Standout ads missing from Super Bowl
Instead of taking creative risks, this year’s crop used tried-and-true themes By Jane Weaver MSNBC
Animal tricks, empowered women and e-business were recurring themes in the commercials of Super Bowl XXXIV, the most expensive TV ads ever aired. The St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans 23-16 in the game’s gut-wrenching final seconds, but for many of the 130 million expected viewers the ads were as big an attraction as the gridiron action. Which commercials scored and which missed the goal?
AMID THE SPLASHY ads for soft drinks, beer, cars and dot-coms, few breakthrough characters stood out during television’s most watched night of the year. More than 30 advertisers – including 17 Internet companies – paid an average of $2.2 million and as much as $3 million for their 30 seconds of television fame in Sunday’s game on ABC.
Most marketers chose tried-and-true themes like comedy and special effects to hold viewers’ attention during what turned out to be a suspenseful and eventful Super Bowl. The result? No one ad is guaranteed to be the talk of Monday morning water coolers.
There were solemn urbanites spouting lines from poet Robert Frost for online career site Monster.com, paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve "walking" in the investment firm John Nuveen’s commercial, an elderly woman running and drinking Tropicana orange juice, a dancing chimpanzee for online broker E-Trade and a bevy of battling brides for OurBeginning.com, an online invitation service.
The night’s big spender Anheuser-Busch came up with a surefire catch phrase in the "Wassup!?" commercial for Budweiser. This year Bud sidestepped cartoon characters like the frogs and the lizards, which have been criticized for appealing to the under-21 set.
In the 30-second spot, a group of guys watching football in a bar call their buddy at home with his girlfriend, delivering their "Yo’s" and "Wassup?" hellos with perfect hip-hop exaggeration. Called "Girlfriend," the ad is a comic play on the kind of male bonding found in WB Network TV shows, more in step with current "guy" attitudes and less reliant on babes in bikinis than typical beer commercials.
For Super Bowl 2000, the beer company’s agency DDB Chicago mixed comedy and emotion in 10 commercials for Bud and Bud Light with a mostly winning brew featuring different taglines. Another of the Bud ads features "Rex," a dog as an actor on the set of a movie western. When Rex can’t howl on cue, he recalls the painful memory of chasing a Bud truck and crashing headfirst into a parked van.
It’s easy to get a laugh showing people interacting with animals. In fact, dogs, cats, snakes, a chimpanzee and other critters turned up in numerous commercials for Budweiser, EDS, Pets.com, Motorola and Mountain Dew. Bud opened the first commercial break after kickoff (historically the most expensive slot of the night) with a dud that featured a bounding Retriever playing with his master. At the commercial’s end, computer animation makes the dog appear to be talking to the camera, a creepy effect right out of the Spike Lee movie "Summer of Sam" where a dog speaks to the infamous serial killer.
Early in the night, online broker E-Trade, which sponsored the half-time show and ran a series of commercials, played off the well-publicized price tag of the night’s ads. A chimpanzee, surrounded by two idiotic guys dances to a wacky version of the Mexican song "La Cucaracha." The tagline: "Well, we just wasted $2 million bucks. What are you doing with yours."
The EDS commercial "Herding Cats," a 60-second spoof of Hollywood Westerns where weathered cowboys try to corral crazed kitties, topped the night for sheer silliness. Most viewers probably didn’t get that EDS manages computer systems for corporations and government. But the ad was worth a belly laugh.
In the first of its two commercials, Mountain Dew went for the easy laugh where a mountain biker chases a cheetah across the Serengetti plain. The biker eventually catches up to the wild cat, shoves his arm down the animal’s throat and pulls out a can of soda. His "bad kitty" line and a shot of his biker buddies hanging out in a tree aren’t much of a payoff. Roughing up animals, even when computer generated, is cheap. However, the other "Do the Dew" spot parodying Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody" was on the money.
WE HOPE IT’S NOT A TREND Off-key singing was featured in the commercials for Agillon.com, where regular people butcher the rock group Queen’s "We are the champions"; Pets.com, in which the sock puppet wails Chicago’s "If you leave me now; and Oldsmobile, an otherwise sharp parody of Gap ads where hyper-trendy young hipsters sing snippets of the Gary Numan new wave classic "Cars."
I AM WOMAN
No doubt the Super Bowl is a testosterone extravaganza. But researchers say nearly 40 percent of the audience is women. That’s why several companies that cater to women put up the big bucks to advertise and others featured strong female characters in their commercials. Oxygen Media, the heavily hyped Oprah Winfrey-backed women’s cable channel launching in February, rolled out its first TV commercial just after half-time. In a maternity ward, newborn girls toss off their pink caps and booties, accompanied by a modern reworking of the 70s feminist anthem "I am Woman."
Presumably the audience for the online invitation service OurBeginning.com is women, although men are more likely to get a kick out seeing women dressed in bridal whites catfighting over wedding invitations. The ad may have been attention getting – and for a little-known dot-com company that’s the whole point – but the commercial itself was a little less annoying than the Super Bowl spot for the World Wrestling Federation where beauty pageant contestant duke it out like WWF muscleheads. The commercial for Tropicana Pure Premium may be better suited for the evening news crowd, but the scenes of an elderly woman jogging through the streets a la "Rocky" to promote the calcium-packed orange juice presented a positive role model. She was likely the only totally gray-haired woman seen on camera throughout the game.
DOT-COMS LEAVE THEIR MARK
Online job sites Monster.com and Hotjobs.com returned for their second Super Bowl appearances. The new black-and-white ad for Monster.com was equally as classy as the one it introduced last year, "When I Grow Up," where children ironically talk about their career goals. But it lacked the originality and came off like too many other e-business commercials where oh-so-serious people talk about the future. Still, hearing lines from Robert Frost’s poem "The Road Not Taken," is a welcome change from typical jokey Internet companies.
Hotjobs.com brought in actor Samuel Jackson as the voice of its new "character," the computer cursor hand. Unfortunately the hand too closely resembles the Microsoft Windows cursor, so viewers not paying too close attention might think it’s an ad for the software company, not an online recruiting firm. (Microsoft is a partner in MSNBC.)
Overall, the dot-coms played it safe, going for laughs but avoiding gross-out humor.