Super Bowl TV ads - nostalgic and family safe

Ranking Super Bowl ads. Chronicle Graphic

This was the eighth Super Bowl of the 21st century, but if you were only paying attention to the commercials, you might have thought it was the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s.

It wasn’t just older themes that played during the between-plays breaks in Super Bowl XLII, such as Budweiser’s Dalmatians and Clydesdales, which have been commercial stars during the big game for decades. Sunday’s Super Bowl ads also referred to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the Andrea True disco song “More, More, More” and the “Saturday Night Live” skit that led to the 1998 movie “A Night at the Roxbury.” And that was just in the first half.

Nostalgia was definitely the way to go for many of the top advertising agencies that handled the multimillion-dollar accounts for Super Bowl regulars such as Anheuser-Busch, Coke and Pepsi – and newcomers including Tide. But it was also part of a general theme of playing it safe that was pervasive this year. After Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple shocked the world in 2004 and Budweiser featured a chainsaw-wielding madman in 2007, this year’s ads were almost all fun and fit for the family.

“Less brave. No risk,” wrote Publicis US advertising executive Bob Moore, who was live blogging on “More talking animals.”

As for the quality, it was a decent year, with several memorable ads and only a couple of catastrophes, including some Chinese stereotype pandas for a commercial that seems most likely to result in the first Super Bowl ad apology of the season. (Or maybe not. A Salesgenie exec boasted that his commercials were intentionally bad. In this game, some companies want negative attention.)

Around the blogosphere, the public seemed to be split, with many of the armchair critics acting underwhelmed with the output – while several experts who write about the advertising world suggested it was a pretty good year.

Standouts included a nostalgia-saturated Coke commercial, where giant parade balloons of Underdog and “Family Guy” baby Stewie duke it out over New York for an inflatable bottle of Coke, before it gets swiped by a Charlie Brown balloon. (The special effects were seamless – and after losing the football all those years, it was cathartic to see Chuck come out ahead.) A Tide ad with a talking stain was short, cute and memorable, as was Justin Timberlake getting dragged all over the city for Diet Pepsi Max.

But while the critics like style, the masses often go for the lowest common denominator. Planters Nuts will likely have a fan favorite with its commercial that focuses on a homely girl with a unibrow – who uses cashews as a perfume. And for the second time in four years, a Bud Light advertisement ended with a guy’s date getting torched by fire. At least this time the culprit wasn’t a flatulent horse.

This was also the year for late finishers, which seemed at times to match the thrilling come-from-behind 17-14 victory by the New York Giants. The Coke parade-balloons commercial came at the start of the fourth quarter, which is often a dumping ground for advertisements. And Amp energy drink may have stolen the show with a shirtless overweight guy who hooks up battery cables to his nipples and jump-starts a truck.

That was arguably the raciest ad of the afternoon, and even it had an element of nostalgia – with the Amp guy dancing to the 1986 Salt-n-Pepa song “Push It.” Other music from the past included the 1979 song “Escape (The Pina Colada song)” and “Thriller” from 1984, which featured lizards mimicking the choreography from that song’s video. (Which would have been a hit if we hadn’t all seen the same idea executed better in last year’s viral YouTube video of prisoners in the Philippines doing the same dance.)

The songs weren’t the only blasts from the past. Among the older movies that inspired ads were “The Godfather” for Audi – complete with a cameo by actor Alex Rocco, who played Moe Greene in the movie – and the “Night at the Roxbury” skit for Pepsi, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by original head-bobber Chris Kattan. There were also a couple of talking baby ads, which seemed left over from the Baby Bob commercials from the dotcom era.

On the SFGate Culture Blog, where readers were commenting on a live blog of the advertisements, opinions of the quality of the 2008 ads seemed split between good and bad, sometimes in the same post.

“I agree Salesgenie ads were shameful and the baby ads were creepy beyond belief,” posted one viewer. “Can’t believe so much money was wasted. The pigeon ad and Pepsi max bopping heads were funny though.”

And with the game remaining interesting until the final seconds, for once the advertisements didn’t even have a chance of stealing the show.

“Wow,” wrote another poster. “For the first time in many years the game is more interesting than the commercials!”


— To read comments about the Super Bowl commercials, go to the Culture Blog at


The memorable and the squirm-inducing

Three best ads

1. Coke parade balloons: Three cartoon character parade balloons float over New York and fight it out for a bottle of Coke, with Charlie Brown coming out ahead. The visuals were great, it was very sweet and people will remember the product.

2. FedEx pigeons: The competition still delivers packages with carrier pigeons, including some that have Terminator-style cyborg eyesight (yet another 1980s reference) and other giant ones that can throw a car through a window. Very funny and clever.

3. Tide “My Talking Stain”: A job applicant gives his credentials, but all the interviewer can focus on is the gibberish-talking stain on his shirt. This was Tide’s first ad and it hit it out of the park, with something understated and memorable that tied in well to the brand.

Three worst ads

1. talking panda: A cartoon panda speaks in a Chinese accent that even Rosie O’Donnell would find offensive – which apparently was all part of the plan to prove that bad publicity is better than none.

2. Danica Patrick: GoDaddy once again plays the “we’re-so-controversial-we-got-banned” card, directing viewers to its Web site to see the company’s rejected ad. That commercial is very lame, adding little to the “beaver” joke from “The Naked Gun” while failing in its tease to show Patrick in something skimpy.

3. Doritos “Message from Your Heart”: If we wanted to see some singer we’ve never heard of playing an acoustic guitar, we’d skip the Super Bowl and go to a local coffee shop. Doritos is generally solid, but this was a miss.

– Peter Hartlaub

Online resources

To see all the Super Bowl ads:


To read what other viewers had to say about the Super Bowl commercials, go to the Culture Blog on


Ranking Super Bowl ads

BEST: Coca-Cola’s commercial featured a tussle between cartoon character balloons.

WORST:’s Chinese stereotype pandas should prompt an apology.