Super Bowl Ads of Cartoonish Violence, Perhaps Reflecting Toll of War


No commercial that appeared last night during Super Bowl XLI directly addressed Iraq, unlike a patriotic spot for Budweiser beer that ran during the game two years ago. But the ongoing war seemed to linger just below the surface of many of this year’s commercials.

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More than a dozen spots celebrated violence in an exaggerated, cartoonlike vein that was intended to be humorous, but often came across as cruel or callous.

For instance, in a commercial for Bud Light beer, sold by Anheuser-Busch, one man beat the other at a game of rock, paper, scissors by throwing a rock at his opponent’s head.

In another Bud Light spot, face-slapping replaced fist-bumping as the cool way for people to show affection for one another. In a FedEx commercial, set on the moon, an astronaut was wiped out by a meteor. In a spot for Snickers candy, sold by Mars, two co-workers sought to prove their masculinity by tearing off patches of chest hair.

There was also a bank robbery (E*Trade Financial), fierce battles among office workers trapped in a jungle (CareerBuilder), menacing hitchhikers (Bud Light again) and a clash between a monster and a superhero reminiscent of a horror movie (Garmin).

It was as if Madison Avenue were channeling Doc in “West Side Story,” the gentle owner of the candy store in the neighborhood that the two street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, fight over. “Why do you kids live like there’s a war on?” Doc asks plaintively. (Well, Doc, this time, there is.)

During other wars, Madison Avenue has appealed to a yearning for peace. That was expressed in several Super Bowl spots evocative of “Hilltop,” the classic Coca-Cola commercial from 1971, when the Vietnam War divided a world that needed to be taught to sing in perfect harmony.

Coca-Cola borrowed pages from its own playbook with two whimsical spots for Coca-Cola Classic, “Happiness Factory” and “Video Game,” that were as sweet as they were upbeat. The commercials, by Wieden & Kennedy, provided a welcome counterpoint to the martial tone of the evening.

Those who wish the last four years of history had never happened could find solace in several commercials that used the device of ending an awful tale by revealing it was only a dream.

The best of the batch was a commercial for General Motors by Deutsch, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies, in which a factory robot “obsessed about quality” imagined the dire outcome of making a mistake.

The same gag, turned inside out, accounted for one of the funniest spots, a Nationwide Financial commercial by TM Advertising, also owned by Interpublic. The spot began with the singer Kevin Federline as the prosperous star of an elaborate rap video clip. But viewers learned at the end it was only the dream of a forlorn fry cook at a fast-food joint.

Then, too, there was the unfortunate homonym at the heart of a commercial from Prudential Financial, titled “What Can a Rock Do?”

The problem with the spot, created internally at Prudential, was that whenever the announcer said, “a rock” — invoking the Prudential logo, the rock of Gibraltar — it sounded as if he were saying, yes, “Iraq.”

To be sure, sometimes “a rock” is just “a rock,” and someone who has watched the Super Bowl XIX years in a row only for the commercials may be inferring things that Madison Avenue never meant to imply.

Take for instance a spot by Grey Worldwide, part of the WPP Group, for Flomax, a drug sold by Boehringer Ingelheim to help men treat enlarged prostates.

“Here’s to men,” the announcer intoned, “to guys who want to spend more time having fun and less time in the men’s room.”

It was not difficult to imagine guests at noisy Super Bowl parties asking one another, “Did he just say, ‘guys who want to spend more time having fun in the men’s room?’ ”

Another off-putting moment was provided by a stereotyped character in a commercial by Endeavor for a hair dye, Revlon Colorist. He was described as the stylist for the singer Sheryl Crow, and he was clearly miffed about her using the product.

“Revlon? Color?” he asked, pouting and rolling his eyes. “I am the colorist.”

What follows is an assessment of some of the other high and low points among the commercials shown nationally during the game on CBS. The spots are among 36 provided to a reporter before the game, out of the total of about 56 that were scheduled to run.

ANHEUSER-BUSCH Each year, Anheuser-Busch manages to offset the typically coarse commercials for Bud Light with a charmer or two for its Budweiser brand. Last night, the brewer went two-for-two with a pair of spots about animals. One commercial tugged at the heartstrings with a bedraggled mutt whose wish to jump on the Bud band wagon — literally and figuratively — came true. The other, sillier spot presented a beachful of anthropomorphic crabs starting a Bud-centric version of a cargo cult. Agency: DDB Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group.

CADBURY SCHWEPPES A wry, low-key commercial showed an ardent fan of Snapple Green Tea, sold by Cadbury Schweppes, traveling all the way to China to learn the secret of its appeal. The punch line, that the answer was closer than he imagined, was not unexpected. Still, it was delivered deftly. Agency: Cliff Freeman & Partners, part of MDC Partners.

DIAMOND FOODS Mr. Federline was not the only celebrity to poke fun at his public persona. A wacky spot for the Emerald line of nuts sold by Diamond Foods presented the crooner Robert Goulet as a nefarious evil-doer. Perhaps he was auditioning for a role in the next Austin Powers movie — or to replace William Shatner in the Priceline campaign. Agency: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, owned by Omnicom.

GODADDY Another Super Bowl, another cheesy commercial for GoDaddy, the Web site registrar operated by the GoDaddy Group. This time, there was a wild party in the office of the GoDaddy marketing department. “Everybody wants to work in marketing,” a character says with a smirk. Hey, GoDaddy, go get Mommy — maybe she knows how to make a halfway decent Super Bowl spot. Agency: created internally.

PEPSICO Two spots for Sierra Mist, sold by the Pepsi-Cola division of PepsiCo, were not as funny as those from the game last year. A third commercial, for Sierra Mist Free, hit the jackpot with a punch line that, well, came up short, as in the abbreviated shorts worn by the comedian Jim Gaffigan. Agency: BBDO Worldwide, part of Omnicom.

SPRINT NEXTEL By now, even the most spoof-loving consumer is probably tired of commercials that mock commercials for prescription drugs. But a spot from Sprint Nextel managed to elicit laughs. The parody was dead-on, down to the hushed-voice announcer promising that Sprint Mobile Broadband would help those who “can’t take care of business the way others do” by curing their “connectile dysfunction.” Agency: Publicis & Hal Riney, part of the Publicis Groupe.