King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Why is Naomi Campbell dancing with a lizard? The sad state of Super Bowl commercials.


King Kaufman
February 5, 2008 4:00PM (UTC)

I dutifully watched the Super Bowl commercials, holding my water and forgoing several potential sandwiches because Super Bowl commercials are important and significant and also meaningful and because I can usually get a Tuesday column out of them.

And I once again came to this conclusion: Super Bowl commercials are over. They're myspaced, which is my way of saying they've jumped the shark, a phrase that long ago myspaced. You can watch all the Super Bowl commercials on the official Super Bowl site, which is on MySpace.

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Or, if you prefer a video player that actually works, try YouTube.

But why would you? They have lost the ability to shock and amaze us. They've devolved to a formula: Lots of computer-generated imagery, with a humorous twist at the end. The humorous twist has become the stand-in for things like imagination and originality.

We are solidly in the postmodern era of Super Bowl commercialdom, which was kicked off a few years ago by FedEx/Kinko's with its 10 elements of a successful Super Bowl commercial ads. Hyundai ran two spots that referred to the very phenomenon of the Super Bowl commercial formula.

In the first, the announcer notes that the new luxury car was "making its debut during the big game," then says, "Yeah, right about now you're probably expecting some crazy big twist or something." The twist is that the car is a piece of junk.

No, wait, the twist is it's a Hyundai. The second spot's voice-over begins, "We're not sure what the USA Today ad meter will think of this commercial tomorrow, but we're pretty sure Mercedes, BMW and Lexus aren't going to like it very much." See what he did there?

GoDaddy.com's spot had a guy sniffing about the Super Bowl, "I used to watch -- for the commercials." But now our early-adopter friend is sitting at the computer, where the action is. He points out that this year, GoDaddy's ad, which in the past has been controversially racy, would be online and featuring pulchritudinous race-car driver Danica Patrick! It's called "Exposure" and it's "too hot for TV!"

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This column watched it so you don't have to. It involves a pun on the word "beaver." It's mildly amusing. There's, like, a humorous twist at the end. Patrick doesn't "expose" anything, though I don't think you needed me to tell you that.

There were a few on the actual TV that had humorous twists that were genuinely amusing. I agree with the unwashed public, which according to one survey ranked the Federal Express carrier pigeons commercial the best of the bunch. That one made me chuckle, especially the nonessential kicker: The car that crashes through the window is the shipping guy's.

So did the Tide talking stain and the T-Mobile ad with Charles Barkley adding Dwyane Wade to his "Fave Five" -- a nod to earlier spots -- and then annoying him by calling at all hours. It's pretty hard for something involving Charles Barkley not to be amusing. I also laughed at the first of the two Cars.com spots, with Glondoor in the stone circle death match.

Any of these would have been far more amusing if I'd seen them while I was watching bass fishing. But during the Super Bowl, I'm sitting there waiting to be bowled over. These are funny spots, but they're not bowl-you-over spots.

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Cars.com illustrates another problem. A second spot followed the same formula, only instead of the guy having Glondoor ready to fight the salesman, he has a witch doctor ready to shrink heads in the office if the guy doesn't get the deal he wants. Whichever ad ran first, it would have been funny. Whichever ran second: not so funny. That's what happens when the humor is a clever twist -- which is funny once -- as opposed to something genuinely funny, which keeps on giving.

That's why Three Stooges movies never grow old.

Bud Light had a couple of spots with the same joke, the ad saying the beer could make you breathe fire or fly. Disaster ensued, humorous twistily, and the voice-over at the end said, disclaimer style, "The ability to breathe fire/fly no longer available." Ha. Not real funny the first time through. The second, slight variation, where you can see it coming two seconds into the 30-second ad? Really, really, mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly not funny.

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I liked the E-Trade ads with the talking baby. That bit has kind of been done, but the kid spitting up was pretty funny, as humorous twists go. I even chuckled a bit at the same-joke second spot, with the clown, because the line readings were so good on: "I was like, I'm rentin' a clown ... And, uh, I really underestimated the creepiness."

But mostly, they just droned on, with their long setups and mildly amusing punch lines and their celebrity cameos. Oh look, that guy from "Saturday Night Live." You can see them trying for Apple "1984"-style significance, bless their little coal-black advertising hearts, with casts of thousands and ponderousness and semi-apocalyptic dreamscapes. Could the Under Armour spot, the kind of Big Production that gets advertising people all excited but leaves viewers going, "Uh, whatever," have been any more of an imitation?

I think the notes I took during one commercial pretty much summed up the day of ad watching for me: "Naomi Campbell? A lizard? Some kind of sports drink. Michael Jackson 'Thriller' video parody. And. They're dancing. The lizards are dancing. Still dancing. OK, so what? Is it Naomi Campbell? How old is she? Still. Dancing. Life Water. How old is Naomi Campbell? Is that Naomi Campbell?"

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For the record, it was Naomi Campbell, and she's 37 years old, which is about five years longer than it feels like that commercial took to watch. And I like Naomi Campbell. I even like lizards.

And if you're waiting for the humorous twist, it's that we're not going to talk about SalesGenie.com. Andrew Leonard already covered that nasty business in How the World Works.

Yeah. Kind of a dud twist. This stuff is so myspace.

Previous column: Super Bowl shocker

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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