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From that lame excuse for a game to those tame commercials, there was little super about this year’s spectacle
By Steve Johnson Chicago Tribune

Welcome to the Microsoft Word/Dell PC article about the RadioShack Pre-game Show, the Charles Schwab Kickoff Show, the Coach Don Shula coin toss, the Reebok Halftime Report, the AT&T Wireless Halftime Show, and — oh, yes — the actual Super Bowl, an apparent football game.

The writing of this piece, it cannot go without saying, is fueled by Starbuck’s Coffee, Fritos brand salted snacks and, a little while later, Tums.

The Super Bowl is, of course, traditionally the most popular American TV event of the year, as well as, just as traditionally, a lopsided sporting contest.

It is also the television spectacle in which the advertisements and the other sideshow attractions (national anthem, halftime show) draw nearly as much attention as the organized brutality taking place in the big tent.

That fact was, this year, unfortunate, because this Super Bowl game really needed worthwhile distractions. But after last year’s post-Sept. 11 veil of solemnity and the dot-commerce excesses of the previous two, the Super Bowl of 2003 offered a portrait of an advertising community — and a television network — playing it safe.

Now let us pause for a moment while we salute the men and women of our armed forces and Celine Dion, who was more visible during Sunday’s ABC telecast than the offense of the Oakland Raiders.

She trilled through “God Bless America” before the game. She pretended to drive Chrysler products around in unpersuasive ads during it. She even, we are pretty sure, had something to do with shutting down Oakland receiver Tim Brown. And she’s from Canada, eh?

But from the Shania Twain-led halftime show to the feeble humor in a series of Bud Light ads, everything about this year’s spectacle felt a little tame, a little timid.

The most memorable aspect of the ads was the news that there’s an Adam Sandler-Jack Nicholson movie coming out. This does not count as the good kind of memorable.

Indeed, taking it all in, thinking about the hype for all of it, you couldn’t help feeling like one of those halftime-show audience members in front of the on-field stage — the poor people who had to pump their arms constantly, as if five minutes of a very processed-sounding Twain was more exciting than, say, a Beatles reunion.

Only a few of the ads that tried to be funny really were, and many others were just kind of off-key.

But maybe conservative is an advertiser’s natural response to having to spend a reported $2.1 million for 30 seconds and trying to please an impossibly diverse viewing audience, said to be close to half the country at any one moment or another.

But there’s also room, in this scenario, to take some risks and leave a mark. Apple did it in 1984 in a MacIntosh ad that helped make the brand and that is still discussed.

This year, Cadillac broke into the piggy bank for a full, 90-second ad, featuring a guy on a train viewing the history of the carmaker out his window. As a message about Cadillac’s new look, it was serviceable, but the ad, like most of the evening’s heavy-production pieces, didn’t feel like anything worth talking about the next morning, much less the next millennium.

Pepsi and subsidiaries clicked with the Ozzy Osbournes-as-Osmonds Pepsi Twist pop-culture sendup, but a costly spot featuring a zoo simian vaulting into the polar bear cage pool for soda-like refreshment felt disjointed, with wasted “2001: A Space Odyssey” allusions. (And you couldn’t help thinking that
the bears were going to eat the monkey afterward.)

Sony spent a lot on a big spot about the technological future: Older gentleman uses company’s machinery, also spends kids’ inheritance to take rocket trip. It looked nice, it sounded nice. But the message felt selfish, especially with 1960s anthem “Carry On” used as the backdrop.

And Levi’s big “Stampede” ad, featuring jeans-wearing hipsters standing cool amid an obviously computer-generated urban buffalo stampede was nothing compared to last year’s Spike Jonze-directed gem, featuring a delightfully loose-limbed kid for the company’s lightweight jeans.

In the ad community’s only apparent attempt to introduce an ongoing character, Reebok’s “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker” — a musclebound giant who brutally tackles office mopes caught playing computer solitaire, for instance — induced winces of sympathy more than it did laughs at the attempted incongruity.

Give ABC credit for getting the football part right. As interesting as the network’s recent experiment with comic Dennis Miller in the broadcast booth often was, having Al Michaels and John Madden announcing the game this year, as they had on “Monday Night Football” all season long, made it feel like football, at least for a little while.

And the network used its promotional time to push, mostly, actual television series, rather than the reality junk food that it’s been relying on as a short-term ratings fix.

Too bad the football didn’t leave Madden-Michaels much to discuss. They were reduced to — in the third quarter, with the score 34-9 in favor of eventual runaway winner Tampa Bay Buccaneers — putting thoughts in the heads of legendary football coaches not in attendance.

