Super Bowl commercials—self-important, big-budget chunks of pitchmanship—reflect the fact that people watch the game as an excuse to watch the ads. The commercials we've seen on NBC since Aug. 8, generators of more than $1 billion in revenues for the network, reflect the fact that people watch the Olympics to watch the Olympics. The Summer Games drag on for two weeks and are broadcast for 8,000 hours a day. The commercials aren't any sort of enticement; they're the ever-present obstacle you have to leap over (or zoom past on your DVR) if you hope to stay awake long enough to see Michael Phelps beat some French guys. Super Bowl ads, designed as standalone entertainments, don't typically show anyone playing or talking about football. Most Olympic commercials, sneakily trying to blend in with the stuff we actually want to see, look and sound exactly like the Olympics.
McDonald's, a longtime Olympic sponsor, is a master of the form. Take the ad below, in which a thoroughly depilated weightlifter, a Shawn Johnson-look-alike moppet, and an Eastern European runner with gold-medal abs describe their passionate, lifelong quest to secure … a Southern Style Chicken Sandwich.
Mickey D's shows clear command of the tone and content of Olympics blather: "I've been dreaming about it since I was a kid," say the chicken-starved athletes. Nevertheless, it's hard to see this campaign—also featuring a spot in which smiley jocks congregate to scarf down McNuggets in the "Athletes Village"—as anything but a missed opportunity. Consider that Michael Phelps loves McDonald's. Also consider Usain Bolt's claim that on the day he preened his way to the 100-meter world record, he ate nothing but chicken nuggets. Potential sales impact of generic Russian lady saying she wants a sandwich: not insignificant, because she has amazing abs. Potential sales impact of most-decorated Olympian ever and fastest man in world history revealing they're both fueled entirely by barbecue sauce: much larger. Then again, perhaps McDonald's was wise to play it safe. Tyson Gay regularly proclaims his love for the company's products, and you saw what happened to him.
Not every mega-corporation is as lily-livered when it comes to featuring real athletes. In its "Go World" spots, narrated by Morgan Freeman, Visa spotlights Bob Beamon, Nastia Liukin, Michael Phelps, and other Olympians past and present. Besides the ads' regrettable color palette, which suggests that our heroes are suspended in pools of urine, there's not much to quibble with here, at least if you acknowledge that the goal of every Olympics ad is to mimic the NBC style.
The quintessential Visa Olympics ad focuses on Derek Redmond, the Brit who, assisted by his dad, dragged himself to the finish line after pulling a hamstring in the 400-meter dash.
"He," says Freeman, pausing dramatically as violins groan loudly in the background, "and his father"—another pause, with the violins growing more insistent—"finished dead last"—pause, two-second-long freeze frame on Redmond's agonized face—"but he"—pause—"and his father"—pause—"finished." Al Trautwig, you might want to start looking for a new gig.
Along with their generic, triumph-over-adversity message, the "Go World" ads promote the idea that the Olympics are a time when "6 billion of us ... come together to stand and cheer and celebrate as one." Coke's "Bring Home the World" ads, featuring a cast of American Olympics stars that quaffs from "limited-edition" collectible cans bearing the Coca-Cola logo in different languages, peddle a similarly banal internationalism.
Where I'm from, Earth, the Olympics are about rooting for other countries to lose so yours can win. There is one Coke commercial that's honest about Olympian foreign relations.
In the animated spot above, Cartoon Yao and Cartoon LeBron do battle by summoning cultural stereotypes: a dragon, a trio of pandas, and some ninjas for Yao, a cowboy, brown bears wearing sunglasses, and a marching band for LeBron. (Big advantage: China.) In the end, the basketball superstars break the tension by sharing a Coke and a smile. The spot is called "Unity": May we do battle on the court, then come together to sell sugar water.