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.

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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.

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The GoDaddy.com 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.

Strangest ad of the night: A man-doll is called a "mama's boy" because he won't take risks. He is, in fact, magnetically attached to a mama doll. The tagline claims that Degree deodorant is for men who are willing to take risks. Frankly, I don't see how deodorant relates to risk tolerance. And I don't see how dolls relate to deodorant (or risk tolerance). I just keep waiting for Special-Ops Cody to show up and get beheaded by the mama doll.

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I am so confused by the ad for Silestonequartz surfaces. It starts out like it's about the '85 Chicago Bears, with coach Mike Ditka, quarterback Jim McMahon, and William "The Refrigerator" Perry. Then it cuts to a shot of Dennis Rodman in a bathtub. 1) Why the '85 Bears? This is not explained. 2) Why Dennis Rodman as a spokesman for quartz surfaces? Isn't Dennis Rodman a washed up D-list celebrity who no one cares about? Why would I take his advice on which surfaces to use when I refinish my master bathroom? 3) Why does a quartz surface manufacturer need to advertise in the Super Bowl at all? Isn't surface-choice a decision people make with their contractors, while looking at samples? Will they think: "Oh, that's the one from the ad with the '85 Bears and Dennis Rodman! I want that!"?

Halftime at last. Chili break. Paul McCartney's boyish charm still in effect:
In a Heineken ad, Brad Pitt buys a six-pack—then eludes the paparazzi. Once upon a time, huge movie stars (such as Harrison Ford and Leo DiCaprio) would film ads only in Japan, and then only with the assurance that those ads would never air in the States. What happened? Suddenly it's kosher for Hollywood stars to do ads? Adrien Brody in a Diet Coke ad, Nicole Kidman in a Chanel ad … and now Brad Pitt. It seems it's no longer considered an image killer, but I don't understand when or why the rules changed. (By the way, this Brad ad ends with a sort of unintended frisson, when someone calls and Brad asks him—or her—to pick him up. Who is this caller, if not Jen? America is atwitter.)

MC Hammer is back again, in an ad for a different brand (this time it's Nationwide insurance). Man, this guy will not stay down! He's like a cockroach with little, baggy pants around its thorax. Third quarter. Game still way too close for comfort. Chili not sitting well because of stress brought on by Pats' inconsistent secondary play:

An Anheuser-Busch ad salutes our troops. Yay troops.

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Ameriquest breaks out its second funny ad of the evening. In the first one, a guy talking on his cell phone about a negotiation—"You are being robbed!"—gets mistaken for a crook. In this second spot, an innocent man looks like a brutal cat-killer—thanks to some spilled pasta sauce. These ads brought me closer to the verge of laughter than anything else I saw tonight. (Though a reader e-mailed me after the game to point out that the cat ad may be somewhat derivative. Check out this spot for what appears to be a Thai bank.)

Cialis runs a spot backed by old-time pop hit "Be My Baby." And I have to say, erectile dysfunction and the Wall of Sound * go great together. This ad features genuinely old, wrinkly, unsexy people, and scenes of tenderness and affection. It's a far cry from the smoking-hot 40-something chick who talks dirty in the Levitra ads. These boner-pill brands are starting to mark out discrete territory—Cialis seems most intent on appealing to elderly flaccid people (Levitra, the people who still think they're smoking hot—flaccidity be damned).

Fourth quarter. Game still tied. Pats' secondary apparently composed of only undrafted rookies with leg injuries. Chili-bile rising:
A MasterCard ad features famous brand mascots eating dinner together. This was sort of fun, mostly because I liked the mascots they picked. I can't get enough of Count Chocula or the Gorton's Fisherman. (Aside: The Gorton's Fisherman is a great last-minute Halloween costume. Just wear a yellow raincoat. I've done this several times.) I thought it was especially cute that the Jolly Green Giant couldn't fit in the house, and had to watch through the window.

Another horrifically uninspired, meat-and-potatoes Bud Light ad. Cedric the Entertainer tries to signal across a club … and inadvertently starts a dance craze. Forgettable, times four. Remember when we all thought Bud was a genius marketing company, back in the heyday of the Whassup ads? Now Bud spends all its ad time bickering with Miller. Verdict: Bud's lost its footing.

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Game ends. Pats win! Chili settling:
After the clock hits zero, we begin the Cadillac Post-Game Show. Interesting point raised by a brand expert I talked with earlier in the week: Cadillac derives more benefit from ads during the post-game show than it does from ads during the game. Why? Because the Cadillac brand is about projecting your success to the world. This is better epitomized by the winners cavorting with a trophy than by the competitive struggle of the game itself.

The Super Bowl MVP, and winner of a new Cadillac, is Patriots receiver Deion Branch. Branch deserves it, but I wonder how Cadillac would feel if the car went to Tom Brady—who is currently suing them. Also, note to Cadillac: That's four straight Super Bowls with the same Led Zeppelin song. I've said it before, I'll say it again—no one likes to get the Led out more than me, but it's time for a new song. I humbly suggest Misty Mountain Hop.

And that's it. The Super Bowl of Advertising is over. Fun moments here and there, but overall a big letdown. Since when must every ad be funny and light (and stupid)? Where are the dramatic, spine-tingling, "event" ads? The ads that give you goose bumps and make you well up? There wasn't a one. I can't imagine we'll be talking about any of tonight's ads a year from now—never mind 20 years from now (the way we still talk about the Apple Computer "1984" ad, from that year's Super Bowl).

If this keeps up, folks might start watching for the game.

Correction, Feb. 8, 2005: This article originally suggested that the song "Be My Baby" (by the Ronettes) is an example of "the Philadelphia sound." In fact, the song is a classic example of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound," whereas the "Philly Sound" is exemplified by soul acts such as the O'Jays and Archie Bell and the Drells. Return  to the corrected sentence.