Special Super Bowl edition.

Special Super Bowl edition.

Special Super Bowl edition.

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 2 2004 11:57 AM

The Super Bowl Special

For once, the ads were worse than the game.

Not Super ads
Not Super ads

OK, here's the scene: My beloved Pats are in the Big Game. The commercial break hits. My friends all line up at the keg and start chowing the chili. And where am I? Alone, crouching by the television, straining to hear through the house party din, not drinking (!), furiously jotting notes into a steno pad. Fun! And yet, much like Adam Vinatieri, I come through when it counts. I give you my selective Super Bowl ad diary. (If you want to see the spots for yourself, click here.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Post-Beyoncé anthem, pre-kickoff:

  • Pizza Hut introduces a new four-section pie (I believe it was termed the "Four-for-all") with Jessica Simpson and the Muppets. I have not much to say about this, except: Did you notice Miss Piggy's new haircut? It used to be curly and brassy (sort of a '70s Farrah Fawcett look), but now she's had it straightened, with bangs (more like a Sex and the City Kim Cattrall look). I think she had some work done, too.

First Quarter:

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  • The first commercial break after kickoff is often a time for big guns to roll out. But this year felt a bit weak. The first post-kickoff spot we get is a precursor to an evening of generic offerings, light on spectacle, lacking celebrities. In this ad, a guy trains his dog to fetch Bud Light, while another guy trains his dog to maul the first guy's crotch. It's a nod to the old Coors Super Bowl ad in which a guy trains his dog to fetch beer, and it got laughs at the party I was at (groin-biting=comedy). But it felt to me like just another semifunny beer ad. Not worthy of prime, first-ad-after-kickoff placement.
  • AOL Top Speed is so incredibly fast that, when somehow rigged to a motorcycle, it causes some dude to jump really far and hurt his neck. In later ads, other vehicles are supercharged by AOL Top Speed, with similar injurious results for the hapless dude. Verdict: This whole series of spots left me cold. Don't get me wrong—I'm all for tricked out, custom motorcycles. But I had no idea who these Orange County Chopper guys were until somebody clued me in (turns out they have their own cable show). Even if I did know who they were, the ads seemed sort of tired and derivative—they use the same joke three times, and it's a joke I've seen before. I'm not certain, but it seems like maybe AOL has shifted its target market. This ad felt a lot more blue-collar than prior AOL campaigns—we get meat-and-potatoes motorcycle guys instead of happy bourgeois families in cozy dens. Further research required.
  • Bud Light pitchman Cedric the Entertainer gets a bikini wax, by mistake. Our tally stands at: two Bud Light ads, two crotch jokes.
  • A movie spot for Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman. Is this a sequel to Van Wilder?
  • A Monster.com ad cuts back and forth between a job-seeker and his potential boss, as each prepares for the job interview. The two men have identical morning rituals, suggesting that the kid's a good fit and will be hired. And here we have it: The first ad I sort of thought was OK. All the new Monster.com ads strike a nice optimistic tone, with upbeat, hopeful music. They draw on the anticipatory excitement of finding the perfect gig. It's job-hunting as adventure, not desperation.

Second quarter:

