This is the last Super Bowl ad you’ll have to look at.
It’s for a B-to-B service worth about $150 million, and desperately needed. The customer base is quite broad, comprising automotive, soft drinks, beer, sneakers, consumer electronics, fast food, real estate, stock brokerage and of course, pistachio nuts. Those are the categories of advertisers on the big game. All but eight of them squandered their money and their sole annual opportunity for a mass audience. Some of them damaged their brands.
Volkswagen, for example, with its “Be Happy” spot. Me, I thought it was cute: ultra-white Midwesterners talking in dead-on Jamaican accents. Kingston, via the Twin Cities. Very adorable, especially in the post-racial society we’re supposed to be edging toward. It may show up in USA Today as the best-liked ad in the game.
Amid a shitstorm over racism charges, already underway.
Look, this gag would not have been an issue in a movie or TV show. But -- for the 16 trillionth time -- advertising isn’t the movies. The rules and expectations and levels of permission are very different. The fact is, West Indians are overwhelmingly black, and you don’t get to make ethnic jokes. Period. Some of them will feel caricatured and ridiculed -- as anybody with a lick of sense and fiduciary responsibility would have seen coming from 16 trillion miles away. Someone needed to step in and wave a red flag.
Which, by the way, does not signal “proceed with caution.” It means “stop.” Twenty years ago Just for Feet ignored the red flags (including mine, 4 days before the game) over a Super Bowl ad about a Kenyan runner being tracked by white people in a Humvee. They thought it was “a humorous way to call attention to the brand.” The uproar precipitated a chain of events that left the chain out of business.
The VW spot -- which, not that you noticed, was supposed to advertise the Super Beetle -- will probably get somebody fired. Not because it was clearly racist, but because $4 million bought VW the opportunity to fend off racism accusations for the foreseeable future. Well done.
Coca-Cola made the same mistake. We shall never know what prompted them to restage familiar Hollywood sequences in the desert with Arab actors. Maybe they thought it was a nice counterpoint to the anti-Muslim bigotry pervading the Western world. (No, that’s not it.) Or maybe they thought portraying a Bedouin on camelback was an archetype, not a stereotype. (Possible). Or maybe they just weren’t thinking.
Ah. That’s it. The tension between the Arab world and the West is so fraught with hatred, suspicion, violence and historical catastrophe that there is virtually nothing an advertiser can say that won’t inflame public opinion. So why in the world go there? Why? The American Arab community has already officially protested, and we can only imagine what will happen -- especially in the Middle East/North Africa market -- once Al Jazeera weighs in.
There were a number of poor decisions made this year that don’t quite rise to that level of recklessness, but nonetheless evinced deep, deep mediocrity -- i.e., uninteresting and unfunny stories in service of no apparent brand benefit or even brand relevance.
Mind you, there were some good spots. Lincoln (the one without Jimmy Fallon) let us just gape at its gorgeous new MKZ. Mercedes dressed up Willem Dafoe as the devil and showed why, at $30,000 for the CLA coupe, a Faustian bargain is unnecessary. The Clydesdale reuinion with his breeder made me gag, but tens of millions of others get misty. The violent library battle over which Oreo variety is better, whispered from beginning to end, was quite cute and explicitly brand-centric. Go Daddy, incredibly, advertised a brand benefit with the spot about beating others to the punch with your domain name idea. (“Sky waitress!”). Tide’s miracle of the Joe Montana stain walked right to the edge of ridiculing humble Catholics, but had a nice brand twist at the end. The cars.com (wolf cub) spot dramatized its no-drama car-shopping promise.
And the late Paul Harvey’s ode to the American farmer, for Dodge Ram pickups, was simply magnificent. It was by far my favorite spot of the game.
But as I said, this isn’t a column. This is an ad. It’s an ad for how Chrysler Motors can recognize the difference between its Dodge Ram paean and the equally emotional spot that ran for Jeep. Which was an obscenity.
While it is a fitting gesture to thank the returning troops for their service, and to dramatize the scope of their sacrifice, abroad and at home, it’s another thing altogether to shove your product shots and trademarks into the frame. These uniformed men and women risked their lives. Many return broken and scarred. Many return in rubber bags. How dare Chrysler exploit them -- and us -- for a cheap branding opportunity.
My daughter saw the spot. She said, “Is that a Jeep ad?” I said yes. She said, “That’s sick.” She is 11.
How could a child see so plainly what the Chrysler Corporation could not?
That’s why I feel obliged to inject a brand into the conversation. The brand, ladies and gentlemen, is me. None of my clients was a Super Bowl advertiser. Equally, no Super Bowl advertiser used my services. This was a shame to the tune of $150 million.
If Super Bowl XLVII demonstrated anything, it is the dire need for signal-flag-wavers. In the creative bunker, where agency and client huff one another’s fumes, judgment is obviously being distorted on a grand scale. This evening’s output wasn’t even ordinary. It was extraordinarily poor. Except for the hashtags and URLs. Those were just fine.