Also on the ball was rival broadcaster NBC, which earns points for taking its best shot at the ABC audience by running a special edition of “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update during halftime.

The Tina Fey and, especially, Jimmy Fallon cutesy-duo act is growing a touch tiresome by now, but it was at least several notches above last year’s NBC gambit of sticking Playboy Bunnies in a “special” halftime edition of reality gross-out series “Fear Factor.”

Memorable line, from Fallon: “Anheuser-Busch is once again the Super Bowl’s single largest sponsor. And in honor of that, I’m hammered.”

From Fey: “If you weren’t watching the Super Bowl, welcome to America!”

To be sure, there was some cleverness on display in this year’s ads. FedEx, playing off the Tom Hanks movie “Cast Away,” delivered a dose of dark irony, even as it suggested to people how reliable the service is.

In the ad, a shaggy FedEx guy, after five years of being marooned with a package, brings it to the addressee only to find out it contained a satellite phone and other rescue/survival items.

Compare that to the much flatter rendition of the same theme in an AT&T cellular spot, featuring the “Gilligan’s Island” gang being able, with a cell phone, to simply call for rescue.

Budweiser’s football-playing Clydesdales waiting for an official to review a replay started Sunday’s Ad Bowl off with a bang. The zebra serving as the referee was a great touch.

But Anheuser-Busch’s position as the most aggressive advertiser was mostly a case of big dollars
ill spent.

The company’s series of Bud Light ads attempted to be funny, in an appeal-to-young-men way, but mostly fell flat. Guy sticks shaggy dog on head and pretends to be Rasta man. Guy has third arm attached so he can always reach his Bud Light. These were not multimillion dollar chuckles.

Only three dot-coms showed up to the party this year. Winner was the Yahoo-HotJobs spot artfully displaying people in various stages of occupational boredom.

On the celebrity front, Visa made nice use of Chinese basketball giant Yao Ming’s first name, having him visit a New York City shop and try to cash a check. “Yo,” responds the bored cashier, pointing to the “no checks” sign.

“Yao,” says Ming, pointing to himself. Etc.

But H&R Block’s Willie Nelson ad went nowhere special. The legendary ower of back taxes was made to perform in a shaving-cream commercial to pay those taxes.

All things considered, animals outshone celebrities as product pitch-creatures. The aforementioned buffalo and monkeys didn’t quite work, true. And nobody needed to see the dead bird in the ad for sandwich chain Quizno’s.

But Trident did offer an amusing spin on its old “four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum” line. The fifth dentist, it turns out, shouted “no” because a squirrel was crawling too far up his pant leg at the moment.

At least that guy got to experience a little jolt of excitement.

They sure beat watching the game

Though it’s not saying much, the Super Bowl entertainment and commercials outperformed the players during this year’s play- it-safe extravaganza. Commercial air time was dominated by the usual breeds — beer companies, car companies, corporate companies — and there wasn’t much to laugh at. But we saw the first 90-second spot, practically a documentary.


1. Dixie Chicks clear, clean rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” cleanses the musical palate after Celine Dion delivers a typicaly overwrought “God Bless America.”


Best in show

2. The Budweiser Clydesdales, last seen playing football in snow, are waiting around foran official, an actual zebra, to make a call via instant replay. Anheuser-Busch uses humor to tell fans it sympathizes with their frustration

3. Haggard, gaunt FedEx guy, marooned for five years with a package, finally delivers it to addressee. It contains GPS, satellite phone, seeds, etc.

Best of Breed

4. It’s a touch mechanical in the production, but Pepsi Twist spot featuring Osbournes morphing into Osmonds delivers a chuckle and a message about product’s surprising nature.

5. Culture clash fuels Visa’s clever “Yo”-“Yao” slot, with rangy Chinese hoopster Ming trying to cash check in NYC store.


6. H&R Block has bright idea to use IRS-haunted WIllie Nelson as pitchman, but can only come up with feeble notion of having him pitch mediocre shaving cream to pay his back taxes.

7. Sandwich chain Quizno’s tries to cleverly push idea that their chef thinks only about good ingredients, but does so by sticking a neglected house pet, a now-dead bird, in their food ad. Uh, you want chips with that?

8. Chrysler has what looks like hot new car in Crossfire. So why is it using middle-of-the-roadster Celine Dion, singing a song that sounds like one of Cher’s disco rejects, to pitch it?

9. Bud Light tries, desperately, several times, but is only truly funny once – in having successively feeble guys motivated to carry refrigerator full of product in Strongman competition. Spot with man wearing dog on his head flopped.