  • A Levitra ad, starring spokesman Mike Ditka, compares football to baseball. Not surprisingly, since Levitra is an NFL sponsor and Viagra is endorsed by a baseball star, football comes out on top. Ditka actually says, "Baseball could use Levitra." Translation: Baseball is limp! You can't get it up, baseball! As I have previously shown, Levitra's euphemism for sex is the image of a football being thrown through a tire. In this ad, Ditka throws the football through the tire, and shouts, "You gotta love that!" This forced me to contemplate the thought of a sweaty Ditka, immediately post-coitus, shouting "You gotta love that!" at his partner. Horrifying.
  • A donkey longs to join the Budweiser Clydesdales and gives us the first really good ad of the evening. I like the bit where the donkey gets hair extensions on his legs. In contrast with nearly every other spot we've seen, this ad has character-based humor, a strong narrative, an emotional arc, and a gratifying payoff. Perhaps most important, you'll never forget which product it's for. Bravo, Bud!
  • Pepsi gets endorsed by a bunch of file-swapping teens. They downloaded music illegally and got busted, and now they drink soda. It's a nice little tiptoe by Pepsi: They play up the rebellious youth angle, making martyr-heroes of these kids, yet by partnering with iTunes (Pepsi will give away free downloads to contest winners) they still manage not to tick off the record labels. Well played.
  • It's a romantic, horse-drawn sleigh ride, with candles and Bud Light. But when the horse starts farting, look out! That candle turns into a horse-fart-fueled rocket! New tally: three Bud Light ads, two crotch jokes, one fart joke.
  • IBM's little blond Linux kid watches television, alone in his blindingly white holding cell. Clips of Muhammad Ali flash on the screen. And then suddenly the real Muhammad Ali is right there with him, dispensing advice. I've already analyzed these IBM ads, and I think, for what they're trying to accomplish, they do a great job. But here's an interesting irony: This is the 20th anniversary of the Macintosh 1984 ad—perhaps the most famous Super Bowl ad of all time, with the Big Brother guy, the automaton people, and the hammer-throwing lady. (There was speculation Apple might run an ad to mark the occasion, but no dice.) Back then, IBM was the hegemonic enemy ridiculed in the Mac spot. But this time the monolith is Microsoft (which owns Slate), and, lo and behold, it's IBM that hopes to "shake up the world," as Ali intones.
  • Kids get their mouths washed out with soap—they can't help but curse in disbelief when they see the new line of Chevys. This ad is kind of funny, but what's funnier is that the Linux kid is in it. It's just two commercial breaks later, and already he's gone from grandiose metaphor to kid with soap in mouth. Side note: Shouldn't IBM have some sort of exclusivity clause? They can't be too pleased to see their metaphor hawking cars.

Third quarter. Since I can't leave during the game (don't want to miss any action), and I can't leave during commercials (I'm on the clock), the halftime show is my sole opportunity for a beer break. Which means I miss Janet Jackson's boob!

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  • Shelling out yet another $2 million-plus for yet another 30-second spot, Bud Light brings us an amorous, talking monkey. Why? Because they can. New tally: four Bud Light ads, two crotch jokes, one fart joke, one bestiality joke.
  • The big Cialis launch! At last, another hard-on pill. The selling point with this one is that it lasts for 36 hours. "If a relaxing moment turns into the right moment, will you be ready?" the ad asks. And it shows several common, everyday moments—like taking a walk, doing the dishes, or soaking in side-by-side outdoor bathtubs perched on the side of a mountain. (The more-interesting-than-usual side-effect warning notes that a nonstop, 4-hour erection merits medical attention. Yipes!) Over all, Cialis' branding seems more woman-friendly, with a lot of tender scenes and intimate looks and not a lot of Mike Ditka shouting, "You gotta love that!"

  • A Cadillac goes so fast, or something, that it disrupts the space-time continuum and sends shockwaves rippling out through surrounding matter. OK, whatever. My problem is this: They've been using the same Led Zeppelin song since two Super Bowls ago. I'll get the Led out as much, if not more, than the next guy. But this would have been the perfect time to debut a different Led Zeppelin song, which might give the flagging campaign a much-needed jolt. "Misty Mountain Hop" seems like a car-selling song. Now get on it, Cadillac.
  • The Simpsons shill for MasterCard *in another installment of the interminable "Priceless" campaign. I say the Simpsons, much like the Muppets, are big fat sell-outs. Saving grace: The ad features a cameo from my all-time favorite Simpsons character, the bespectacled and soft-spoken Hans Moleman. Nice to see Hans get some work.

And that's it. There were a few other mildly amusing spots, and an unintentionally hilarious Gillette ad with black-and-white cinematography, angels, and an announcer who emitted a guttural "Yeah!" in a really awkward way. But nothing to write home about. Maybe I was cranky because the Pats seemed in dire straits (I'm not sure my chest has ever been that tight for that long), but this seemed like an exceptionally weak crop of ads. It's the one day when all America celebrates the TV commercial, recognizing it as the art form it has truly become. And this year the commercials let us down. Sure, it's a big night, with a lot of anticipation and pressure. But at the crucial moment the advertisers couldn't perform. Perhaps the ads, like baseball, could use some Levitra.

Correction, Feb. 2, 2004: The piece above initially stated that the Simpsons were "big, fat sell-outs" because they shilled for Visa in a Super Bowl spot. In fact, they sold out by shilling for MasterCard. (Return to corrected sentence.)