Feb 11

2011 Super Bowl ads: two gems and a bunch of other stuff

My bet is that around water coolers all over the nation this morning, someone was heard to say, “wow, the commercials on the Super Bowl were pretty lame this year.”

It could be that it’s our nature to be negative. Or that advertising just brings out the vicious critic in all of us. Or it could be the painful reality that this bubble burst a long time ago.

The truth is, the spots we’ve seen on the Super Bowl in recent years have rarely been any more special than the commercials we’d see any other day of the year. The only difference is that the Super Bowl attracts a great variety of advertisers due to the size of the Super audience (over 100 million last year). The quality of ads is all over the map.

Two companies rose to the occasion this year. Their commercials stood head and shoulders above all the others. They are both car makers — Volkswagen and Chrysler. Their ads were as different as night and day — since their issues were as different as night and day — but both proved that creativity, insight and good taste can work wonders.

The rest of the spots: not so much.

These are the Super Bowl XLV commercials I thought were worthy of an award, for better or worse:

Lowest Common Denominator Award Bud Light

Year after year, Bud Light plays to the stereotyped football party animal crowd, normally with success. They had four spots this year. Two of which were pretty funny (Hack Job and Product Placement), two of which were only funny if you’d already filled your glass a few times (Tiny Dancer and Dog Party).

Most Offensively Unfunny Award Doritos

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an ad as gross and unfunny as the Finger Licking spot. This is what happens when someone gets the notion that being bizarre is the same thing as being funny. It ain’t.

Most Shockingly Unfunny Award Chevy

In their Misunderstanding spot, we see hard-of-hearing senior citizens failing to understand the words they hear on a Chevy truck commercial. One can’t help but be amazed that spots like this ever see the light of day. Trite in every way possible, badly cast and just not funny.

Searching For A Good Ending Award Pepsi Max

Pepsi Max needs to bring in the Special Team to finish off their commercials. They had two spots that pulled me in, then turned me off. I know, there’s nothing funnier than hitting an innocent woman in the head with an unopened can of soda, then leaving her unconscious on the ground and hoping no one will notice. Throwing a can of soda into a guy’s crotch always gets a good belly-laugh too. Somehow I think they could do better.

Oh, They Did Get One Right Award Pepsi Max

In First Date, we hear the thoughts of two people getting to know each other. She’s concerned with major life events, he’s got the one-track male mind. Then Pepsi Max arrives at the table. Funny bit. Well acted and simple. No cans hitting body parts. Plus, it reminds us that boys don’t think like girls.

All Bow To The Pun Award Kia Optima

This spot features a thrilling sequence of special effects that takes the Kia Optima through different times and places using spectacular special effects, ending in front of a Mayan pyramid. Fun to watch. But a lot of time and money spent just to pay off their big pun: “One Epic Ride.”

Worst Use Of Eminem Award Brisk

How do you breathe new life into a tired product like Brisk Tea? Hire a cool celebrity and hope for a little ruboff. They snared Eminem, who at least had the good sense not to appear in person. It’s all animated. And not very funny. Celebrity ads rarely succeed when there’s absolutely no connection between the celebrity and the product.

Best Use Of Eminem Award Chrysler

Chrysler’s ode to Detroit is arresting in many ways, superbly produced and written. It’s also a daring two minutes in length. Contrast this against Chevy’s five spots, and ask yourself who got the best bang for their buck. Chrysler paints a picture of a city that can rightfully make luxury cars because it’s been to hell and back, and so perfectly embodies the resilient American spirit. Eminem performs a great service to Chrysler, as well as to himself — a thousand times more than that wretched Brisk spot. Great music, great images. This is a commercial that exudes authenticity. If advertisers haven’t yet figured this out, authenticity is what makes people connect with a brand. There was a whole lot of connecting going on here. It’s actually enough to make me admit I’m from Detroit. Go Tigers.

