Artists Pay Back (The Blog)

February 24, 2010

The Final Word on Super Bowl Ads

Why is this the “final word?” Because it makes a better title than “Super Bowl Ads – I Should Have Written This Two Weeks Ago.”

Anyhow, I thought I’d put together a quick breakdown of the Super Bowl ads from this year’s contest between the New Orleans Saints (THEY WON!) and the Indianapolis Colts (WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?!) Surely you watched the game because, as you may have heard, the Super Bowl broke a TV viewership record that had stood since the dark days before DVR’s (we did have -shudder- VCR’s with timers!), before cable (well, okay there was cable but we didn’t have it yet), before the internets (which meant before accessible porn) and before puberty (well, okay there was puberty but I didn’t have it yet). Back then M*A*S*H* was the most watched show ever (SPOILER ALERT – the chicken was a baby).

So, back to the Super Bowl ads. I have been in the field of Advertising for nearly twenty years and I work on the creative side of the biz, so I do have some authority in this area. Here is my expert analysis:

They sucked.

Okay, yes, the Betty White one was a pleasant surprise and I liked the little kid slapping the dude over his bowl of Doritos (though the production values and off-beat editing bothered me at the time, I later found out it was a “viewer-submitted” ad – who is their agency again?). The Letterman/Leno one was also fun, but really the rest? Lame.

I’m not the only one who felt this way. I heard lots of grumbling about the lack of “good ads” this year. But here’s a little truth. They mostly sucked last year too. And the year before that. And so on. In fact, they really haven’t been great in many, many years (and even then, it’s not like there weren’t more than a few clunkers, but the ratio was better). There are probably numerous reasons for this, but not the one that you’re most likely thinking – that the creative types have lost their mojo. That may be a valid thesis if not for the fact that great/entertaining/stunning/poignant ads debut all year long.

Part of it is that, with expectations so high and with the unattainable fantasy of previous years to live up to, failure is almost inevitable. But there are additional reasons they fail that have nothing to do with heightened expectations and everything to do with laziness. Here are a number of ways they go astray all of which can be avoided.

Why They Failed

  • GET ME AN ANIMAL – Yes, for a certain segment of the population the math is simple. Monkey In A Suit = Hilarity. Or maybe just get some sort of rodent, rodents are funny, right? People love dogs, lets put a dog in there. Sure there have been some great animal-centric ads in years past (cat wranglers is one of my personal favorites) but it shouldn’t just be lazy shorthand. When you have a crappy ad concept and you throw in a monkey, do you know what you get?  A crappy ad. With a monkey.
  • DEJA VU – Or “Hey, it worked last year, let’s do it again.” Cars.com, Go Daddy, any of the Budweiser Clydesdale ads are all just variations on a theme in the worst way. I don’t expect much from the first two, but come on Bud, you’re better than that.
  • GUYS ARE EMASCULATED DORKS – Much like the “get me an animal!” line of lazy thinking is the whole “let’s just do something where some doofus gets reamed.” I’m not saying that most guys aren’t idiots, I’m just saying that the basis of comedy is surprise and you’re not going to catch anyone off guard with this tired angle.
  • WHEN IN DOUBT, HIT SOMEONE – Yes, slapstick is funny. This is especially true for men (known in scientific circles as the Three Stooges Phenomenon), yet somehow it’s become such a crutch in so many ads that it’s no longer guaranteed to work. The idea is to use it as an exclamation on a funny concept (see: Terry Tate Office Linebacker), but not always as the joke itself.
  • JOKE, JOKE, JOKE, BLAH… – At some point it became almost mandatory for ads to go for the comedy (which is why we see so much of what’s listed above with a heaping helping of desperation sweats). But it doesn’t have to be the case. Look no further than at what is often considered if not The Greatest Super Bowl Ad Ever, at least the ad which kicked off the whole “I watch the Super Bowl for the ads” craze in the first place. Apple’s 1984 spot. Was it funny? No. Was it memorable? Well it was 25 years ago and it’s still mentioned every year. And, that kids, is the whole point of advertising – creating a memorable impression.

How They Can Succeed Next Year

But I’m not just here to complain, I’m here to help. As I said, it’s not that the creatives have no idea how to put together good commercials, they just seem to follow the same over-traveled roads above as soon as someone says, “okay, Super Bowl ideas…GO!”

There are good commercials out there and they’re currently airing in heavy rotation. If you’ve been watching the Olympics like me (yes, I even enjoy curling) you may have noticed something. There are some really good ads running. In fact, there are three in particular that are better than anything produced during the Big Game. They’re not all funny. They don’t have a need for some doofus guy. And, thankfully, there’s not a monkey in sight. They’re just well thought out and nearly pitch-perfect for their respective companies.

These four ads highlight areas where the Super Bowl ads failed and how they can succeed in the future.

  • YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE FUNNY – It’s okay to put together an ad that’s serious if it really nails the target. Advertising can be emotional and even in a male-dominated event like a football game this can still work. My favorite spot running during the Olympics is the P&G “Always Be Kids” ad. This one nails the emotion, the set up is great and the tag line is true. And it all is in perfect sync with the brand. It should be noted that this ad has faced some criticism both mostly valid (hint: the kids and the snow have have the same predominant pigment) and mostly moronic (what about dads, huh?) but I still stand by it as a great commercial.
  • COOL VISUALS ARE A PLUS – I love the Nike ad “The Human Chain.” It takes a unique visual approach, adds the perfect song (which has extra heft what with LT’s appearance and his subsequent release) and furthers Nike’s eternal Just Do It campaign. Technology makes almost anything possible and let’s not forget this is a visual medium – take advantage of it.
  • USE CELEBS PROPERLY – Hire a big name for your ad and the rest takes care of itself, right? Wrong. If you’re going the celeb route, make sure it works. Sure snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler isn’t a household name, but she resonates with the Olympic crowd (especially those “hip young viewers” advertisers crave) and she’s starring in a memorable AT&T ad. Okay, so the ad may not exactly say “AT&T” (full disclosure, I couldn’t remember who it was an ad for) but I remembered it and that’s a good start.
  • WHEN FUNNY WORKS, IT REALLY WORKS – The best ad running on any TV anywhere right now, is the Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad. THAT is how you do funny, people. If you’ve seen it, you’re nodding in agreement. If you haven’t click the link. Okay, back at me. I’m on a horse.
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