The Only Super Bowl Ad That Bothers To Sell?

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.

  • Psy going Gangnam style for pistachios?  I don’t remember which brand. No earthling remembers what brand. Other celebrities -- Amy Poehler for Best Buy and Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Bob Odenkirk for Samsung -- were very funny, but did more for their own brands than the ones advertising.
  • The lame mother-in-law joke (a $4 million mother-in-law joke), when a Century 21 agent saves the day by doing what any realtor -- or anybody with an Internet connection -- can do: locate a house for sale in a given neighborhood.
  • Skechers, with a remarkably unconvincing computer-generated Cheetah capture, based on the silly premise (i.e, lie)  that Skechers make you faster.
  • Bud Light. Stevie Wonder. Magic. Huh?
  • Hyundai’s pre-kickoff spot featuring The Flaming Lips, a cult band unheard of by, let’s say, 98% of the audience, spicing up a family adventure having zero to do with the car -- except to get everybody from place to silly place. Perhaps Psy was unavailable.

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 (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.




23 comments about "The Only Super Bowl Ad That Bothers To Sell? ".
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  1. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, February 4, 2013 at 9:40 a.m.

    Bad game. Worse ads. But the only one likely to be fired for poor performance is the poor schmoe who thought the game was already over and turned out the lights!

  2. Charles Mason from Charles Mason Inc, February 4, 2013 at 10:54 a.m.


    While I agree with most of your article, I disagree with the Oreo commercial being "quite cute and explicitly brand-centric.". Cute, meh but not that creative and not, "brand-centric." There is no branding expect at the very end versus the Doritos. Doritos show the product being used (eaten), they show the bags of Doritos multiple times and they tie it in together as to why the "guys are dressed in dresses". Oreos, they were whispering in a library, ah ok big deal and only in the first 5 seconds of the commercial they show a cream filled cookie, which mind you aren't just Oreos, and if you are in a room full of loud people, whispering was lost! Now Oreo did get one thing right, "the folks at Oreo and their ad agency, 360i, saw an opportunity. They tweeted out the pic at right, and "You can still dunk in the dark"" (take from a Yahoo on summary of the big game.

    Just my take Mr. Garfield.


  3. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, February 4, 2013 at 11:22 a.m.

    you missed the ronco spot?

  4. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, February 4, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.

    Interesting you think the Oreo commercial compared "varieties" when the whole thing (at least to me) was a play on Less Filler, Great Taste, but using cookie and cream

  5. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, February 4, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.

    Sorry "Less Filling"

  6. Bev Butler from Timesavers, February 4, 2013 at 11:39 a.m.

    All this talk of "racism" in VW's Super Bowl ad is impelled by ignorance and is more than foolish now. Jamaica has a statistically significant percentage of its population being of German descent because of the introduction of German indentured labourers after Emancipation. Check out the history of our St. Elizabeth parish. We have many other ties with Germanym and Jamaicans buy VW cars too! We ARE a happy people, and are happier that people want to imitate our accent. Enuff already.


  7. Paul Baron from WebTel Marketing, February 4, 2013 at 11:45 a.m.

    Interesting observations ... but I tend to side with Bev on the 'enough already' observations of political correctness. However, I do absolutely agree with your 11 yr old daughter. And being one of the "tens of millions" who really enjoy the Clydesdale ads, I can only say, more animals, less celebrity endorsements = less controversy and more memorable smiles and branding.

  8. Drake White from madapp media, February 4, 2013 at 11:50 a.m.

    I was surprised by the lameness of the ads this year. But it did serve the Paul Harvey / Ram ad well and helped to let it cut through the noise. Anyone know who shot the images? Definitely my favorite spot.

  9. Steven Graff from Bloofusion Inc., February 4, 2013 at 11:51 a.m.

    Bob, perhaps it is not lost on you, but an accent or dialect do not make a race. Are blacks with a Cockney accent making a racial slur? Are Asians with an Aussie accent being racist. Because I have certainly heard both first hand and it was their native accent. It may be uniquely American that its mostly untraveled citizens think accents are race based and that anyone trying to channel a Kingston dialect is immediately guilty of mocking a whole race. But it is actually the opposite, those that think accents are tied to skin color or genetics are the racists. The accent in this spot was shorthand for a relaxed mindset associated with Kingston, which crosses all race and socio-economic lines, something the racially offended critics would do well to embrace.

  10. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, February 4, 2013 at 1:12 p.m.

    I was really offput by the ad for the next Ironman movie, showing passengers being sucked out of an airplane after a bomb goes off. What a shame it was shown during a program where viewers are in a celebratory mood (and with millions of children in the audience). Since we already suffer terrorist attacks in real life on a regular basis, why have we become a nation that clamors for it in our entertainment?

  11. Arthur Einstein from Loyalty Builders, February 4, 2013 at 1:14 p.m.

    Bob - Good critique. But there's something bigger going on here. What we saw on the SB looks to me like creative rot that's seeped into the business - caused by the pursuit of attention at the expense of relevance. There's always room for a hymn like the Chrysler/Ram piece - even if the voice over is a voice from beyond. But most of what I see is pure twaddle!

  12. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, February 4, 2013 at 1:48 p.m.

    The Superbowl is a festival of excess, American-style, and the black-out was by far, the only legitimate event of the entire evening. The half-time show was a Las Vegas revue with slightly less revealing costuming. The ads made me glad I don't work in advertising any more. They exemplified the intellectual void that is today's marketing.

  13. Theresa M. Moore from Antellus, February 4, 2013 at 2:19 p.m.

    I'm not into football, and did not know that the outage would kick my regular episode of "Elementary" into the next hour. However, what I do see very often is that the creative rot does nothing to sell the car or whatever. It used to be that commercials told viewers what the thing was, what kind of features it had, and why one should buy it. Now, we see commercials which are great for the unrelated stories they project about the thing, but not much about the thing itself. Sometimes they are so entertaining that one forgets what the commercial is about. Please, people, get it together and remember what you are working toward. An ad which just takes up space and interrupts a viewer's programming choice is just clutter.

