I’d say B-minus material, but it’s likely to be one of the year’s most popular.

Levi’s update: The winner of the Levi’s online you-pick-the-ad stunt that I wrote about earlier was the one I liked the most, the “Crazy Legs” spot. A.

Not on your mlife: The hands-down biggest flop of the game was a series of ads promoting something called “an mlife.” The first half was sprinkled with mini ads in which various characters—a guy on a farm, a couple of kids, a father and son, two accountants lusting after an alterna-babe—either praise or express the desire to acquire “an mlife.” Each time, on-screen type asks, “What’s an mlife?” Finally comes the climax ad: a long montage of various people—men, women, boys, girls, children—or rather a montage of their navels. The viewer watches patiently, thinking, OK, I get it: navels. What is this? Then we segue to a delivery room, where a woman is giving birth, surrounded by doctors. One of the doctors reaches for the scissorslike implement that is used to sever the umbilical cord. A portentous voice-over announces: “We are meant to lead a wireless life. Now we truly can.” Whatever mlife is, we now learn, it’s a product of AT&T Wireless. So, it’s what, mobile phones or something? Or let me guess, a “complete wireless-lifestyle solution”? The ads prod us to go to a Web site to learn more, and if you care to, then be my guest, sucker. I’ve seen enough to make my decision: F. And I imagine someone will snip this campaign well before the next Super Bowl. Or at least I hope so.