Simplicity Scores at the Big Game

By David Kiley

One uncomplicated ad shone through among a mediocre crop of Super Bowl spots that featured everything from chimpanzees to celebrities

Anheuser-Busch (BUD ) is tough to beat among advertisers for best Super Bowl ad, and this year’s game was no exception. The winner of the BusinessWeek Online Grand Brand Award goes to the beer giant for its tribute to the American armed forces.

The spot was effective for its simplicity. Veterans in fatigues are walking through an airport with their belongings, apparently home on a respite and cycling through a commercial airport. Onlookers buried in their newspapers, working in eateries, and waiting on line become aware of the group of vets and slowly begin clapping.

The clapping builds and builds until everyone in sight is applauding the valor, hard work, and sacrifices they have made. It’s my experience that the simplest, most uncomplicated storylines work best in advertisements, whether the goal is humor or pathos. This spot, created by DDB Chicago, was easily the best commercial in the game.

RINGING MY BELL.? Typically, the Super Bowl is a hot competition among advertisers and ad agencies for which brand will entertain viewers the most. This year, the dynamics were different. After last year’s Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction,” advertisers and the host, Fox Network, were chastened for the most part. A couple of ads were turned away in the last week because they offended some group or skirted the line of appropriateness.

It was a year best described as “better safe than sorry” (see BW Online, 2/7/05, “Super Bowl Ads: Less Than Superb”). And the game came on the heels of several weeks in which the “thought police” were out in force.

That didn’t deter Anheuser-Busch, which had nine ads in the Super Bowl, the most of any single advertiser, including spots that used humor and sweetness to convey a brand message. And though it may strike some that choosing a salute to the troops is over-the-top for political correctness in the current atmosphere, I didn’t think any of the other spots measured up to this ad. This rang my bell clearly.

Without assigning rankings to the rest of the commercials, I thought five deserved to be recognized as the best of an overall-mediocre group of Super Bowl ads.

Honorable Mentions

Anheuser Busch/Bud Light. When a skydiver refuses to leap from the plane, the jump master throws a six-pack of Bud Light out the hatch as an incentive for him to go. The guy still doesn’t jump — but the pilot does and without a parachute. Good slapstick fun in this spot produced by DDB Chicago. I’m taking the three ads, produced by Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago, as one effort, since they were all on the same theme — a forlorn office worker toiling away with a mischievous band of chimpanzee employees. This guy surely needs a new job. How many times have we all thought we were in the same banana boat?

Subway. Probably the closest the game ads got to edginess this time around. The spot pitching a new line of toasted sub sandwiches, produced by Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, featured a policeman driving up on a parked car that appeared to be the scene of a make-out session hot enough to steam up the windows. It turned out to be two guys sloppily devouring the sandwiches in a session of guilty pleasure. It wouldn’t have been as funny if it were a man and woman.

Ameriquest. The mortgage company was a first-time Super Bowl advertiser. Two commercials, produced by DDB Direct in Venice, Calif., hit the right notes of familiarity. In the first spot, a guy blathering on his cell phone via a concealed microphone steps up to a convenience store counter where the proprietor’s back is turned. The customer is telling someone that he’s “being robbed” because of what he’s paying to have some work done on his house.

He repeats the phrase, “You’re being robbed! You’re being robbed!” The foreign-born store owner, not seeing the guy’s hidden cell phone, misunderstands and starts beating him to a pulp. The tagline: “Don’t judge too quickly. We won’t.” Some of the best ads come from adopting moments that are universal — in this case, the mutton-head who can’t stop talking on his cell phone even when he’s engaged in another activity like buying something at a store counter.

Verizon V-Cast. This ad for a service that transmits video to your cell phone featured overblown personalities like Christina Aguilera and Deion Sanders clamoring to shrink enough to fit in the small cell-phone video screen. Misdirection and celebs, especially those who are egomaniacs turning the humor on themselves, is a time-tested formula. The execution of this spot, by McCann-Erickson in New York, was very good. And it perfectly conveyed what the Verizon product is about.

A Few Parting Thoughts

– Sure, everybody in the commercials business was skittish after last year’s wardrobe malfunction. But if advertisers and agencies don’t raise the bar of creativity for next year’s game, the hoopla over Super Bowl ads will start to die off. I can think of worse problems. But it would be a bad turning point for the ad business.

– Looking at the two coaches on the sidelines dressed so poorly and sloppily, I began to think nostalgically for the days when head coaches wore suits and ties on the sidelines. Here’s to you, Tom Landry and Hank Stram.

– When two advertisers and their agencies come up with essentially the same plot, you know they’re running out of ideas. In one Bud spot, Cedric the Entertainer is trying to tell a guy across a noisy bar that he’s the designated driver. He mimes turning a steering wheel to try to convey the point. The dancers in the bar all think Cedric is doing a new dance move, and everyone starts miming the steering-wheel bit.

Deja vu. In a Diet Pepsi ad, P. Diddy hops a ride in a Diet Pepsi truck to get to an awards show. Everyone there thinks he did it on purpose, and his fans turn up days after the show driving Diet Pepsi trucks as if they’re paying homage to P. Diddy’s trendsetting magnetism.

– The Paul McCartney halftime show, even if it was a conservative response to 2004’s fiasco, was the best in years. And it was a pleasure to hear an act in which all the words being sung were intelligible.

– Listening to Alicia Keyes sing America the Beautiful with St. Augustine-based Florida School for the Deaf & the Blind before the game, in a salute, in part, to the memory of Ray Charles, made me think that we should adopt that song as our national anthem. But to be fair, the military academy choirs performed the best rendition of The Star Spangled Banner I’ve heard in many years.

See you next year.

Kiley is Marketing editor for BusinessWeek. Follow his blog Brand New Day, only on BW Online