Rating the Super Bowl Ads
Dot-com ghosts haunt advertising’s Big Game
BY DEBORAH LOHSE
The dot-coms may have been absent from advertising’s big night, but their ghosts permeated the commercials during Super Bowl XXXV.
E-Trade Group — one of three dot-com companies in the game, down from 17 last year — invoked the demise of many of its brethren in a mockingly maudlin ad featuring last year’s dancing chimpanzee now guiding a horse though a dot-com ghost town.
Past over-the-top dot-com antics were echoed in some spots , as Federal Express Corp., Volkswagen and M&M/Mars went with exploding recliners, cars falling out of trees and couches falling on cars.
All in all, though, this year’s spate of $2.3-million-per-half-minute ads featured none of the look-at-me outrageousness of past Bowls, nor any classics in the making like the “Mean Joe Greene” or “1984” spots CBS featured in a nostalgic show Saturday night.
“I had a sense last year that there were more standouts,” said Jim Magill, president of San Francisco advertising agency Corsi Group Inc., one of three panelists who critiqued the ads Sunday night at the request of the San Jose Mercury News. Joining Magill were Steven Addis, chief executive of Berkeley branding firm Addis, and Rob Bagot, executive vice president and creative director at San Francisco’s GMO Hill/Holliday ad agency.
“I was hoping we’d get back to some core ideas, rather than just flash,” Addis said.
The ad that got the strongest reaction from the panel — and the one most likely to be Monday-morning quarterbacked by ad executives across the country — was the E-Trade chimp ad, by Goodby Silverstein & Partners of San Francisco. As the chimp rides through a dot-com dust town and past an abandoned car with “DOTCOMMER” on the license plate, a building is wrecked, sending a sock puppet flying to land at the feet of the chimp. A close-up reveals a tear in the primate’s eye, evoking the old public-service announcement featuring an American Indian surveying a polluted landscape.
“Oooohhhh,” the panel cried as the spot ended. “They are really advertising against themselves,” said Addis, who said E-Trade was bound to get flak for seemingly mocking a craze it both benefited from and helped further with its “Money out the Wazoo” ads of the past.
“The reference is to the crying Indian, looking at pollution, what we’ve done as a society,” Addis said. “Maybe this is looking back on how out of hand we all got.” But if the chimp was viewed as judging others’ foolishness, E-Trade was in for some criticism, the group said.
In a telling nod to the economic softening foretold by the dot-com downturn, ads for both E-Trade and Monster.com shifted their focus from boundless opportunities to saving money and holding on to jobs.
“Now they have to co-opt Schwab’s ads, which is `invest wisely,'” Addis said.
Other E-Trade ads, including a bank guard daydreaming of Matrix-like acrobatics fending off robbers, got shrugs from the group.
Anheuser-Busch managed to get big guffaws from the panel with its latest version of last year’s “Whassup” campaign. The new ads, featured sweatered, ultra-preppy white men, turned the tables on the laid-back, African-American campaign by having the preps call one another to ask “what are you doing?” in oh-so-square voices. One swings a racket, fresh from a game, while another suggests “Chad, pick up the cordless.”
The ad pans out to two African-American men watching the ad on TV, jaws dropped in disbelief.
That ad was hands-down the favorite of the group. “It was a funny version of something people like to see over and over again,” Bagot said. “It’s a good parody of itself,” said Addis.
An M&M/Mars spot in which a street vendor sells smashable ceramic kewpie dolls named after annoying catch phrases — including “whassup,” “you da man” and “talk to the hand” — elicited a few laughs from the panel. “Oh, they got `whassup’ in there,” Bagot said. The ad, for Snickers Cruncher candy, ends with “Crunch This.”
While M&M/Mars bashed catch phrases, others made hay with their own. MasterCard plowed ahead with its “Priceless” campaign, featuring one with a deadpan auctioneer selling such “priceless” items as the letter B, the color red and gravity.
Other verdicts from the panel:
Best campaign overall: Anheuser-Busch. In addition to the white-guy “what are you doing” ad, the experts said consumers were sure to like the Bud spot featuring an alien, posing as a dog, who reports back to the mother ship that what he’s learned was “whassup,” sending all his fellow aliens into a chorus of “whassup.” Less loved bythe experts but a crowd-pleaser was “Cedric,” the chubby Lothario who, dancing around the kitchen in anticipation of a hot night, shakes up his bottles of Bud so much that he douses his date.
Bad branding: The two companies trying to brand themselves for the first time — Accenture, the former Andersen Consulting, and Cingular Wireless, the venture of SBC Communications and BellSouth — fell short of the mark. Accenture’s campaign — featuring a test-driving customer disappearing mid-drive, and surgery being performed by video, left the group wondering what they had to do with consulting. One bright spot: “They are beautifully done,” Addis said.
Cingular’s emphasis on “freedom of expression,” epitomized by dancing football players led by a temperamental instructor, fell short because of what the panel considered a flawed message: that with Cingular’s wireless phones, you have freedom of expression.
“I’m allowed to say anything I want,” Addis said. “Freedom of expression is not an issue for me.”
“That was a swing and miss,” Bagot added.
Best story: the Volkswagen ad featuring a guy speeding to a wedding in progress, leaving viewers wondering if he was going to break up the ceremony — a la “The Graduate” — won points. “It was one of the few ads that actually had a story in it,” Magill said. “One that we cared about,” agreed Addis.
Worst follow-up: Electronic Data Systems Inc.’s play on the running of the bulls, featuring man-chasing squirrels. The panel liked the intended message: that it’s not just big bull-like competitors that companies need to fear, but also small nimble ones. But “it was an idea crushed by its execution,” Magill said.
Best ad that might not have been an ad: MTV’s lead-in to the E-Trade half-time show, a spoof on the mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap,” featuring Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and others, introducing an amalgam group called Aerosync. “That little snippet overshadowed the creativity of the other ads,” Addis said.
Puzzling product award: Levi’s, whose “jean donor” spot featuring an apparent merry-go-round accident victim donating his jeans to a grateful donee languishing at home. The spot left the group wondering what was meant by “reissued jeans.”