Brewskis, butt jokes and reefer madness

This year's Super Bowl ads reflect a depressed nation: We need jobs, our animals don't talk anymore and we're terrified of big butts and bad drugs. How 'bout a beer?

Published January 27, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

If Super Bowl ads express the collective male mood, then this year they were like a monosyllabic grunt. Pepsi traded Britney for Ozzy. Honda featured boys who didn't but said they did. Chrysler -- in a move apparently calculated to have the same effect as thinking about baseball -- featured Celine Dion driving a big, vanlike thing and singing. Dodge wooed us with a close-up of regurgitated beef jerky. Anheuser-Busch achieved near-hegemony with a series of disjointed ads that ranged from gross to goofy to glazed and defeated. Aside from Coors' suggestion that everybody just fast-forward to the booby portion of the familiar "twins" ad (and remember to thank the remote), sex was mostly just that thing blocking the TV.

Is it weird that the bad butt jokes outnumbered the bikinis? I don't know. But between the rueful financial services ads, the wistful, down-to-earth job-board commercials, the histrionic, "Reefer Madness"-style public service announcements and the triumph of the beer-for-beer's-sake ethos, a weirdly dispirited message emerged: Get a job, any job, because the fact that your stock portfolio sucks doesn't mean you won't be audited at any minute. So don't smoke, don't do drugs and ... buddy, you look like you could use a beer!

Several advertising trends emerged last night, although it's unclear exactly why. They went something like this:

When making a cultural reference, make sure it's outdated and/or irrelevant.

Two ads borrowed heavily from feature films long since available on video. An anti-drug public service announcement paid homage to the 1999 ghost thriller "The Sixth Sense," and a FedEx spot resuscitated the 2000 Tom Hanks one-man show "Cast Away." Not to be outdated, a third commercial, for AT&T's mLife, exhumed the 1964 hit show "Gilligan's Island." Curiously, both the mLife spot and the FedEx spot riffed on the ways in which technology improves our lives. AT&T imagines what would have happened if Gilligan had owned a cellphone (he would have gotten off the island much sooner), and FedEx wonders what would have happened if the package the castaway neglected to open in the five years he was marooned had contained a satellite phone, a GPS locator, a water purifier and some seeds (he would have felt like an ass).

Ass may be a thing of the past, but butt jokes are the future.

Bud Light embraced the trend by betting, not once, but twice, on the universal appeal of gluteal comedy. In one ad, a young man is preparing to meet his future mother-in-law for the first time, when a friend reminds him to scope her for physical flaws the bride-to-be may soon inherit. Presently, the women arrive and the young man is relieved to find that the mother is reasonably attractive. It's only after he opens the door that he discovers that she has a comically large, protuberant hindquarters. That's when beer comes to the rescue.

The second ad features a man in an upside-down clown suit walking into a bar and ordering a beer. He takes the bottle and starts to drink. Unfortunately, the trompe-l'oeil structure of his costume makes it appear as though he is self-administering a Bud Light enema. This upsets the establishment's other patrons, so, naturally, when the man in the upside-down clown costume asks for a hot dog, the bartender refuses to serve him.

A Reebok spot starring NFL linebacker Terry Tate stood out as one of the funniest of the night (as well as the least germane to the product), but even it couldn't resist a sly reference to rectal mischief. In the ad, a company president talks about his decision to hire the linebacker as a sort of office efficiency expert. (Tate handles office slackers by tackling them in the halls.) The company is called Felcher and Sons. Is it A) simply a humorously unappealing surname, or B) a coy allusion to deviant sexual practice? You decide!

Talking animals are finally out.

The talking-animal era has drawn to a merciful close. Critters were as popular as ever this year, but, happily, they kept their yaps shut. One highlight: A Budweiser spot spoofs the NFL instant replay by showing the famous Clydesdales standing by while a zebra obsessively studies the monitor and cowboys look on. ("That referee's a jackass," says one. "No, I believe that's a zebra," the other replies.) Pepsi's ads for Sierra Mist feature clever animals finding innovative ways of refreshing themselves.

Two spots, one for Trident and another for Bud Light, showed the fun side of attacking animals. The Trident spot explains the mysterious "four out of five dentists" claim. (A deranged squirrel surreptitiously crawls up the fifth dentist's leg and bites him just as he is about to concur with his colleagues.) And the Bud Light shows what happens when a sexually unattractive young man tries to emulate the suave flirting techniques of a more attractive counterpart. (A lobster crawls out of a conch shell and attacks his face.) In another Bud Light ad, a man in want of a Bud Light overcomes a seemingly insurmountable obstacle (no pets allowed in the bar) by placing his long-haired dog on his head and adopting a Rastafarian speech pattern.

