Super Bowl ads play it safe 

Advertisers use humor, previously-viewed ads to get across their message at more than $2M per spot.

NEW YORK (Reuters) – This year’s Super Bowl commercials prompted their share of chuckles but failed to summon the fireworks of years past on Sunday night, as most marketers played it safe.

In the advertising world’s annual contest to create the best commercials for the year’s biggest audience, a lack of originality prevailed, according to several Monday morning quarterbacks from Madison Avenue, even as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their first National Football League championship 48-21 over the favored Oakland Raiders.

“I’d say it was a major disappointment, and we really needed the fun,” said Mark DiMassimo, president of New York-based DiMassimo Brand Advertising.

The Super Bowl has historically been a forum for advertisers to break new creative ground, or to coin phrases that are traded around the water cooler the next day, but this year’s ads did neither, DiMassimo said.

“The grandest spot was from Sony (SNE: Research, Estimates) but we’ve all seen that before,” he said of a recycled commercial that showed an older man’s trip into space, “and the funniest spot was the Budweiser spot with the dog on the head, which was just a good visual gag. There was nothing Super Bowlish about it.”

The most popular commercial, according a survey of 167,000 online and cell phone users by McKee Wallwork Henderson Advertising, was a FedEx (FDX: Research, Estimates) spoof of the movie “Castaway,” in which a deliveryman is rescued after years on a desert island, finally returns his package, and discovers it held a satellite phone, fishing rod and water filter.

Rounding out viewers’ top five ads were a Budweiser ad from Anheuser-Busch (BUD: Research, Estimates) that showed a football game played by Clydesdale horses — officiated by zebras — held up by an instant replay ruling; a Reebok spot that introduced the character “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker;” an Anheuser-Busch ad for Bud Light that showed a man use his dog as an impromptu wig to gain entry to a bar, and an ad for Sierra Mist from PepsiCo that featured two ingenious monkeys in search of refreshment.

Low-brow, slap-stick comedy carried much of the night, from an ad for Trident that starred a bloodthirsty squirrel to a trio of body-humor Bud Light ads.

“I wasn’t prepared for the freakish display of body parts from Bud Lite,” said Barbara Lippert, an advertising critic for Adweek magazine. “We also saw the first vomit in a Super Bowl ad,” in a spot for DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge division.

Other standouts for the night included a spot for Visa featuring Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, an eye-catching preview for the upcoming movie “Matrix: Reloaded” and a Mastercard commercial starring three dead U.S. presidents.

Several ads, including the Sony spot and a commercial for Gatorade that featured dueling Michael Jordans, had been shown weeks or months before the Super Bowl, which is usually filled exclusively with ads that are getting their premiere on the industry’s biggest stage.

“It was weird to see so many old ads,” said DiMassimo. “I sensed much smaller production budgets, and we just didn’t have the high flying enthusiasm of some past years…. It’s probably a symptom of how stretched everybody in the industry is.”

The advertising industry has yet to fully emerge from recession, despite near-record prices for commercial airtime. Super Bowl spots on Walt Disney Co. (DIS: Research, Estimates) unit ABC network sold for $2.2 million this year, up about 15 percent from a year ago.

“$2.2 million really is a lot, so if you can amortize it and cut down on production costs (by re-using ads), you do,” said Lippert.

Sony, at least, squeezed out some extra mileage out of its commercial by adding a Web address so viewers could purchase an Internet download of music featured during the ad. The song is an Alana Davis cover of a Crosby Stills Nash & Young oldie, one that could serve as a message to the viewers who now have to wait another year for their Super Bowl fix: “Carry On.”