Not Nearly As World-Changing As They Think Award Motorola Xoom

We knew this one was coming, thanks to the 15-second sneak preview Motorola dangled a few days earlier. It’s the story of a young man who wins the girl’s heart by using his Xoom tablet to make juvenile animations. As far as I can tell, the only thing here that iPad can’t do is take a photo — which iPad 2 will address shortly. The concluding thought is that Xoom is “the tablet to create a better world.” This jumbled mess tries to do it all — reference Apple’s 1984 commercial, insult the iPad users they might like to attract, and claim to change the world without suggesting how. Unfortunately, the world changed over a year ago with iPad, and Motorola is the one who is late to the party.

Please Get Off My TV Right Now Award GoDaddy

Every year, GoDaddy does an amazingly good job of living up to its reputation as the tackiest advertiser on the Super Bowl. The fact that they can afford to be on the big game every year is testament to the fact that their advertising works, which is annoying enough. But not nearly as annoying as their commercials. Their Joan Rivers ad takes advantage of a joke that got old a couple of decades ago: Joan Rivers. A second spot teases us with female body parts and tells us to go to GoDaddy to “See more now.” If you keep sleazy girlie magazines hidden in your drawer, this is the web hosting company for you.

Celebrity Abuse Award Teleflora

I feel sorry for Faith Hill, seduced with visions of being featured in a real, live Super Bowl commercial — only to become the straight person for a lowbrow sexual joke.

Fading Icon Award BMW

BMW has now thoroughly squandered its legacy of brilliant ads. First they bring us the BMW X3 commercial, “designed in America, built in America.” A meaningful message delivered in the most boring, formulaic way. And then there’s Changes, set to Bowie’s overused song of the same name. After documenting the smoky downside of old diesel, we’re treated to BMW’s new diesel, with a title card that tells us “Diesel has ch-ch-changed.” Such cleverness. If you ever loved a BMW, this spot makes you cringe and pretend you didn’t see it.

Most Memorable, Charming, Entertaining, Effective and Best-Acted Award Volkswagen

The Darth Vader Kid spot made the rounds a few days before the Super Bowl and got millions of views on YouTube. You feel like you’re watching the world’s cutest kid, yet you never even see his face. There are no words, just body language — and this kid can really act. Utterly charming, and utterly simple in what it tries to accomplish. By seeing just one cool feature on the car, and seeing dad get to make a kid’s day, we feel emotionally connected to Volkswagen. Far, far more, I should point out, than you get from watching either of BMW’s commercials.

Least Funny Use Of Chimps Award CarerBuilder.com

Multiple chimpanzees normally equal guaranteed laugh. Must be a defective batch of chimps here, because they are only borderline funny — which is the kiss of death for all chimp-based humor.

Jekyll & Hyde Award CarMax

In their I Feel Like commercial, CarMax makes us endure a painfully unfunny series of parallels to “I feel like a kid in a candy store” to express how we will feel using their service. We get such hilarity as “I feel like a geek at a robot convention” and “I feel like a mermaid at a swim meet.” But then they serve up Service Station, in which a man is terrified by something he’s never seen before: good service. “We believe good service shouldn’t be a thing of the past.” Nice thought. Schizophrenic creative.

The Baby That Won’t Die Award e*Trade

The talking baby idea has been floating around in ads, movies and TV for so long, I personally can’t watch it anymore. But the idea obviously amuses many. In Suit Fitting, the baby does his job. In Cat, I find myself wondering why they bothered. When your baby talks, every spot should be a knee-slapper.

Most Disappointing Award Mini

Not so long ago, these guys were the envy of the ad biz. Now they stoop to using the extremely tired “game show” idea. Let’s see. We want to make a point that you can stuff a lot of things into this car, so we’ll invent a wacky game show called “Cram It In The Boot.” Genius.

Please Tell Me I’m Imagining This Award Groupon

I was stunned enough by this one that I had to watch it multiple times. Sad to see that Timothy Hutton needs a paycheck this badly. The spot starts with Timothy reading what sounds like a script for a public service ad, on a very believable topic. “The people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy…” Then he follows it with, “But they still whip up an amazing fish curry.” He describes how he and 200 others got a really nice discount at a Himalayan restaurant in Chicago by using Groupon’s group purchasing power. I’ll bet they’re rolling in the aisles in Tibet.

