Madison Avenue fumbles

What $2.4 million bought Super Bowl advertisers: A unicorn, talking birds, lots of chimpanzees and one overextended boob joke.

Topics: Super Bowl, Peyton Manning,

Madison Avenue fumbles

$80,000 per second. That’s how much Fox charged America’s richest companies to turn last night’s Super Bowl into a small masterpiece of waste and insipid mediocrity — one of the ad industry’s worst performances ever.

The annual buzz surrounding each year’s slate of new Super Bowl ads has always been one of America’s most loathsome media rituals. This year was no exception.

The bummer always begins when those “We just can’t wait to see what those nutty ad guys will come up with this year!” stories start trickling into the news and sports sections sometime early in the week before the game. This is usually followed by the annual viruslike outbreak of that apparently incurable media cliché — “I only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials” — that strikes at least 50 pundits and on-air celebrities every year. Lastly, the term “Super Bowl of Commercials” is mentioned at least 5,000 times the last 48 hours of pre-game broadcasts, in each case delivered as if it is being coined for the first time.

We had all of that this year, but advances in communications technology also allowed us to experience new and virulent strains of the usual clichés. A columnist named Rainbow Rowell from the Omaha World-Herald announced that he was going to record the Super Bowl for the first time, but only “because of TiVo — because it lets you watch the commercials without sitting through any of the game itself.”

This year also saw a variation of the “controversial ad unjustly yanked at last minute by buck-passing network pussies” story, which has become a sort of Bowl week staple. Last year, of course, CBS pulled an anti-George Bush ad commissioned by MoveOn.org, as well as an animal-rights ad produced by PETA, citing a network policy against issue-advocacy ads.

This year, the censorship theme was not naked political cowardice, but prudishness. Fox killed two ads. One was an Anheuser-Busch spot that depicts last year’s “wardrobe malfunction” incident as being the fault of a beer-loving stadium stagehand who accidentally breaks Janet Jackson’s nipple-ring bustier — by using it to open his Budweiser. The spot, which has been described as “almost” funny, was deemed too controversial and killed.



The other ad Fox yanked was an Airborne cold remedy spot that apparently revealed, for a split second, the naked buttocks of Mickey Rooney. Its cancellation might yet prove to be the least-protested act of censorship in TV history.

As for the ads that did make it on air, it was clear right from the start that Madison Avenue was determined to play things very close to the vest this year, in the wake of last year’s Super Bowl debacle — known in the business as the “Crude Bowl.” Last year’s ad crop, which featured a farting horse and a testicle-chomping dog, was roundly denounced as being unusually tasteless and unfunny even by Madison Avenue standards. Continuing fallout from the Janet Jackson incident also doubtless affected agency thinking this time around. The result was a collection of the most inane, soft-edged, appallingly saccharine commercials the Big Game has ever seen.

No matter how awful the ad crop might be as a whole, every Super Bowl always has one big winner, one spot that sticks in the public’s mind.

It might be an impressive piece of darkly obscure cinematic gibberish (Ridley Scott’s Orwellian Apple ad in 1984), a memorable celebrity skit (Bird and Jordan’s 1993 game of horse; Visa’s “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” spot in 2002) or the punishing repetition of some unforgettably annoying slogan (Whasssuuuuup!).

Even in 2003, widely considered one of the weakest Super Bowl ad crops ever, we were at least given the “Terry Tate, linebacker” spots, which were genuinely funny for at least 10 seconds.

Not this year. The 2005 Super Bowl crop was so lame, it would have been brightened by a Gilbert Gottfried anti-drug spot shot in an AIDS hospice.

The dominant themes were obnoxious talking animals, subdued performances by B-list celebrities, and trite vehicle ads featuring very little zooming and lots of mute, ponderous stills of parked cars. The T&A factor was scaled down to CBN levels, and the only visually innovative ad (for DirecTV) revolved around a strikingly depressing tale of a man who travels through time from beautiful youth to infirm old age, ending right where he began — in front of a television.

The manly-truck-ad genre, normally good for at least one entertainingly outrageous variation of the pickup-tows-aircraft-carrier-up-Kilimanjaro theme, was a flop from the start. GMC (to its credit) played it safe, hyping its Sierra by covering it completely with mud and driving it down a hill. Boilerplate truck stuff, a solid B-minus.