  14. Thomas Pick from Webbiquity LLC, February 4, 2013 at 2:56 p.m.

    Agree with 98% of your rant Bob, but take issue with two of your points: first, the Skechers ad was one of the more creative (of an overall poor lot) and related to the product, with humorous hyperbole. Second, the Tide ad was needlessly offensive -- to Niners fans.

  15. Jim Palam from Jim Palam & Partners, February 4, 2013 at 5:13 p.m.

    Excellent review Bob. My fav was the Paul Harvey ode. I do disagree with your admonishment of VW for the Jamaican accent spot. I streamed this days before the Big game and thought it predictably. But during the game it resonated positively for me. (Can't we all just "Be Happy"?)

    While I may not go out and buy a Beetle, I'm going try my best to turn the frown the other way around.

  16. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, February 4, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.

    Funny how different all our reactions are. I thought the Dodge Ram ad was really bad. I figured it was sponsored by Focus on the Family & we'd see Tebow eventually. Only eventually did I remember (buried deep - because that's all it deserved) last year's ad with Clint. Then I thought: Must be Chrysler wasting a whole lot of money again. It was. For that truck brand of theirs -whatever it is.

  17. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 4, 2013 at 7:15 p.m.

    So only farmers need to buy Dodge trucks with religious quackery on top of that ? No other products to sell to mass audience? Kinda' missed lots of audience and lots of sales.

  18. Michael Strassman from WGBH, February 5, 2013 at 9:46 a.m.

    What a punch of knee-jerk, PC winers we've become...we've got people here offended at the religiosity of a truck commercial that was really about poetry and the icon of the American Farmer, we've got white people telling Jamaicans to be upset over an ad that, in reality, is making fun of the schlubby, whiteness of midwesterners and celebrating the cool and laid-back nature of Jamaica, and another person who can't watch a comic book movie ad without shuddering at the supposed reference to terrorism. All the hand-wringing naysayers-you know who you are-need to lighten up. Like good art, good advertising is likely to offend someone, and the people it does offend probably weren't going to buy anyway. All that said, criticism about the dearth of creativity and online connection are spot-on. I have to wonder what the point is of another Pepsi, Coke, or Budweiser ad is that doesn't promote a new product or drive people to a compelling experience. Seems a piss poor ROI for brands that can neither increase awareness or brand equity, which is all you can do with a passive superbowl ad with no online tie-in.

  19. Tom Lichtenheld from Tom Lichtenheld Studio, February 5, 2013 at 1:48 p.m.

    I agree that the Dodge Ram spot was the highlight of the show. Creatively, I take a few points off for the fact that they simply lifted an existing video, but they had the wisdom to recognize that copywriters and art directors aren't the only creative people on the planet. I give points back for smart, focused positioning. They needed a manly image, but the usual suspects (building stuff and clearing shrub), were taken by Ford and Chevy, so they found unoccupied territory that - though smaller by the numbers - is equally grounded in All-American manliness. On top of that, Ram has barely a toehold on the farm, where you're either a Ford Man or a Chevy/GMC Man, so they get more points for confidence. Speaking of confidence, you have to admire the way they downplayed the sheet metal, which gave even more validity to their emotional claim.
    As an aside, it's interesting to compare the original Paul Harvey poem to the script as aired, which is edited to be much more PC.
    Good Day.

  20. Dave Ewart from Loggly, February 5, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.

    30 comments an nary a mention of @BlackBerrys debacle, proving that the only thing worse than being hated is ignored.

    Here's my open letter to the BlackBerry CMO.

    Dear Frank,

    Along with 120+ million people, I caught your Super Bowl commercial. While I can’t fully appreciate the challenges in the road ahead at BlackBerry I am aware the average tenure of a technology CMO is just over two and a half years. If revenue doesn't hockey stick for BlackBerry soon, that will look like a stretch goal.

    I read your quote on your commercial “…we knew that it wasn’t feasible to communicate the rich experience of BlackBerry 10. We decided to use the light hearted spirit of Super Bowl ads to showcase what BlackBerry 10 can’t do”, and I was confused and shocked. The easiest thing in the world is to critique and run, so I won’t dissect and flame but will offer some unsolicited feedback; just one marketing guy to another... Including a few thoughts of my own should you ever get a Super Bowl do-over.

    ** Make it memorable or don't make it at all- and never, ever, make excuses. **

    Keep reading...

  21. Serena Ehrlich from Business Wire, February 5, 2013 at 7:10 p.m.

    Amen! What a great read. Even if I disagree on the winner. The only product I saw being sold, really sold at the super bowl was the Wounded Warrior text for donation program. That was the only ad that had a CTA that could be acted upon instantly. I would love to see what their results were.... Thanks, Bob!

  22. Terri Forman from Mindshare LLC, February 6, 2013 at 12:17 a.m.

    So, it's only white farmers that need Ram trucks? A thoroughly disappointing crop of ads this year. Most were insulting, offensive, stupid, or boring.

    I know there are great creative people out there, and some great clients--where's the beef?

  23. Michael Porte from The Field (social), WheresSpot, February 6, 2013 at 4:47 p.m.

    Well written and thoughtful. While I'm not totally in agreement (maybe only 85%), i do appreciate the thought you put into your arguments, which it seems, is more than some of the advertisers did when it came to their spots. Well done, and thank you. Not that you're asking, but my favorite ad moment of the game was Oreo' tweeting out an ad during the blackout. Brilliant (and how, i wonder, did they get those light to go out!)

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