Ad nauseum: Super Bowl spots go for laughs, come up short

As the refrain starts up, the crowd leans forward in anticipation. The familiar strains of the theme to “Gilligan’s Island” fill the room while the Skipper and Mary Ann prepare to board the Minnow as they have thousands of times during the show’s introduction; the audience is drawn in. But all is not right in TV Land. With little warning, the chorus of voices changesits tune, diverging from the familiar song to hock Gilligan’s new AT&T mobile phone that “has the Coast Guard on speed dial.” The tale of a fateful ship is thus averted thanks to MLife – the crowd is suitably outraged, betrayed by the callow transition from the nostalgic to the crass.

Dozens of companies shelled out between $2.1 million and $2.2 million for 30-second slots during the highest-rated television event of the year, and millions more to develop ads that would stand up under the close scrutiny of a nation of consumers concerned with seeing a cute punch-line. The AP post-mortem runs in every newspaper in the country the morning after, while groups as dissimilar as ESPN and NOW issue group-specific critiques of various campaigns.

Unlike in most other NFL contests, however, ads for the big game cannot solely target football fans, as the Coors Light “Twins” spots did throughout the regular season. Recent studies have suggested that between 10 and 40 percent of the gigantic viewing audience tune in expressly for the commercials, which often operates as a double-edged sword for advertisers – the broad-based public appeal presents a unique opportunity to reach different demographic groups at once, but companies must strive to produce something equally of interest to all those groups. The recurring result, as viewers of Sunday night’s contest can surely attest, is advertiser schizophrenia and widespread confusion.

Of course, a critically or publicly-panned spot cannot be considered a complete failure when more than a hundred million viewers have been exposed to the company’s wares or services. Even the ads that draw the most fire work in a way for their sponsors – after all, no publicity is bad publicity, and having your company’s name bandied around the office cooler in any context can be profitable in the long term.

Success is preferable to failure, of course, and the only perennially undisputed winners of the night are the film studios running trailers for upcoming films. The underlying logic for purchasing television airtime for trailers is to increase general awareness of the film, and there exists no greater opportunity for getting the word out to the public that “The Matrix” is back than at the most public television event of all. “Daredevil,” “Hulk” and “Terminator 3” all debuted new spots with previously unreleased footage – a nice touch which simultaneously offered casual viewers the best cuts of the new material and satisfied hardcore film fans who had been eagerly awaiting glimpses of their favorite superheroes.

Anheuser-Busch drew some raves purely on volume alone; with 11 spots, it was by far the largest individual advertiser for the second year in a row, and unsurprisingly offered a line-up of male-targeted butt jokes and relationship gags. Some were strange (Teck from “The Real World” with three arms? What?), and most were at least somewhat offensive, but the clear winner was their first spot of the evening, which confronted the problem of instant replay in the annual Clydesdale football contest. The punch-line (“That ref’s a jackass / No, I think that’s a zebra”) was both entertaining and eerily prescient, as replay was needed to decide a fumble call on the very next play after the break.

FedEx’s “Castaway” parody was also wildly popular, as was the late-game airing of Reebok’s “Office Linebacker” spot. Both relied upon the viewer’s knowledge of film for maximum enjoyment, but even those souls unfamiliar with the inside jokes of a water purifier, Felcher and Sons or putting a cover sheet on your TPS reports had physical comedy and long hair to laugh at. “Other than the beer ads, these were the only ones that really stood out,” George Evans ’04 said.

Indeed, much of the remaining rundown of commercials left parts of the crowd somewhat cold. H&R Block’s much-ballyhooed Willie Nelson spot offered viewers the spectacle of the aging rocker “acting” senile and helpless, but wrapped itself in a cumbersome lead-in. Quizno’s pant-less owner was vaguely amusing but was so much tripe in comparison to their brilliant blow-dart-in-the-neck work from last year. The flying monkey set to Thus Spoke Zarathustra started off brilliantly, but plummeted once the room found out it was hocking a product they’d never heard of (Pepsi’s Sierra Mist, which could be Pine Sol for all anyone knows about it).

More than a few ads were seen as outright failures by the audience. Hanes’ inexplicable pairing of Jackie Chan and Michael Jordan in a fake itching display worthy of “Tommy Boy” was both pointless and ineffective, failing even to mention its product (a tag-less t-shirt) until the closing moments of the disappointing spot.

Pepsi Twist unzipped the Osbourne kids into the Osmonds as Ozzy pretended to be surprised, and later rolled over in bed next to Florence Henderson. “Is this what passes for humor among today’s youth?” Zak Haviland ’04 wondered aloud. “It is both dull and dim-witted. For shame.”

No campaign drew as much vitriol, though, as did the pair of anti-marijuana spots. The ads – one of which depicted a subway flashback of the alleged victims of a man’s drug use, while the other desperately tried to link pot to teen pregnancy – elicited a chorus of boos from the crowd, unmoved by the over-reaching themes or hyperbolic nature of the spots. “That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen,” Steve Rahl ’05 said. “Where do they get off putting stuff like this on the air?”

Even upon sober reflection, the spots appeared offensive to more than a few students. “We feel that these assertions reflect intellectual dishonesty on the part of the establishment,” said Mike Chaberski ’05, president of the Williams chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “In no way do these ads contribute to a meaningful dialogue about the place of marijuana in today’s America.”

Or, as Cara Chocano put it on Salon.com, “It’s really weird. . .like they got the stoners mixed up with the football players and pot confused with beer.” For this Super Bowl ad season, such confusion was par for the course.

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