It used to really mean something: the tradition, the pageantry, the pure spectacle of it all. Once the most anticipated showdown of the year, it would inspire months of speculation before the final contest: Who would make it to the big show? Which team would win? Only the fiercest competitors could face off against each other in this ultimate arena, and they would be bringing their best stuff. After the last ounce of hype was squeezed out by a frothing media, the true answers would finally arrive on Super Bowl Sunday.
But, sad to say, the commercials ain't what they used to be. There was a time when friends and families across the nation would gather in living rooms before their warm TVs to bask in the glow of Madison Avenue's greatness. Now, despite our yearly attempts to get excited over them again, Super Bowl ads are nearly indistinguishable from your garden-variety TV commercials. They are, for the most part, forgettable—a cardinal sin for any ad.
Let us pause here and remember some of the greats of the game:
• Apple's "1984" was ostensibly meant to introduce the Mac, but actually condensed the company's entire line of propaganda into one iconic image: a hot babe in athletic shorts shattering The Man's boring old preconceptions with a mallet. It's still being referenced to this day, most recently as a homebrew ad for the Barack Obama campaign, and it arguably created the concept of Super Bowl-ad-as-event with its single airing.
• Monster.com's "When I Grow Up" (1999) gave us the usual array of cute lil' kids, this time sharing their hopes and dreams. Awwww! Except that these were decidedly real-world aspirations, like "I want to claw my way up into middle management." After the laughter came pure, cold fear: "What have I become?"
• E-Trade's "Monkey" (2000) grabbed our attention with its bracing honesty. After showing a monkey in an E-Trade T-shirt doing the cha-cha on top of a bucket, the ad dared to ask: "Well, we just wasted two million bucks. What are you doing with your money?" (A follow-up ad a year later showed the same monkey shedding a tear over the carcass of the Pets.com sock-monkey, another dot.com tragedy.)
Iconic, witty, honest. But over the past five years or so, Super Bowl commercials have devolved into the ordinary. What happened to the verve, the moxie, the let's-get-wild attitude of unleashing millions of advertising dollars in but a few seconds? Where are our Budweiser frogs? Our cat-herding cowboys? Today, we must make do with the boobs of GoDaddy.com. By God, I'd rather settle for a new Spuds McKenzie if one would only step forward.
Nevertheless, there were a few highlights (or lowlights—your call) during Super Bowl XLII between plays, if not any cultural breakthroughs:
During the first quarter, FedEx took the prize for Most Bizarre Imagery with "Pigeons," in which a mail-department upstart attempts to convince his supervisor that carrier pigeons are the way to go. "What about the big stuff?" his boss asks, and then we get to see giant pigeons in night-vision goggles dropping crates onto screaming New Yorkers. Cool! For the Simultaneously Combining Cleverness and Unintended Tastelessness trophy, Bridgestone kicked off a pair of ads involving people screaming for their lives (humorously) before a car swerves out of the path of a squirrel or Richard Simmons. Coming just a few years after Bridgestone's massive recall and lawsuit settlements over highway deaths related to tire failures on Ford Explorers, it feels a little, uh, inappropriate.
The second quarter featured a quick win in the But It Looked Good on Paper prize: an anthropomorphic heart bursting out of a bored woman's chest and quitting her job for her; I guess CareerBuilder.com thought a human heart with feet would be cute, but it was mostly gross. After that...well, Cars.com's witch-doctor was amusing (who doesn't enjoy seeing car salesmen being threatened by voodoo?), but otherwise all we had were clichés: Sobe's dancing lizards, Planter's unibrow girl, Pepsi's Justin Timberlake.
Speaking of which, the third quarter featured two contenders for Reusing an Already Overused TV Character: Bud Light brought back wacky cavemen, this time using the wheel incorrectly to transport their beer; and E-Trade, whose talking baby ads managed not to be nauseating. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. No prize!
The fourth quarter yielded one big winner for the title of So Wrong It's Right: Amp's roadside-mechanic bubba sporting a chest-revealing jumpsuit. Once he revs up on Amp sport drink and Salt-n-Pepa's "Push It," he is able to jump-start a car by clamping the cables directly onto his bare nipples. Bravo!
Perhaps there is hope for the future of TV advertising after all...