Feb 14

2014 Ad Bowl: a festival of “meh”

If you were expecting to be disappointed with this year’s crop of Super Bowl ads, well … you weren’t disappointed.

At this point, the excitement of Super Bowl advertising is more memory than reality. Could it be that more advertisers are being safer now that the cost of these ads has skyrocketed to $8 million per minute?

Whatever the reason, this Super Bowl didn’t produce many memorable moments — on or off the field.

The formula ads were more visible than ever. When advertisers play to a massive audience like this, we get an overdose of patriotism, kids, animals and celebrities.

However, one of my biggest Super Bowl disappointments came prior to Super Sunday. In the never-ending quest to create more buzz, many companies are now revealing their ads a whole week before the game. This year, I counted twenty of them.

These advertisers have taken away what used to be one of the most fun things about watching the Super Bowl — finding surprises in every commercial break. It’s like reading spoilers before you see a movie.

With that off my chest, let’s look at some of this year’s crop. I don’t expect you’ll agree with me 100%. I’ve already had one major debate before publishing this article, and I’ve read several articles praising spots I couldn’t stomach.

But opinions are what makes the world go ’round, so let me know what you think.

Sodastream “Scarlett Johansson”
These guys got their money’s worth long before the game, billing this as a “banned” ad — even it was only the ending line that was banned. The controversy turned an average ad into a viral hit. Hmmm. By some strange coincidence, they had another line from Scarlett all ready to plug in.

Chrysler “Bob Dylan”

This is my favorite spot of the night. Yes, I’ve heard some outrage about Dylan “selling out.” But the reason Dylan works in this spot is that he does have principles. You can either view him as a sellout, or someone who is lending his name and reputation to something he believes in. I’m not saying he didn’t have a handsome payday. But you can be sure Dylan thinks long and hard about who and what he associates with. The spot itself works like the Eminem Chrysler spot two years back, which was my favorite on that year’s Super Bowl. It’s a celebration of the American spirit as it manifests itself in beleaguered Detroit. It’s authentic and 100% patriotic — but not in the overused and overbearing ways we’ve seen before. Plus it’s got great music. Just so you don’t think I’m a Detroit boy who’s a sucker for such things, I thought last year’s Chrysler ad with Clint Eastwood was horrible. The only downside to this new spot is that it loses something when Dylan speaks directly to camera, which thankfully only happens at two points. (FYI, Apple was the first company to use a Dylan song in a commercial. Steve Jobs was a huge fan and was able to talk Dylan into letting us use Forever Young as the soundtrack for the first iMac/iMovie commercial.)

Budweiser “Puppy Love”
From Chapter 1 in the Book of Formulas: use a puppy. In Super Bowl terms, Clydesdale + Puppy = Super “Awww.” Sorry, I’ve seen better and sappier ideas — some of them in previous Clydesdales commercials.

Volkswagen “Wings”
Volkswagen’s Super Bowl efforts may forever live in the long shadow of Darth Vader. Its spot two years back simultaneously struck a family chord and showed off a new VW. This year it’s just contrived comedy.

Cheerios “Gracie”
Charming and sweet. Kudos to Cheerios for breaking some new social ground with the multiracial family. They’ll sell a ton of cereal too.

Kia “The Truth”
I started out disliking this spot because my man Morpheus was selling out. However, by the time it ended, it had won me over. The little touches throughout are really well done, the acting is good and the effects in the latter part of the spot are tastefully big.

Chobani “Bear”
The bear should sue his agent.

Jaguar “Rendezvous”
Elaborate production, fun to watch. Being the choice of bad guys is a nice angle.

Axe “Make Love Not War”
A lesson Kim Jong-un should take to heart. Inside, surely he’s an incurable romantic.

Toyota Highlander “Terry Crews And Muppets”
Sorry, I wasn’t in a Muppets mood. Granted, the Muppets have tremendous appeal — but not necessarily for those with driver’s licenses.

Coca-Cola “Going All The Way”
Tries way too hard. The kid deserved a lot more for his troubles than a Coke tossed his way.

Hyundai “Dad’s Sixth Sense”
Nothing like a product demo presented in human terms to make a real impression. Automatic braking could have been done in so many ways, but this is a particularly charming concept.

