Ad Report Card

The Super Bowl Special

Willie’s Super Bowl appearance

A full 20 minutes before the kickoff of Super Bowl XXXVII, Arnold Schwarzenegger was in full effect, functioning as a sort of sponsored MC. He whipped off his sunglasses to reveal the cyborg eye that reminds you of the upcoming Terminator sequel and said, “Ah you ready fuh suhm fooohtbawl?” No, Arnold, I’m ready for some hype.

The bowl’s commercial hype was there before the Schwab Kickoff Show and after the AT&T Wireless Halftime Show (not to be confused with the Reebok Halftime Report), and it was there every time the MasterCard Sky-Cam glimpsed the big Qualcomm sign looming over the stadium. But this year brought a new wrinkle: Before I even sat down to watch the big game for the Ad Report Card Super Bowl Special III, I had a pretty clear idea of what I’d be seeing, because there’s never been more advance hoopla about bowl commercials. In several cases, advertisers actually spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on PR campaigns promoting their spots. This sounds absurd, and it is.

Yes, the advertisers risk $2 million for every 30 seconds, but adding to that sum with this hype-squared strategy does not protect their original investment; it undercuts it. The vast majority of this year’s ads were built on humor, with surprising celebrity cameos and twist endings. But of course if you’ve already heard about the cameos and the punch lines, the ads are often—as last night proved—anti-climactic. (You can watch some of the ads and vote for your favorite at MSNBC.)

Free Willie! Possibly the most ballyhooed celeb cameo was Willie Nelson’s. That ad begins with the redheaded (and -bearded) stranger listening skeptically to a pitch that would put him in a shaving cream ad. Not for this outlaw! But wait—the next scene is Willie’s accountant telling him that there’s a little problem with his tax return. Cut back to: Nelson fumbling his lines in the shaving cream ad. The real advertiser here is H&R Block, and a voice-over says that’s the company to turn to if you want to avoid tax trouble. Back on the fake ad set, Nelson is saying, “My face is burning!” Now, this could have been a pretty entertaining ad—if I hadn’t already read six or seven times that Block had tapped Nelson. According to the Wall Street Journal, the firm’s PR staff clocked 600 hours of time pumping the spot in the weeks leading up to game day and apparently wrangled advance coverage from CNN to Access Hollywood. The whole point of a big-bang ad is to come up with something that people will talk about after the game. B-minus.

Jordan vs. Jordan vs. Jordan. Far more visible than Willie, Arnold, or even most of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders was Michael Jordan. First came the Jordan vs. Jordan ad—a Gatorade spot in which, via the magic of special effects, the more athletic young Jordan plays one-on-one against the older and wiser version. Later he popped up in a Hanes ad, watching Jackie Chan spin through a series of martial arts-like moves apparently caused by his itchy T-shirt tag. (“It’s gotta be the tag,” says Mike, referring to past ads for yet another of his clients, Nike.) Both Hanes and Gatorade should be annoyed with their overexposed pitchman, who has gone from being synonymous with excellence to being synonymous with endless self-fascination. Composite performance for Team Jordan: C-minus.

Bud vs. Bud vs. Bud. One of the only advertisers that at least attempts keep its ads under wraps is Anheuser-Busch—also the most aggressive bowl advertiser overall, with a whopping five minutes of time. Budweiser got off to a great start: The game’s first ad showed a close-up of some charging Clydesdale hooves. Then the clip rewinds, plays again, rewinds. Cut to a long shot; the horses are standing around while a zebra apparently watches the scene over and over, like an official obsessing over an instant replay on a challenged call. Two guys look on. “This referee’s a jackass,” one says. “No,” the other replies, “I believe that’s a zebra.” I chuckled audibly (and finished my Shiner Bock). The spot is right in step with the current wave of resentment over blown calls throughout the playoffs (which popped up again during the bowl), and it uses the word “jackass,” which is a comedy sure thing. Give it an A.

But some of Bud’s other efforts were among the worst of the night. A spot in which a guy in a crazy upside-down outfit apparently polishes off a Bud Light by way of the costume’s—you’ll pardon the expression—bung hole was unfunnily gross and will no doubt inspire a lot of unfortunate comments linking the beer’s taste with—oh, never mind. Another in which some dude’s date says it’s fine for him to pursue her roommate as well comes across as a belated pander to the slobbering lads who dig the Coors “Twins”—but fails to deliver a single girl in a bikini. Offensive, but without cheesecake: That’s a lose-lose, Bud. D-minus for both of these.

Osbournes vs. Osmonds. Another widely previewed spot found Ozzy Osbourne in his by now familiar kitchen, trying to do some household chore as the kids bother him with the important news that “These aren’t Pepsis—they’re Pepsi Twists.” Pepsi Twist ads have in the past turned on a special effect in which not just the exterior of the can, but also the person holding it can be “zipped” away. In this case the kids unzip and turn out to be Donny and Marie Osmond—provoking the gape-mouthed Ozzy stare of horror. He thinks it’s a nightmare and tries to tell his wife, Sharon—but she’s morphed into Florence Henderson. Although I knew all this was coming, it was still amusing. Maybe I can’t get enough Ozzy. Or maybe I was just relieved that Michael Jordan didn’t show up. B-plus.

Animal, underwear, and laffs. While ad pros talk about the Bowl as the showcase for their biggest ideas, they often resort to reliable gags. This year’s Quizno’s spot told us how the chain’s founder is laser-focused on making great sandwiches—and makes the point by showing him in his underwear. He’s so single-minded, you see, that he forgot his pants. Yet another heavily promoted spot from Trident basically asks: What’s the deal with that fifth dentist, the one out of five who doesn’t recommend Trident for their patients who chew gum? This is a clever starting point. And the payoff? It turns out that the fifth dentist said “No” because a squirrel crawled up his pant leg and bit him. A C-plus for both of these cheap but competently executed gags.

Coming soon. Arnold finally reappeared toward the end of the first half in a rather demure minitrailer for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The big payoff seemed to be another look at the aging muscleman, reviving his amazing talent for total expressionlessness. Give it a gentleborg’s C. Among the many film-related ads, this lost big on the whoop-ass-o-meter to a preview of the next Matrix movie, which looks even more like a video game, and America’s first peek at TheHulk. The good news is that Hulk looks action-packed; the bad news is that the beast himself looks a bit like Shrek. But I’d now like to see both films, so both previews get an A-minus.

Reebok’s assault. According to one poll, 14 percent of those planning to watch this year’s Super Bowl were actually more interested in the ads than the game. So presumably they were still watching when, with the score at a blowout-level 34-3 late in the third quarter, Reebok’s Terrible Terry Tate ad appeared. The premise is that a company has hired a linebacker as the office enforcer, and he is shown charging around, brutally tackling colleagues for failing to put a cover sheet on their reports (in a strange reference to the movie Office Space) or playing solitaire on their computers. It’s a long spot, startling in its violence but so cartoonish that it’s actually pretty funny. But what’s the relationship to Reebok product? It’s the shoe of choice for whoever’s making your work life a misery? I’ll say B-minus. Maybe I’m overthinking it—but what else am I supposed to do when the actual game has become a total snooze? As announcer Al Michaels said to John Madden a few minutes after this ad—”Anything to hold an audience at this point.”

The Raiders actually managed to make things interesting again for a time in the fourth quarter, but the game itself seemed endless. So it’s interesting to note that the portion of the audience that tunes in just for the ads apparently has been growing steadily since the mid-1990s. If the trend continues, perhaps we can look forward to the day when a 60-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger stares out blankly from behind his Terminator 5 costume and says, “Ah you ready fuh some ahhhhds?”