Hail and fail in Super Bowl commercials

By Steve Johnson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

In football, a safety is worth two points, and it’s a rarity. That it happened right away in Sunday’s Super Bowl set the tone not just for the game, but for the game’s advertising. One big-spending company after another played it cautious by loading up on celebrities, yet everyone from Bob Dylan to Scarlett Johansson proved kind of a letdown. Even equine stars – Budweiser’s Clydesdales – weren’t up to usual standards, while faces in the crowd (Coke) proved more effective. There were lots of wordy ads that lacked the impact of, say, the big Chrysler spots of recent years. And while car advertisers Volkswagen and Hyundai got bang for their buck, most went for the seemingly safe bet of a big, expensive production. Safety in advertising earns no points at all.

Hail: Winged engineers

After two years of “Star Wars”-themed winners, Volkswagen fell flat last year with its white office worker doing a broad Jamaican accent. This year, though, the German automaker nailed it by combining VW’s claimed reliability with a bit from “It’s a Wonderful Life”: Every time one of the cars hit 100,000 miles, a German engineer earned his wings. The result: funny, feathery scenes at the factory that also served to emphasize a product attribute.

Fail: Farm animals

I’m sure this year’s Budweiser Clydesdales ad will win some of the postgame polls, just as I’m sure Precious Moments makes popular figurines. And just like last year’s, the cloying puppy-horse friendship ad hinged on the Clydesdales being able to break free. Message: Current Clydesdale restraint technology is wildly inadequate. Meanwhile, Chevy Silverado’s bull on the way to perform stud services could have been clever but came out bland.

Hail: Weirdness

These ads didn’t just have to stand up to Super Bowl-viewing-party scrutiny. They had to be able to measure up on the Internet as well, which probably explains why we saw at least a few good-weird ads this year. Worth special praise was Audi’s Doberman-Chihuahua hybrid concept. That dog appeared in many nightmares after the game, I’m sure. And Doritos’ front-yard time machine spot showed that ads made by amateurs can take odd, effective turns.

Fail: Wasted celebrity

Ben Kingsley on bad guys always being played by Brits, for Jaguar, was as boring as it was expensive. The company should have kept the account with “Mad Men’s” Don Draper. Laurence Fishburne, re-animating his Morpheus character from “The Matrix” for Kia’s new luxury sedan, was OK, until he sang opera. Terry Crews and the Muppets, for Toyota, tried too hard, while Ellen DeGeneres, for Beats Music, didn’t try hard enough.

Hail: Progressive breakfast

From one angle, Cheerios’ ad wasn’t exactly bold. It relied on a standard cute-kid formula, showing a daughter negotiating with her dad for a new puppy upon learning she had a baby brother on the way. The twist, though, is that the cereal once again used the interracial family that had previously ignited some controversy. Good for Cheerios for sticking to its guns, finding a way to serve the traditional but insist on the contemporary.

Fail: Bud Light

The even less flavorful version of Budweiser spent a lot of money, again, to be all over the Super Bowl. And, well, one ad highlighted the beer’s container. And a series of others took a very long walk down a crowded block, putting Don Cheadle, a llama, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Reggie Watts into the ads, just to get to its so-so punch line about the kind of night that would include all of those participants.

Hail: Context-specific ads

TurboTax tied its first-quarter ad cleverly into Sunday’s game. Watching Denver versus Seattle, if you’re from elsewhere, it said, was like watching “Sean” dance with your dream prom date – and then having to see Sean’s statistics and shots of Sean in slow-motion. It was funny enough to make you forget what a pain it is to do taxes. And T-Mobile deftly used famous unemployed QB Tim Tebow to emphasize all the things you can do without a contract.

Hail: Exploited males

The tables have turned. Instead of lots of scantily clad women, this year’s ads (and halftime show) brought the beefcake. Traditional exploiter GoDaddy eschewed women for mostly male bodybuilders in a winning spot. Hulk Hogan and Schwarzenegger showed up in (good) RadioShack and (meh) Bud Light ads. And then there was David Beckham for H&M. Lame ad, but, in an event filled with beer, it clearly showed the best six-pack.

Hail: Illinois ads

An Illinois tourism spot at halftime, showing an Abe Lincoln figurine vacationing across the state, was terrific: Abe zip-lining, Abe in Willis Tower, Abe next to a statue of Abe. And Bolingbrook’s WeatherTech played on the big stage, paying the $4 million price tag to tell America, in a well-made spot, that its car floor mats are made in America.

Fail: Dylan sells out

First, Bob Dylan’s song “I Want You” showed up as the backdrop for the Chobani bear-buying-yogurt ad. Then he took the role as Chrysler Super Bowl pitchman that Eminem, Clint Eastwood and Oprah Winfrey have occupied so well. But Dylan’s spot was kind of a muddle accented by some sour notes of jingoism (“let Asia assemble your phone . we will build your car”). If you’re going to sell out, Bob, at least make sure the material is first-rate.

Hail: Stephen Colbert

TV’s most brilliant satirist spent the week covering the “Superb Owl” on his Comedy Central show, mocking the NFL’s protectiveness of its championship game trademark. Then he collected a nice check for Sunday’s work for Wonderful Pistachios, with two short ads that jumped cleverly from low-key to over-the-top. And that almost made you forget the company hired Korean pop star Psy last year.

Hail: Global vision

Coke tried to be sentimental and Axe Peace a little amusing in going around the world to showcase their products. Both ads were a little edgy – Axe in flirting with not taking war seriously enough, Coke in suggesting it is bringing the world around to an American point of view – and both, ultimately, worked. And they gave us a bigger vision than pop culture, beer and the cabin of a cozy automobile.

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