Hyundai Elantra “Nice”
Should have quit after the the Dad spot. This one’s a mess. Gratuitous use of celebrities, with Leonard Hofstadter as a failed flirter and Richard Lewis as his passenger. It left me wondering what I just saw.

Squarespace “A Better Web Awaits”
I like these guys, and I like that they’re stepping up to the mass market. The spot addresses a stark reality — that the web is filled with junk — and then offers a simple, elegant solution.

Audi “Doberhuahua”
I should recuse myself because I drive an Audi. But the spot is the funniest of the funny ads. Better yet, it’s comedy with a point — Audi is for those who aren’t big on compromise.

Oikos “The Spill”
The Full House cast is back. Funny if you were a fan — though it also serves as a reminder that age takes its toll.

GoDaddy “Bodybuilder”
Shocker. A GoDaddy ad that doesn’t pander to juvenile male fantasies. In fact, there’s an actual idea in this spot: build a website and you will get noticed. There’s a bit more to it than that, but okay.

Wonderful Pistachios “Stephen Colbert”
A pair of 15-second spots separated by someone else’s 30-second spot. The first is the setup for a much funnier second. I like Colbert and I like pistachios.

GoDaddy “Puppet Master”
After all the hype about someone quitting in front of 100 million people, we see a woman say “I quit” and John Turturro telling us she’d just done that in front of 100 million people. Guess what: it would have been more effective without the tease.

Carmax “Slow Clap”
Proof that execution is everything. The basic idea is pretty shallow: people slow-clapping because a guy just bought a car. But it’s fun to watch, with a number of surprisingly amusing scenes mixed in.

Beats Music “Ellen/Bears”
Love or hate, depending on how you feel about Ellen and her dance shtick. The spot worked, in that it made me wonder what the Beats Family Music Plan might be, and why I’d want to pay $14.99/month for it when I can use Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Radio and my own playlists for free. According to the AT&T site, “Love or hate a song. It all helps us recommend music that’s right for you.” In other words, it’s a lot like what we already use. Ellen probably has more deals with advertisers than anyone on earth — but never discount her ability to drum up an audience.

Chevy “Life”
Marking World Cancer Day, this is a beautifully shot, emotional piece with a really nice music track. One of those spots that stands out on the Super Bowl by not being loud or goofy — assuming anyone is actually watching in a quiet place.

Chevrolet “Romance”
Attn: Chevy — cows aren’t nearly as cute as puppies.

Maserati “Strike”
Upside: poetic and visually interesting. Downside: winner of the “Most Likely To Go Over Everyone’s Head” award.

Seinfeld mini-reunion
The show about nothing spawns a commercial about nothing. And that’s just how it came across.

Budweiser “A Hero’s Welcome”
I have a bad attitude about spots like this. Granted, it was lovingly created and gets us all weepy. But my inner cynic knows it’s all to build the Budweiser brand. I do believe the ending line: “Every soldier deserves a hero’s welcome.” However — with the $8 million it cost to run this ad, plus $2 million to produce it, just imagine how many welcomes Budweiser could have created for other returning heroes.

Heinz Ketchup “Hum”
Too happy. Too dorky. (Do they even make glass Heinz bottles anymore?)

T-Mobile “No Contract”
Tim Tebow in a not-so-funny sequence of adventures. If I want Bigfoot humor, I’ll watch a Jack Links Beef Jerky commercial. That said, it’s fantastic that T-Mobile is offering to buy people out of their current phone contracts.

Radio Shack “The Phone Call”
One of my favorite spots of the night. Amazing how many 80s references are packed into 30 seconds. Must have been quite a challenge to get all the rights. Eric Estrada, Hulk Hogan, the Dancing Raisins, the murderous Chuckie, Alf, Mary Lou Retton, and many many more. Beyond the humor, what I like about this spot is that it takes the bull by the horns. We all know that Radio Shack is one of the most outdated stores in existence. Every time I pass one, I wonder how they stay in business. So give the company credit for telling it like it is — and trying to do something about it. Having visited a Radio Shack just two weeks ago, I find it hard to believe they can actually pull it off. Time will tell.