In an unrelated note, if there were a prize for most faithful use of a thesaurus when brazenly ripping off its own product, the honors would go to the Pepsi Corporation for its lemon-lime creation, Sierra Mist. Think all the good names are taken? Think again. If you like Mountain Dew and Sierra Mist, you'll love Hillock Moisture!

Not only were and the only dot-coms advertising during the Super Bowl this year, but they had two of the best commercials of the night. The Hotjobs spot was a montage of (mostly blue-collar) workers singing the famed Kermit the Frog ballad "The Rainbow Connection" while dreaming of a better job. There's something weirdly melancholy about the ad, which is shot in muted colors on humble-looking sets. As the hopefuls dream of better jobs, it's hard not to wonder if they might not be, in fact ... kidding themselves.

The Monster ad features a truck without a driver careening down the highway, while a trucker without a truck sits in a diner, drinking coffee. Monster plays matchmaker. It's a clever concept, executed beautifully, and the message is refreshingly clear. But what really made it stand out was the tagline ("Blue collar, white collar, no collar ... Now works for everybody"), which either hearkens the return of Depression-era values, like the Hotjobs ad, or else just decided to take the opportunity to rub it in.

Some of the best:

The Pepsi Twist ad featuring the Osbournes: The "twist" has been around for a while, but the casting made it fun (if predictable) again. As Ozzy fumbles with a garbage bag, Jack and Kelly approach him with cans of Pepsi Twist and announce that they are not the Osbournes, but the Osmonds. The upside: Watching Donny Osmond almost crack himself up as he and Marie launch into a rendition of "A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Rock-and-Roll." The downside: Ozzy wakes up from this nightmare screaming for Sharon and finds he is actually married to Florence Henderson. The second twist can't compete with the first.

All the ESPN spots, the "Coach" one in particular: It's hard not to sound maudlin when describing the ESPN spots as offbeat little insights into the ways that spectator sports influence the culture, but they really do that. The best one cuts between different families watching the game and yelling at the TV. The tag line reads, "Without sports, there'd be no one to coach." It's one of the only spots that manages to be smart, funny and touching, even if you're not a sports fan. Which I guess makes it persuasive, too.

The Master Card check card ad featuring the dead presidents: The "priceless" campaign has been around long enough that it can afford to get weird. So it does. In the spot, a guy goes on a date and uses his check card to pay for everything. Meanwhile, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson sit around, waiting for him to come home. The "priceless" part: Leaving your cash at home. It makes no sense at all, but it has a pleasantly nightmarish quality.

Some of the worst:

Nissan Frontier: What goes into making a Nissan Frontier? Steak, the head of a Viking and, no kidding, brass balls. How does one know they are balls of brass? Because they are brass-colored metal balls with the words "100% Brass" stamped on them. All these manly totems, as well as some others, are smelted and forged to create one really dumb-looking truck.

Sony: An older gentleman trains for a space ride, thereby blowing his children's inheritance on the new millennial equivalent of a red Ferrari acquired in middle age. "When your children ask where the money went," goes the tag line, "Show them the pictures." They forget to add: "And run."

Dodge: A young construction worker gets in a Dodge truck while eating beef jerky. He teases the driver of the truck about his diet. The young guy then chokes on beef jerky, so the driver of the truck drives recklessly until the regurgitated wad of meat is dislodged from his throat and lands with a "thwap" on the windshield. The older man studies the wad from a distance, a look of restrained displeasure on his face.

Gatorade: Michael Jordan takes on his digitally re-created younger self on the court. Then his even younger self shows up and ... um, what?

Levi's: Skinny urban couple clad in denim tuxedoes confront a stampeding herd of urban buffalo. They stand still, tears streaming down cheeks, as the buffalo politely stream around them. One advertising site calls it "Euro, sexy, cool." But it's more like "Stupid, unintentionally funny, crap."

The Don't Smoke Dope Ad: Kids shouldn't smoke pot because it affects their memory, damages their lungs, reduces their fertility, etc. But grown-ups who want to be taken seriously when they tell kids not to smoke pot should consider ditching the "Reefer Madness"-style ads. The current anti-marijuana campaign focuses on the connection between pot-smoking, date rape and teen pregnancy. It's really weird ... like they got the stoners mixed up with the football players and pot confused with beer.

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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