The Super Bowl special.

The Super Bowl special.

The Super Bowl special.

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 7 2005 8:50 AM

Super Bowl Special!

The best and worst ads this year.

Still from Ameriquest ad
Still from Ameriquest ad

Game-time conditions are perfect here in my living room. We've got a vat of chili. We've got my beloved Pats, poised to go dynastic. And we're set to be entertained by some mold-breaking, gut-busting, tear-jerking commercials. Yes, it's time for the Super Bowl of Advertising. What have you cooked up for me this year, Madison Avenue?

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Going in, we expect timidity. It's the backlash from last year's racy halftime show and crude flatulence jokes—and the ensuing fines. A few ads this year were actually nixed in advance (one for showing Mickey Rooney's naked butt; one, apparently, for showing a priest within spitting distance of a minor). Will the spots that survived provide the thrills we crave from Super Bowl ads? Let the game begin.

Pregame. First bowl of chili:
A driver takes his Ford Mustang for a spin, in the middle of icy winter, with the top down. And now—wait for the punchline—the driver is dead! Frozen solid! Wow! I have two issues here: 1) Freezing to death is a macabre premise for a car ad. I thought, post-Nipplegate, we were toning things down. 2) The message here is that the 2005 Mustang won't be available until spring. Well, so what? Why not casually slip this fact into the tagline, and make an ad about something else? Like, say, what a powerful and attractive car this will be. The spot made it seem like Ford is insecure about the car's release date.


First quarter. Game begins:
Immediately after kickoff, Bud Light hits us with the first of an endless stream of Anheuser-Busch ads. In this one, a six-pack is thrown from an airplane … and the pilot jumps after it. Funny? Sure, I guess. But this ad is not appreciably different from any "regular season" ad. America wants more from the lead commercial after Super Bowl kickoff. This slot should be reserved for a showstopper—not a run-of-the-mill beer ad. The disappointment begins.

Our first celebrity endorsement, unless you count the Muppets, who were in a pregame ad for Pizza Hut. In this spot, P. Diddy gets to an awards show by hitching a ride in a Diet Pepsi truck. Some other celebs (including Carson Daly, who, come to think of it, has less charisma than most Muppets) mistake the truck for Diddy's stylish new wheels, and buy Diet Pepsi trucks of their own. It's an OK ad. Sadly, it's not as good as the story the New York Times recently ran about celebrities (such as Ashton Kutcher) who actually bought something called the CXT (the "commercial extreme truck"), which weighs 7 tons and rides at the same height as an 18-wheeler. Truth, once again, trumps fiction.

FedEx-Kinko's goes meta with an ad that lists 10 Super Bowl commercial essentials. Examples include: celebrities, dancing animals, cute kids, and a groin kick. This was the funniest, smartest ad of the entire Super Bowl. It gets bonus points for using a really awesome Journey song, and for pre-emptively dissing every ad that followed. One quibble: This ad could have been for anything. It told me next to nothing about FedEx-Kinko's service, and I doubt most viewers will remember what it was for. Also, stop doing my job, FedEd-Kinko's. When the ads themselves provide a cutting critique, I fear my days are numbered.

It's Volvo's first-ever Super Bowl ad—and it somehow becomes a Richard Branson cameo, and then an invitation to travel into outer space. (Really.) What, in the name of diesel station wagons, do Richard Branson and space have to do with Volvo? I have no idea. This misguided spot, putatively for Volvo's new SUV, barely even shows the car itself. Volvo was once about safety, but now it's about … rebel billionaires? Space? Bah.

The spot gives me flashbacks to boom-era Super Bowls—back when Internet startups would blow their seed money on a single ad. In this GoDaddy spot, a busty woman testifies before a panel in Salem, Mass., (a mildly subversive reference to post-Nipplegate prudery). Not much happens, except the strap breaks on her tank top. And she does a little bump and grind. So no, this ad is neither artful nor uplifting. But I think it was highly effective. First, it got our attention—with some megasized cleavage—and then it gave a clear and concise description of GoDaddy's offer: Internet domain registration for $8.95 per year. Simple, memorable. And to answer the question about whether a Super Bowl ad is the wisest way for a company to spend $2.4 million: I don't know. This Ad Age story says yes, but these stats suggest that costs have gone up while viewership levels have plateaued.

Second quarter, I think—the game was uncomfortably close at this point, and my notes get less clear during moments of stress:
OK, we're watching a hard-fought rugby game, when who should materialize but famed soulstress Gladys Knight? And now she's running with the ball! Crazy! Later, there is a picture of an MBNA credit card. I have no idea what the frig was going on here.

A Lays potato chips ad uses MC Hammer for comedic value. Sadly, no comedy results.