Sonos “Fill Your Home With Music”
I was getting worried about what would happen when blue music met up with red music. Glad to see Sonos stepping up as a mass market advertiser, but this ad seemed more confusing than it needed to be. Coming soon: huge battle for the wireless home, and Sonos wants to be part of it.

Bud Light “Whatever Happens”
They gave us the emotional “Hero’s Welcome” ad. Think of this one as a hero’s welcome for beer drinkers. Overkill, Bud style. There’s a fun 3:45 “making of” video here.

Honda “Hug”
There’s always at least one advertiser who tries to stand out by being simple in the midst of all the Super Bowl excitement. Here Honda uses Bruce Willis to good effect. Straight talk about safety in black-and-white, complete with a bit of gentle/goofy humor at the end.

T-Mobile “Titles”
Another simple one. After giving us two Tim Tebow ads, T-Mobile goes the all-type route with a Disney soundtrack (from Robin Hood). Honestly, I like this more than the Tebow spots. Starting with “Wireless contracts suck,” the text is human and likable — delivering the same message about T-Mobile buying out your current phone contract. And to think, they only spent lunch money to produce it.

Turbo Tax “Love Hurts”
Some ads make me wonder if they were originally conceived for another client. (Bet you didn’t know that Apple’s famed Super Bowl failure Lemmings actually was created for another client. A story for another time.) Let me get this straight. Watching a Super Bowl game when your favorite team didn’t make it is like going to a prom and being forced to watch the girl you love having a great time with the coolest kid in school. Your special day has been stolen. So — go to TurboTax.com, answer some questions, get a free tax return, and when you get your refund check, you’ll have your own special day. Stretch much?

Jack In The Box “Bacon Insider”
Jack In The Box commercials have been consistently funny for a long, long time. This was probably the most ordinary spot I’ve ever seen them do.

Microsoft “Empowering
One of the best Microsoft commercials ever. That’s not saying much, I know, but this one is legitimately inspiring and makes you think happy thoughts about Microsoft. Yes, it panders to our emotions, but in a different way than many Super Bowl spots do. Microsoft celebrates the human power of technology. It’s a wonderful message, and a hundred times more “important” than most of the other commercials during the game.

Oh, right. They didn’t show up. At least not on the Super Bowl. Instead, Apple chose the day after to release a new 90-second video (below) as part of the Mac 30-year celebration. This one is similar to recent Apple videos that show its technology being used all over the world, except it isn’t just about the Mac — it’s about iPhones and iPads as well, with all the film being shot on iPhones. The spirit of this ad is actually quite similar to Microsoft’s Super Bowl ad, celebrating the human value of technology. Or, you could say that Microsoft’s ad was similar to Apple’s recent videos. Whatever, Microsoft’s ad was seen by nearly 97 million people and Apple’s will reach a tiny fraction of that. And what about the well-traveled rumor that Apple would return to the Super Bowl? It might have been true. Now that we know Apple did have a 90-second video ready to go, it’s entirely possible that it was originally slated to run, but then the plan changed. One never knows…

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  • “Bet you didn’t know that Apple’s famed Super Bowl failure Lemmings actually was created for another client. A story for another time.”


  • “Whatever, Microsoft’s ad was seen by nearly 97 million people and Apple’s will reach a tiny fraction of that.”

    I would disagree. Over time (say, a month) the ad will be seen by that many people online *and* save Apple millions of dollars.

  • The Gnome

    +1 was just going to say that. I always wonder when a blogger underestimates the power of the Internet. Its likely Apple felt the value of a Super Bowl ad just wasn’t there… a bunch of Coors swilling guys eating wings and doritos wouldn’t likely “get it” anyway… and Microsoft, yea, they are just copying… but good for them – way better ad material than the dancing clowns and the clicking Surfaces.

  • Sean

    Eh ken?
    Bank of America / U2 / (RED)?

  • nsw

    As a fan of Lemmings (yeah, I know why it’s a bad ad, but I still enjoyed it a lot back then) I too would love to hear any stories about this ad.

  • Ken, if you need a podcasting venue to tell this story, I think I can find one for you. :)

  • filecat13

    I watched the entire game and used the commercial breaks for important stuff, like… you know. Plus too many commercials were already available online, so I didn’t feel the intrigue of waiting for a surprise ad. I did see the Maserati ad and liked it a lot; I didn’t even know Microsoft had an ad. Missed it completely, and don’t have any plans to go watch it now.