The Why Diddy Award Mercedes

A gorgeously produced spot, as you would expect from always-classy Mercedes. We see all the old Mercedes models magically finding their way to the factory to toast the latest models. It all leads to the line, “125 years in the making. The new line of Mercedes Benz.” The “it all led to this” concept has been way overused in the car biz, but it’s executed so well you hate to complain. I just keep asking myself why they needed Diddy.

Rub It In Their Face Award Verizon

Verizon probably didn’t need to spend Super money to run this spot on game day. Everyone on earth knows they’re selling iPhones now. But it’s hard to resist an opportunity to slap AT&T around, making the point that you can actually use a Verizon iPhone as a phone. Looks like an Apple commercial for the first 20 seconds, then closes in for the kill.

Most Predictable Award Wendy’s

When one guy at Wendy’s asks his friend “Hey, what’s that taste like?” he gets a surprise loud slap to the face. Since normal people might use words more like, “Is that any good?” or “How’s your lunch?” this is what’s known as bending over backwards to make your joke work. Once we break for the food shots, we’re overwhelmed with the realization that the commercial can only end with another slap. Spoiler alert: it does.

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  • Edw3rd

    Ken, if you thought the Tibet ad was bad, wait until you see the Brazilian Rainforest one with Elizabeth Hurley. I just don’t get how paying celebs to mock HR/CSR issues with discounted hypocrisy advances your brand one bit. So was it a Hail-Alex Pass, or just another serial ceo-slip by Mason.

    Christopher Guest directed the CPB scripts.

  • WTFrank

    At least Verizon is advertising that they have the iPhone. AT&T ignored it in their commercials and still made money.

  • neilw

    I agree with almost every point here. Hardly anything really memorable. I think the best ads were actually the movie trailers.

    Anyway, I *did* actually enjoy the careerbuilder.com ad, but neither because nor in spite of the chimps. The experience of getting trapped into a parking spot like that hit close enough to home to get a laugh out of me (possibly the only one of the evening). I liked.

    I was sort of shocked by the blunt, violent, and unfunny ending of the first PepsiMax ad, followed by the only slightly less offensive second round. Really really bad. The Doritos ads have been consistently in-your-face without being particularly entertaining for a few years now. Even the best of the Budweiser ads this year were weak sauce compared to years past.

    Next year might be the time to start fast-forwarding through the commercials, instead of watching the commercials and fast-forwarding the game.

  • Steve P

    Mostly agree – except Chrysler (long and whiny)
    And the Doritos add you noted WAS bad. However the first Doritos ad (before the game) was the funniest of all and you didn’t even mention it!
    (Reviving grandfather!)

  • KenC

    @WTFrank, AT&T’s deal with Apple precluded them from advertising the iPhone. That was Apple’s responsibility.

    The Darth VW ad was the best, and simplest.

  • BruceM

    The Motorola ad left me offended and confused. Oh I get it Motorola, I’m an Apple user and I’m a brainwashed lemming! And I bought my iPad because evil Apple MADE me buy it, I had no choice.

    The ad gives off such a desperate and jealous vibe, it’s like “we know we already lost the tablet market, but at least we can take a swipe at all those Apple customers we won’t be getting”.

    Motorola will have to sell a boatload of xoom tablets to pay for the estimated $6 million dollar advertising fiasco. And the only thing they probably accomplished was to alienate a few Apple fans and excite a couple android geeks. Good luck Motorola, let me know how this all worked out for you in about 6 months.

  • Ken–

    I’m from Detroit, too (now living in Seattle). My Dad worked at Ford. His Dad worked at Ford. My brother worked at Ford. It’s hard to understand if you’re not from there. But simple authenticity is unquestionably a strength of the people of the Midwest. This spot does an amazing job capturing it.

    You’re not old enough to remember the ’68 Tigers are you? Still gives me chills.

  • ken segall

    I’m sorry to say, yes I am old enough to remember that fabulous year. And about five years ago, I had the privilege of batting against Mickey Lolich in a game. Never mind that he could barely reach the plate, and all I could muster was a weak grounder to third.

  • Ken–

    That’s hilarious! Go Tigers!

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