Super Bowl ads: More gems than clunkers

[2 February 2009]

By Steve Johnson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Not much was expected of the Super Bowl ads this year. Recession. A national mood of hyper-rational un-exuberance potentially rendering the usual collection of bathroom and frat-boy humor inappropriate. Advertisers’ plans changing at the last minute to accommodate the dark climate.

But like the game itself, a surprise gem won by Pittsburgh in the last minute, these were, for the most part, a surprisingly decent batch of high-cost product messages. The number of downright clunkers was kept relatively low compared to past games, the use of animals wasn’t always mere audience pandering, and some good and appropriate humor came out of our current dire straits.

Neither dared tackle the outright joblessness so many face today, but two job-search companies were funny about bad employment, one showing a literal dead-end (of a moose) job. Denny’s offered America a free breakfast Tuesday in a droll spot, albeit one that suggested you might be eating that breakfast next to violence-minded made guys.

Bud Light, usually the worst of the frat-boy offenders, was relatively on-key and inoffensive all day. In the game’s very first ad, the beverage tossed an office worker out the window for suggesting the wrong thing at a company budget-cutting meeting (no more free Bud Light at meetings?) and made it play like the beer: light and frothy.

Even though PETA’s alleged Super Bowl spot famously didn’t pass NBC broadcast standards, the cause of animal rights was well served Sunday. Anheuser-Busch’s Clydesdales charmed again. Coke’s thirsty insects were visually stunning. And Pedigree’s dramatization of why people should adopt dogs, rather than, say, rhinos and ostriches, was both hilarious and exactly on message.

The night’s dogs didn’t involve dogs. Instead flowers (Teleflora, getting downright nasty) and Doritos (violent) wasted their millions.

The big 3-D spectacle involving a movie and beverage wasn’t worth the time it took to put on the special glasses.

Did Hyundai’s spot with very angry Japanese and German car executives make World War II veterans uncomfortable? It’s possible.

But such miscues faded away when faced with the likes of Coke’s winning post-modern homage to its Mean Joe Greene commercial.

Jay Leno grinning at us menacingly from a sports car notwithstanding, NBC’s promotions department deserves special mention for making most of its many ads for NBC shows a notch or three more entertaining than usual. The NBC promo for Conan O’Brien’s show was way funnier than the Bud Light version of Conan’s “Swedish” TV ad.

But Hulu, a TV-rerun Web site partly owned by NBC, was even sharper than that, spinning off a splendid fantasy about the first-rate site being expressly intended to, as the saying goes about TV, rot our brains. And for free.

In a bad year for cash outflow, discount entertainment wins every time.

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