Ford, however, went the comedy route and fell on its face. The comic plot involved a yuppie family in a minivan who shudder and lock their doors as they’re passed on the highway by a scary biker gang. The scary biker gang then pull in to a roadside diner and hesitates when they sees a parking lot full of menacing black F-150 pickups. Frightened by the manly trucks, the bikers decide to leave. “The salad bar is better down the road,” one of them says.

This is fine so far — standard car-company humor — but the tag line is the killer. “Ford,” roars the narrator. “We don’t just make our trucks tough, we make you tough.” At the Super Bowl party where I was watching the game, the room exploded in laughter at this line, which sounded like an unintentional parody of macho car-commercial bullshit. It was the only ad all night that got a big laugh.

The digitally rendered talking animal factor, always high wherever large numbers of beer commercials are involved, was positively off the charts. The Emerald Nuts company, whose previous play-on-words-themed campaign was sort of interesting (“Evil Navigators love Emerald Nuts!”), opted in the Super Bowl to employ creepy digitized versions of a unicorn, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Dad wants to eat all his Emerald Nuts himself, so he tells daughter that if she eats an Emerald Nut, “Unicorns will vanish forever.” Enter creepy animated unicorn, who says, “That’s not true!” This turns out to be the punch line. Cost of joke: $2.4 million.

Budweiser, which owes so much to the talking animal mascot, tried two creature spots. In one, an advancing mass of exotic wild animals (elephants, giraffes, etc.) breaks down a barn door to beg for the Bud Clydesdales’ beer-pulling job. The ad makes some sort of joke, but you won’t notice it because you’ll be too busy wondering how you feel about a giant American corporation fantasizing about using endangered species as pack animals.

The other Bud creature is a talking cockatoo. The cockatoo has a Hispanic accent and is shown walking aggressively on a bartop, randomly bitching at some poor beer-drinking customer. The bird’s money line is either “Adios, muchacho!” or “You don’t want to go there, Buckwheat!”; it was hard to tell which. Clearly they’re still working out the kinks with this bird thing.

Two different companies — Verizon Wireless and an employment site called CareerBuilder.com — ran spots starring chimpanzees (real ones, not digitized ones). The Verizon ad, which showed chimps talking into bananas as though they were cellphones, may have hit a little too close to home for the businessman viewer.

The CareerBuilder.com spots made more proper use of chimps, putting scads of them in office scenes and just letting them wreck shit and pester the office humans. If any of the Bowl ads win critical acclaim, it will probably be these.

In my opinion, only one ad in the group even came close to living up to the lofty standards of excellence we have come to expect of Madison Avenue. That was another Web site ad, for a domain-name company called GoDaddy.com. In this ad, a girl with huge breasts, dressed in a tight T-shirt with “GoDaddy.com” in stretched lettering, is testifying before some kind of congressional committee. Under heated questioning — and repeated close-ups — her top keeps sliding down, and she keeps giggling like an idiot. And that’s the whole ad; 30 seconds of heaving honkers, ending in one punch line: “I didn’t mean to upset the committee!” Now that’s advertising!

That was it, the sole highlight. The lineup was so dull that one actually longed for a melodramatic Army ad or a brain-on-drugs public service message. But even here, in the area of insidious hidden messages, the crop was very weak. There was one clear dual-meaning ad, by Subway. In it, a policeman approaches a parked car with fogged windows, raps his nightstick on the car door, and discovers, in the car’s front seat, two teenage boys chomping Subway hoagies. The cop in the ad, incidentally, looks like something out of the Village People. I’m guessing that this is an homage to some cult gay porn classic, but it’s hard to say for sure. At least it wasn’t Jared in the cop suit; that would have been the stuff of nightmares.

In all likelihood the ad industry will wait until next year to really crank things up; we’ll be two years removed from Janet Jackson by then, and once again hungry for fart jokes and celebrity degradation. But until they get back on track, the Super Bowl will only ever be what it was this year — a hell of a football contest. Gosh, what a shame, when the only thing to watch is the game.

Matt Taibbi is a columnist for the New York Press.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>