Time To Call Time Out On Super Bowl Ads?

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Feb 05, 2013

There’s a lot to like, and even more to regret, about the great national day of celebration and worship we Americans hold every year for high-priced television commercials, the one we call Super Bowl Sunday.

Underwritten by car manufacturers and other concerned citizens like beer conglomerates, soda makers and multinational drug companies, these elaborately produced, colossally expensive, 30- and 60-second spots have gotten so darned awesome that many of us now, if we are to believe the media, await Super Bowl ads and the attendant on-line hoopla with as much anticipation and excitement as we reserve for the big game itself -- and more.

For the Super Bowl of football is the Super Bowl of advertising, too, and we’re all meant to keep score. Sit back, close your eyes and imagine one-hundred and eight-million pairs of architectural eyeglasses and a corresponding number of soul patches staring back at you; everyone at home is an advertising creative director now, waiting to rate the holiday handiwork of the advertising industry’s A-teams, as they give it all they’ve got to give for Super Bowl Sunday.

Mercedes' 2011 Super Bowl ad featuring Sean 'P Diddy' Combs.

Indeed, many of us supposedly can’t even wait for Super Bowl Sunday, so they’ve started running the ads on-line, days in advance of their terrestrial broadcast. Viewers are invited to go behind the scenes of the adverts, to learn more about the "making of" said advert, as every strategy for growing digital reach -- real or imagined -- is exploited to get up the view counts for the ads high enough to accrue the bragging rights the seller wants, or at the very least to avoid the embarrassment it dreads. Where once these advertisements were kept top secret until Game Day, thanks to the voracious appetite of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle -- which are always looking for more content, always hungry to rank things for you or with you (Ten Best Nail Polish Removers -- Ever!) -- someone decided in a bold stroke a few years back to reveal their commercial ahead of the game, and now the teasing and pre-mature release of Super Bowl commercial content is treated as a regular hard news item going into the game weekend.

If nothing else, we have an insatiable desire to be entertained. But, of course, the Super Bowl is over now. It’s Tuesday, as I write, and people have left the water cooler. We were inundated by overhyped tv commercials a couple of days ago, and now it’s time to get back to work. Not many people want to talk about it anymore. So forgive me.

Courtesy, or perhaps it is post-traumatic stress, prevents me from invoking memories of all the ads we were exposed to less than 72 hours ago. Increasingly regarded as if these were not only major television events, but also the surely combustible stuff of viral “explosion-ating.” Super Bowl ads, someone has got to say, tend to be minor television events of little viral interest and soon to be forgotten. Though from the  fawning coverage you wouldn’t know that these ads are mostly bad, with an overall success rate, creatively speaking, somewhere near the NFL average for field goal attempts from 60 yards out and over. Like so much in our society the ads are seriously overrated as entertainment, not unlike the Super Bowl itself. But something in me needs to work through it, to try to make sense of what I have seen. Fortunately for you, space limitations will intrude.

But, still. The Volkswagen ad with the rasta white guy. What was that? From Mini Cooper dashboards to stand-up comedy, suffice it to say it’s always chancy when Germans decide to go zany. This time when the Internet lit up for VW, it was not like the cute (but, hello?, highly over-praised) Passat Super Bowl ads of a few years back featuring a young fellow who thought he was Darth Vader. This time the commenters wanted to know if the VW ad was racist or embarrassingly stupid or both? I vote for racially presumptuous if not racist, stupid enough but not funny enough, and definitely not worth the agita. Also working in an allegedly humorous vein to disappointing effect: a Mercedes ad hawking its new, low-priced CLA and starring Willem Dafoe as the Devil, plus an Audi brand builder which seems to endorse unauthorized kissing of the prom queen while her boyfriend stands nearby. Yes, it’s the comedic side of German aggression. And remember what we said about Germans and comedy.

There is surely some larger irony in the fact that some of the most ambitious tv ads on America’s great game day came from foreign (German, Korean and Japanese) carmakers, while most of the American companies stayed home, unless you count Lincoln, who might have been better advised to have a quiet night in. In short, the buttoned-down spots of the Ford Motor Company’s putative luxury brand did not bring sexy back, and its New-er Age offering, a brief introduction to its vaunted but misguided Steer the Script digital marketing initiative, to which Jimmy Fallon has lent his semi-hipster imprimatur, is apparently impossible to explain in 30 or 60 seconds, and won’t, we predict, sell cars. Lincoln’s interactive campaign is emblematic of the direction ad agencies seem so enamored of these days, completely abandoning any obligation on the part of themselves for supplying quality ideas in favor of achieving our era’s key directive: engaging with the great unwashed masses in cyberspace, whatever that means. But people know user-generated drek when they see it, it’s not hard to spot, given that it’s often even worse than the drek generated by professionals. Take away the robo-views, the hype and the blather, and the on-line viewing numbers for this stuff are rarely pretty.

Most Super Bowl commercials today follow a straight line from the soft drink and beer ads of the 1990s and early 2000s to CGI-enhanced extravaganzas with sparring delivery trucks that instantly transform into hip-hop party dungeons with dancing girls and MC Hammer. If anything, today’s offerings are even more elaborate, high-tech and action-filled, although still mostly the stuff of adolescent fantasy, with the ribald, the lewd and the double-entendre all liberally tossed in, along with an occasional appearance by the absurd or otherwise improbable high-concept and, of course, always with a little of the cross dressing.

One notable exception to the standard over-the-top fare would be Chrysler, who discovered with its Eminem and Clint Eastwood ads of Super Bowls past that there is fertile ground in tugging at the nation’s patriotic heartstrings, just when we as a people are at our most vulnerable, i.e, six beers into the game with six more beers and two cubic foot yards of onion-pepperoni-clam dip to go. That would explain its Jeep spot, in which Oprah Winfrey earnestly salutes returning servicemen, a tangential association (for better or worse, our fighting men drive Hummers nowadays), guaranteed to conjure strong emotion and probably even sell some Jeeps. Amusingly, now that they’re owned by Italians, Chrysler has embraced their American roots with all the gusto of a charging 300-pound defensive tackle in search of a quarterback -- and they show no signs of letting go.

The company’s commitment to throwing the emotional long ball was complete this Super Bowl Sunday when it put up its paean to American farmers, a spot featuring a 1978 recording of a speech the late radio announcer Paul Harvey made to a Midwest farmers’ group, entitled “God Made a Farmer.” In the spot, the disembodied voice of this one-time radio staple intones in his distinctive cadence about the resilience of the American farmer while tears swell and a montage of photographs of rugged, hard-working farm folk, replete with Ram pickups and other Fiat-built farm equipment, rolls. Good stuff, especially if you can overlook the fact that after God made a farmer, he made a corporate agricultural combine that squeezed the farmer off his land and ruined his way of life. Still, getting a deceased and loathsome right-wing knuckle-dragger like Harvey to trend on Twitter four years after he died and 35 years after he gave this speech, that’s ad agency alchemy. Impressive stuff.

It’s sad, if true, that people cared more about the ads than the big game. This year’s match up was pretty exciting, but we have to weigh the Bowl’s newfound hyper-emphasis on advertising, against our all too-real memories of certain Super Bowls past, the sorry blowouts so dull on the field that no amount of nacho cheese at home could ever blunt the boredom.

Still, having seen this year’s pack of ads, I’m not satisfied. And only part of that is because I want to see next year’s ads. Now.

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