A Super Bowl Peek


By Barbara Lippert

In the last 10 years or so, the idea of watching the Super Bowl for the ads has become such a cultural imperative that we’ve turned into a nation of veritable Simon Cowells—not necessarily wearing the scowls and the tighty T-shirts but nevertheless approaching the commercial breaks with the same diagnostic eyes and acerbic quips at the ready.

During the pregame, we sit through the endless movie promos and bad local ads we’ve already seen on the evening news and get even more desperate for fresh blockbuster meat. Given all the hype, the advertisers ponying up the big bucks tend to keep their plans supersecret until the Big Day, with some even shooting until the eleventh hour. What will be new and different this year? Political advertising is a non-grata subject on CBS, but make way for penises—we’ve become so unsqueamish about erectile dysfunction that apparently all three pharmaceutical companies may buy into the erectile bowl. (Levitra and newcomer Cialis are confirmed, and Viagra is a possibility.)

As usual, there will be stupid pet tricks and stupid human tricks galore. Lay’s, for one, has a spot promoting its new crispier chip, showing grandparents fighting over the bag: He knocks the little woman and her walker over with his cane; she’s prostrate on the floor, but she’s scored—she has his teeth. Two other clients who’ve released their spots early are showcasing work from their latest agencies—Staples having left Cliff Freeman for Martin/Williams, and Monster having moved from Arnold to Deutsch. 

I don’t think you need a huge production to make a successful Super Bowl spot. It’s more important to do something clever with established brand positioning and follow-up. Staples follows that rule smartly, and I wish I could say the spot is stupendo, but it isn’t. It’s a drawn-out Mafia joke, and post-Sopranos, those are played out in advertising, period. It comes from the same grim comic genre as the best recent Staples spot from M/W, featuring desperate people hoping to find the right printer cartridge as a zomboid employee at supply store X calls out endless letter and number combos. That had a more immediate charge, especially since it was aimed at home-office people who know that particular hell well.

By contrast, this spot has a corporate setting, and though the details are funny (bad paneling, bad fluorescent lighting), they don’t exactly light up the screen. And while we can relate to the idea of the bureaucrat who uses access to the supply closet as a weapon, the spot never really establishes how one employee circumvents the system by going to Staples—and with whose money.

Power-mad Randy, the “supply supervisor,” wears a major comb-over and ’70s-style aviator glasses. He sits behind a large desk, his lackey behind him, as downtrodden employees file in, as though to Mecca, begging for stuff (and setting up the Godfather-ish punchline). “I need an ink cartridge?” a woman asks tentatively, and Randy says, “We all have needs, Julie.” She offers a doughnut with sprinkles, which goes into his drawer with all the other pastry graft. (Have you noticed how many sprinkled doughnuts have shown up in ads lately?)

They keep asking—and he stays on the take. “Half a Danish—half a folder!” he tells one guy. Then another shows up with a Staples bag full of supplies and his own henchman, the doughy-faced Jelly character from Analyze This, actor Joe Viterelli. Randy looks up in horror, asking, “What do you want from me?” and Jelly says, “Cream puff!” Randy shrieks, “You monster!” It’s a very long way to go for the joke, which is a bit stale, and it won’t exactly make actual supply officers mad with glee. 

Plus, by yelling, “Monster!” he’s inadvertently giving a plug to the brand that will debut two spots on the Super Bowl. Only one was available at press time, “Soulmates,” which fits into the sensibility of Deutch’s previous low-key spot, “Today,” but is much groovier. In fact, it invents a whole new universe of grooviosity.

It’s a simple idea, following a young job seeker and a CEO through their morning rituals as they wake to similar buzzers, get dressed, feed the fish, head for the office and work the same crossword puzzle. The job seeker takes the subway, and the big guy is chauffeured, but they end up in the same place. The secret is in the execution. The cinematography and cuts are cool and eye-catching (although what is it with these dudes and their fussy, ’60s-style mod do’s?); the music, “I Dig You,” by Robert Smith of the Cure, is nutty, with its repetitive and delightfully wild and oddly Barney-like, “I dig you/You dig me” lyrics and mad guitar riffs. They dig each other, it turns out, as they meet for an interview and shake hands.

It’s almost hypnotically light and upbeat—a huge improvement over last year’s crash-and-burn attempt from Arnold to get attention by having a giant truck go up in flames. (Though in fairness, the Boston agency also created one of the best Super Bowl commercials of all time for Monster, the “When I Grow Up” series.)

Houston, it’s gonna be a long afternoon.