Super Bowl XXXIII: Punt And Click

By Tom Shales

Computers crashed the Super Bowl last night, with commercials for cyberstuff and Internet-related companies taking top honors as the best and brightest spots. As a football game, Super Bowl XXXIII, which aired on the Fox network, could more accurately have been called the Mediocre Bowl (Atlanta lost to Denver, 34-19), but as always the seemingly interminable telecast provided a showcase for the flashiest and splashiest in new commercials. Sponsors paid up to $1.6 million for 30 seconds’ worth of air time in what is always one of the TV year’s biggest blowouts.

“I want to claw my way to middle management,” said one child in one commercial. “I want to be forced into early retirement,” said another. The kids, speaking into the camera, were making an ironic point about future jobs on behalf of, a small Internet employment agency hoping to make a big splash with its first-ever Super Bowl ad. Filmed in black-and-white, the spot ran once in the first half and once in the second and made both a powerful and delightful impression. In its premise it recalled a sequence from Woody Allen’s film “Annie Hall” in which school children stood at their desks and accurately predicted what their adult lives would be like. But it still came across as eye-catching and head-turning. And even had a certain poignancy.

Even the eagerly awaited commercial for Victoria’s Secret, that nationally naughty lingerie chain, had as much to do with cyberspace as with underwear. It advised viewers – or “viewsers,” as computer users are sometimes called-to log on for a Victoria’s Secret Internet fashion show 72 hours hence.

Fox ran a “crawl” at the bottom of the screen inviting those particularly fascinated with the Super Bowl to visit the network’s Web site. But wouldn’t those interested in the Super Bowl be more likely to watch the actual game?

In the new virtual universe, maybe not. One of pop culture’s most famous computers starred in another ad. It was HAL9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s modern classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” All viewers saw, really, was Hal’s mesmerizing red-and-yellow electronic eye making a visit from the future, while in dulcet tones the computer fessed up to having made a bungle of the transition from 1999 to 2000. “You like your Macintosh better than me, don’t you, Dave?” the machine implored.”Dave” was the astronaut played by Keir Dullea in the film. The ad was from Apple, which has a history of making talked-about Super Bowl commercials. This one was a pip.

Far less impressive was an appearance by another machine-made “star” from a famous film, E.T. from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” Steven Spielberg foolishly let the Progressive Auto Insurance Co. use the character for a couple of undistinguished ads that aired during halftime. Of course one can imagine how much Spielberg needs a few more million bucks; how could he turn it down? The only clever thing about it was the way one ad led seamlessly into the spectacular halftime show on the field, one which rousingly starred Stevie Wonderand Gloria Estefan. It was loud, gloriously vulgar and truly toe-tapping, a bodacious blitz that was impossible to resist. By contrast, Cher’s performance of the national anthem at the start of the game was a drag. The singer wore tight bluejeans and amended the final line to read “and the home . . . of the brave-the brave-the brave!”

As usual, some ads used comedy to great advantage while others relied on special effects. MasterCard managed to gather cartoon stars like Tom and Jerry, Fred Flintstone, Mister Magoo, Scooby-Doo and Olive Oyl for a clever spot. The same company offered a live-action comedy spot in the second half; a Buckingham Palace guard is out of uniform because his dry cleaner wouldn’t accept his credit card, or something.

In a bit of action unthinkable in commercials that aired during the first 10 or 20 Super Bowls, a dog urinated on the man’s leg during the spot. A car leaping from one rooftop to another was a visual wow, but what did that have to do with Mountain Dew, the beverage being hawked? Meanwhile, First Union bank laboriously constructed a “financial mountain” out of giant buildings in the most overproduced and undereffective spot of the evening.

As a tribute to the Super Bowl’s status as an incomparable display case, several of the movies advertised won’t be out for months. Clint Eastwood in “True Crime” will arrive March 19, the ad said, but “The Mummy” won’t come creeping until May 7, and “The Wild, Wild West,” starring Will Smith, won’t open until July 2. Still, it’s never to early to try to create a buzz. “ED-TV” will be out in March, said the ad, but the film looked an awful lot like “The Truman Show,” which was out last year. There was a good deal of Super Bowl Deja Vu.

Fox was relentless, even for Fox, in promoting its own shows, mostly its new cartoon comedy “Family Guy.” The show was advertised so many times that many viewers may have been sick of it long before it finally aired – after 10 p.m., since the game and the postgame show ran so long. Ingeniously or insidiously, Fox even managed to sell time on “Family Guy” promos to sponsors. “This Family Guy moment is brought to you by Yahoo,” said an announcer. Yahoo looked stupid.

Budweiser and its various beers were the most inescapable Super Bowl advertisers. The company used everything from those tired old animated frogs to real live cute Dalmatian puppies to peddle the brew. In one “dignified” ad, acompany executive appeared onscreen to remark that Prohibition was a bad period for the brewery. No! What a shocker!

Some ads had been so heavily promoted in advance Super Bowl ads are news now, even before they air-that they may have sacrificed effectiveness when they finally showed up. A commercial about a really giant-size container of Cracker Jack was new but looked familiar. Still, the punch line was a hoot. A little girl finds that the prize inside the enormous package is in proportion to the box itself: “Mommy, Mommy-I got a pony!”

On ABC’s “World News Tonight” last week, anchor Peter Jennings said that 7 percent of those who watch the Super Bowl tune in primarily to see the commercials. Did they go to bed happy last night? Cheerful, maybe but not delirious. This year’s crop of Bowlspiels seemed semi-super at best.