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The Super Bowl Ad Standouts
By STUART ELLIOTT The New York Times February 7, 2005

It may be hard to say, and harder to believe, but Madison Avenue could owe Janet Jackson a big thank-you.

The commercials that were broadcast on Fox last night during Super Bowl XXXIX were, in general, markedly better than typical spots from the last few Super Bowls - though there were some stinkers. And the reason for that improvement could well be Ms. Jackson's breast-baring during the halftime show last year.

The reaction against the notorious "wardrobe malfunction" also generated attacks against crass, boorish commercials that ran before and after Ms. Jackson's performance. Those spots relied on crude humor to pander to a large segment of the Super Bowl audience: younger men who live to laugh at bathroom jokes and misogynistic jibes. Chastened by the complaints, advertisers and agencies promised to clean up their acts and proceed cautiously with commercials for 2005. That pledge was widely interpreted as foreshadowing a dull, play-it-safe Ad Bowl inside the Super Bowl.
But many of the 30 sponsors of the game rose to the occasion, proving they could deliver attention-getting ads without stooping to the fraternity-house antics of last year, featuring disreputable characters like a flatulent horse, a crotch-biting dog and a monkey pitching woo to a woman.

For instance, FedEx turned its Super Bowl marketing playbook back to 1998, when it won plaudits for a witty commercial by BBDO Worldwide in New York, part of the Omnicom Group, that mocked the conventions of Super Bowl commercials.

The 2005 version, also from BBDO New York, crammed into 30 seconds the 10 ingredients purportedly guaranteed to insure Super Sunday success. They included an obligatory celebrity (the actor Burt Reynolds), a bear (the required dancing, talking animal), two lissome cheerleaders (representing attractive females) and, when the bear became a film critic, one of those surprise endings so beloved by copywriters of Super Bowl spots.

The best moment: When Mr. Reynolds paused to deliver a pitch for FedEx, it was identified on screen as Item No. 8, "Product message (optional)."

Fox charged an estimated average of $2.4 million for each 30 seconds of commercial time, and some advertisers, alas, could not resist reflexively reaching for the lowest common denominator. For example, CareerBuilder.com, a job Web site owned by three newspaper companies, ran three commercials by Cramer-Krasselt in Chicago featuring a cast of - yawn - mischievous monkeys dressed as office workers.

Those viewers who still longed for the callow carryings-on of last year were rewarded with formulaic sight gags involving whoopee cushions, bananas and a literal interpretation of the phrase "kissing up to the boss."

What follows is an assessment of some of the best and worst other commercials. The spots described below are among 35 provided to reporters before the game, out of the total of 50 commercials that were scheduled to run.

Anheuser-Busch A gauzy valentine to American troops, which ended with the Anheuser-Busch corporate logo superimposed on screen, was touching, but some viewers may have wondered whether "Busch" had been misspelled. And a commercial for designating a driver managed to deliver its message with a wink rather than a lecture. Agency: the Chicago office of DDB Worldwide, part of Omnicom.

Bubblicious A spot for Bubblicious gum, sold by the Cadbury Adams division of Cadbury Schweppes, was short (15 seconds) but sweet. The commercial, for the new LeBron's Lightning Lemonade flavor endorsed by LeBron James, showed that having your bubble burst is not always a bad thing. Agency: JWT in New York, part of the WPP Group.

Budweiser The playful horses in a commercial for Budweiser beer, sold by Anheuser-Busch, were far better behaved than their gassy counterpart in a Bud Light spot last year. A stable of Clydesdales faced off in a snowball fight, and the cute "razzberry" in the finale was as naughty as they got. Agency: DDB Chicago.

Degree A commercial for a new line of Degree deodorants sold by Unilever took a risk by pretending to celebrate men who avoid risk, as embodied by a make-believe brand of "Inaction Heroes" dolls bearing names like Mama's Boy. The spot succeeded where so many failed last year, by treading the fine line between boldness and tastelessness. Agency: Lowe & Partners in New York, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

Lay's Come back, MC Hammer, all is forgiven. That seemed to be the message delivered by a commercial featuring the 1980's rapper, for the Lay's potato chip brand sold by the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo. As for the connection between salty snacks and silly singers, as Mr. Hammer might put it, "U Can't Figure This Out." Agency: Spike DDB in New York, owned by the director Spike Lee and DDB Worldwide.

McDonald's The fast-food company McDonald's surprised with a hilarious commercial, far more clever than its usual fare. The spot, presented in a deadpan "mockumentary" style reminiscent of "This Is Spinal Tap," was centered on a French fry that allegedly resembled Abraham Lincoln, which improbably became the subject of a bidding war on the Yahoo Shopping Web site. Agency: DDB Chicago.

MasterCard Cynics laughed last fall when Advertising Week in New York City began with a parade of familiar advertising characters. But the idea now seems, well, priceless, thanks to a delightful dinner reunion of 10 brand icons like the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Peanut and the Morton Salt girl, sponsored by Debit MasterCard from MasterCard International. One disturbing thought: What was in that casserole Charlie the Tuna ate so heartily? Agency: McCann Erickson in New York, part of the McCann Worldgroup division of Interpublic (which created a MasterCard character for the occasion).

Pepsi-Cola A prosaic idea to promote iTunes and Pepsi-Cola, sponsored by Apple Computer and PepsiCo, turned up not once but twice: Uncap a Pepsi bottle and hear music; recap the bottle and the music stops. What, viewers didn't get it the first time? But it was worth the double play to hear Gwen Stefani and Eve sing "If I Were a Rich Girl," based on the song from "Fiddler on the Roof." What's not to like? Agency: the Playa del Rey, Calif., office of TBWA/Chiat/Day, part of the TBWA Worldwide division of Omnicom.

Silestone Jocks almost always play stock characters in commercials, taking parts like thug, superstar or dim bulb, but a droll spot for the Silestone brand of quartz surfaces sold by Cosentino defied convention. "I am Diana Pearl," former athletes like Mike Ditka and Dennis Rodman declared, "Spartacus"-style. Huh? The punch line: It's a color of Silestone they like. Agency: Freed Advertising in Sugar Land, Tex.

Subway A slyly subversive commercial for a new line of Fresh Toasted Subs sold by the Subway chain, owned by Doctor's Associates, managed a feat that eluded so many spots last year: pulling off a sight gag without being obnoxious or offensive. It seemed to show an amorous couple parked for a hot makeout session, but as a pair of inquiring police officers learned, appearances can deceive when guys get hungry. Agency: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, part of Omnicom.
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