Super Bowl Ads: A Postmortem

It’s been popular for years to say Super Bowl ads are more entertaining than the game, and the ad industry started the rumor. Unfortunately, the ad industry is prone to lying.

The carnage was everywhere. There were car ads about driving fast on winding roads. Beer ads about guys who like sports and women. Budweiser had one where a guy listened to a football game while pretending to listen to a woman who was talking about girl stuff. Yep. It looked like another tragic death by tired old cliché. But there was something more, something deeper. Evidence was mounting like a heap of empty beer cans, piled dimly in the office of a slurring art director.

There were ads for original motion pictures. Another Adam Sandler comedy, another Jim Carrey comedy, another Bad Boys movie, another pair of comic book movies, another pair of Matrix movies, another Terminator movie, and another Charlie’s Angels movie (recycled from TV). Then there were the TV-show ads, like those for Dragnet (another recycled TV series) and Miracles (a recycled X-Files-type series).

Then there were the public service announcements: anti-drug, United Way, spend time with your kids, etc. The Super Bowl’s a perfect time for PSAs with so many kids and parents watching, but why were there so many? A 30-second ad during this year’s game cost over two-million dollars, and here was ABC, packing all that valuable real estate with self-promotion for a bunch of tired-looking television series, PSAs from charities and non-profits, and bland vignettes on previous Super Bowl victors. Where were all the huge, expensive ads from all the huge, grotesquely wealthy companies?

One ad inadvertently exposed the situation. Scene: A happy couple jaunts around town, buying things with Debit Master Card. The greenback presidents—Lincoln, Washington, and Jackson—sit impatiently with nothing to do. Punch line: ‘Leaving your cash at home…priceless.’ Unfortunately, people are leaving their debit cards at home, too. Folks aren’t spending much these days, and neither are the advertisers. Monster.com conjured the perfect metaphor: a driverless 18-wheeler, swerving uncontrollably across the road. The economy’s amuck and no one’s at the wheel. Companies are pinched. They haven’t got the money for original commercials and multi-million-dollar ad space. Something has to give.

Ads are made of money. They cost money to make. Money to run. And if they’re good, the companies make money back, which leads to better ads. But now that the economy’s been strangled for a couple of years, companies are faced with tough decisions. Should they make a brilliant ad and save some money airing it at cheaper times, or make a cheaper ad and bring it to the Super Bowl? Apparently the latter. And what do you get when no one’s got the money for exciting, memorable ads? Super Bowl XXXVII, one small step above public access programming.

Can’t afford current stars? Get a cast of washed-up celebrities. Pepsi Twist: Here come Jack and Kelly Osbourne, revealing to their father Ozzy that they’re really Marie and Donnie Osmond! And when Ozzy wakes to find the revelation was a nightmare, he discovers that his wife is really… Florence Henderson! Ozzy finally emerges as the biggest has-been of all, yet the fact is quickly superceded by the appearance of Michael Jordan in an ad for Gatorade—playing basketball with a much younger Michael Jordan! How’d they do that?? Computer effects, of course, which dazzled audiences back when Christopher Reeve ‘walked’ out his wheelchair, but aren’t we all a little tired of computer wizardry? Michael Jordan playing one-on-one against his younger self is existentially depressing in a thousand different ways, but here’s the worst: TV ads are so lifeless that they resurrect an aging legend from his advertising heyday and it still falls flat.

And if you thought irony was dead, how about tax-addled Willie Nelson doing an ad for H&R Block about doing an ad because he has tax trouble? The ad’s so lame, it makes you misty for the days he did duets with Julio Iglesias.

Can’t afford washed-up celebrities? Recycle old songs, old shows, old movies, even old ads! Ordinary people singing ‘The Rainbow Connection’ from The Muppet Movie: HotJobs.com. Monkeys (they work cheap) in a spoof of the movie 2001: Sierra Mist. Perry Mason footage intercut with imitation Perry Mason courtroom scenes: W.B. Mason. Antiques Roadshow spoof: AT&T M-Life. Gilligan’s Island footage with Gilligan calling for a rescue chopper via cell phone: also AT&T M-Life (one of two different ads about using cell phones on desert islands; the second was a Fed-Ex ad that spoofed the movie Castaway). Best of show? The famous Coors Light ‘twins’ commercial being rewound and fast-forwarded. That’s it. Same ad at different speeds and different directions. Tagline: ‘Here’s to the Remote.’

Can’t afford anything? Cheap humor to the rescue. Annoying mother-in-law in back seat: Ford. A squirrel biting a dentist’s ‘nuts’: Trident. A crab biting a guy’s ear: Bud Light. A guy in an upside-down clown costume seeming to drink beer through his rear-end: Bud Light. The clown ad also features light homosexual gross-out humor; when the man asks for a hot-dog, it’s supposed to be extra funny. And a Smirnoff ad has a guy pretending he’s gay to frighten off the blind date of a woman he’s just met. Because gay people = har-har = very desperate ad agencies struggling to write quality ads without money.

Or maybe it’s too easy blaming everything on money. Aren’t creative folks creative? Why do advertisers need a million dollars to produce a vivid, winning ad? What if Maybe Michael Jordan’s doppelganger represented something else, a yearning not for richer days in television advertising, but for general hope and optimism?

Consider this Diet Pepsi ad. A band is playing an outdoor concert. The concert’s reminiscent of the muddy ’90s Woodstock, which was reminiscent of the sunny ’60s Woodstock. A kid is cheering, shouting, acting young. He notices the guy who’s rocking out beside him is his own father, acting like a wild teenager. The father doesn’t know how desperate he looks. But the son does, and so do we, and the only thing that’s sadder than a grown man wishing he was virile is a company like Diet Pepsi wishing it were fresh again.

And then there’s Sony’s ad about an older man who leaves his comfy home, journeys off to Russia, and takes a trip to outer space. Like Jordan and the father at the concert, the man is born anew, full of vim and vigor like he hasn’t been in years. He floats inside the ship, leaving the past behind. He’s seen the future of his life, spent millions of dollars fulfilling his dream… but what if this is all a grand illusion? What if spending money and rekindling the past are nothing but denials that you’re tired, old, and dying? What’s a guy—or company—to do?

He films himself on a Sony digital camera, his magical new life an instant memory. Back on Earth, he must have worked in advertising.