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.
The Olympics aren't just the perfect sales platform for international stars like LeBron James. As this New York Times article points out, the Summer Games is the rare sporting event that isn't an exclusively male preserve. Nike, which has long courted women with its ad campaigns, is one of many companies using Beijing to reach female viewers. "We Have Softball," a collection of slo-mo action shots of amateur and Olympic athletes set to "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA," serves as a sort of elegy for the sport and the American team—after four appearances in the Summer Games, softball has been excised from the 2012 program.
While the ad is beautifully filmed and edited—and grew more poignant on Thursday with the Americans' loss to Japan in the sport's final gold-medal game—it's not exactly subtle. The sneaker giant's market research must indicate that women cannot resist visual metaphor. Last year's big Nike Women campaign centered on athletes yelling stuff like "the half-pipe doesn't care that I'm a girl" into a giant megaphone. At the end of this summer's softball spot, a player smashes a bunch of trophies with her aluminum bat as the screen reads: "We have softball. You can have everything else." Take that, International Olympic Committee! A second Nike ad, "A Dream Deferred," is far more appealing. This spot, which sets a Sanya Richards training session to the words of the Langston Hughes poem, doesn't rely on over-the-top girl power rhetoric. It's a simple celebration of the toils of a world-class athlete, one who, like the U.S. softball team, didn't have the Olympics she was hoping for. (Yes, Richards' figure is juxtaposed with an image of a white dove, but let's ignore that.)
Nike's most-ubiquitous Olympics ad isn't designed to appeal to women.
"Courage"—an ultraquick-cutting montage set to the "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier" refrain from the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" that includes footage of Cristiano Ronaldo playing soccer, Maria Sharapova playing tennis, flowers blooming, a fetus, a pack of deer, the moon landing, a marionette, geishas, Lance Armstrong in bed ravaged by cancer, Lance Armstrong out of bed and winning the Tour de France, and a pack of bison—seems niche-marketed to stock footage archivists and amphetamine abusers. The only image in the minute-long commercial that lingers for more than a nanosecond is the closing shot of Oscar Pistorius, the runner with carbon-fiber legs who tried and failed to qualify for the Beijing Games.
That isn't the only Olympic spot to feature a handicapped athlete. A Home Depot ad that focuses on the Olympians who work for the company to help make ends meet—"I care about rowing so much that I spend my days helping middle-aged dudes find the right-sized wing nut!"—features four separate shots that linger on a Home Depot-employed high jumper's artificial leg. And then there's the Chevy Silverado ad that closes with a Paralympian in a racing wheelchair extolling the virtues of his truck.
What's bothersome about these ads is that they use wheelchairs and prostheses as a punctuation mark. You thought those regular old Olympians were inspirational, well, get a load of the guy with the artificial limb! Sure, the Paralympics is a fantastic event, but it strikes me as disingenuous for Nike, Chevrolet, et al. to use handicapped athletes as sentiment-generators when they're really angling for the humongous audiences that watch the Olympic Games. In 2004, no American broadcaster broadcast live from the Paralympic Games. No plans for live coverage have been announced for this year, either; a spokesman for NBC Sports says there "may be a limited amount of live and highlights coverage." The unintended message is that disabled athletes are inspirational enough for a one-second clip in a commercial but not worthy of carrying an entire broadcast. The athletes here become cheap signifiers of adversity conquered, an easy way to telegraph that your product is "inspirational." That sound familiar, NBC?