    I’ve already seen the Apple production three times today, and I bet it gains legs as word spreads. I know I sent the link to a few friends in the film industry. I agree that Apple made a smart move here.

  • You actually should go watch the MS ad. It’s quite well done if derivative of what Apple has done in the past.

  • ksegall

    I’m sticking to my story. The impact of Super Bowl advertising is immense. I mean really immense. That’s why it can actually be worth the price. And a spot on the Super Bowl reaches a far broader audience than other shows or Internet sites.

    The Mac 30th Birthday video on Apple’s YouTube channel has now garnered about 1.3 million views in 10 days. In less than one day, the Microsoft Empowered commercial is already at 1.15 million views.

    True that Apple will continue to rack up views in the next few weeks — but so will Microsoft.

  • Ivan

    For the Apple spot, they should have asked John Trivers to do the music.

  • ivan

    True. And for Apple the cost is hardly an issue.

  • isitjustme

    Perhaps you are counting those in the toilets too.

  • Greg

    Ken, might Apple’s decision not to run another Superbowl ad result from the feeling that it would be a no win situation. No matter how good it would be, it would forever be compared to the 1984 ad. Would be interested to know if you would view that as a positive or a negative.

  • ksegall

    I think that given the current circumstances — an Apple widely criticized for not innovating as fast as it used to, a major loss in stock value, etc. — the spot would have to be beyond amazing for it to come out as a positive.

    But this is a “current circumstances” situation. We did do a Super Bowl commercial in 1999. It got a lot of coverage. Critics noted that it was Apple’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1984/1985. But it wasn’t compared directly to 1984, nor was there a lot of Apple-bashing along with it. I assume that’s because Apple was still fighting to stay alive.

    Things are different now. If indeed this new 30-year celebration video, shot entirely on iPhones, was intended to run on the Super Bowl, I think it was wise to back off. Though very well done, to the average viewer it would have looked pretty much like Microsoft’s ad. Given its similarity to videos Apple has already posted, it probably would have been disappointing to many.

    It’s also possible that there was another, very different idea being tossed around for the Super Bowl. So it’s hard to draw any conclusions — but it’s sure fun trying :)

  • “If indeed this new 30-year celebration video, shot entirely on iPhones, was intended to run on the Super Bowl”

    Ken, don’t SB spots have to be bought and paid for well in advance? Don’t we know ahead of time who is advertising on the SB?

    I don’t remember see a 60 second hole in the commercials of the SB. :)

  • ksegall

    Yes, Super Bowl spots are reserved and paid for in advance, but we only know who is advertising based on who publicly says that they’re advertising.

    Also — just because you buy Super Bowl time doesn’t mean you’re stuck with Super Bowl time. You’ll recall the famous story of Apple’s “1984. Chiat had bought a :60 and a :30, and when instructed to sell off the time, they sold only the :30. (Maybe it was two :30s —I forget.)

    Point is, Apple could have bought time on this year’s Super Bowl and then decided to sell the time during the week before. It’s not unusual for that to happen for any major TV event.

  • Got it. Thanks for the background.

  • Greg

    Ken, you mentioned in your article that you had one major debate prior to publishing. Care to share? It was about the Bud Puppy Love wasn’t it? Methinks you were a little harsh on that one.

  • Super Bowl 1999 ad – HAL 9000 – right?

  • ksegall

    That be it.

  • Nameless Coward

    Perhaps Apple feels the Super Bowl is becomming a thing that they do not wish to be associated with. Apple is very carefull about association. The Super Bowl has become the modern day Roman colosseum. Where the masses reenact old tribal rituals of fighting the other tribes and clans living through the players via reflected glory as if their lives depend upon this meaningless simulation soap opera for men.

    Apple, i think, is aware of the times and always have been.

    It would almost not be appropiat for them to show at the super bowl.

  • It’s like apples and oranges. You can’t compare a 1.15 million one day tv views with a 1.3 million 10 days YouTube views. They are totally different and generate totally different numbers in sales.

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