washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tom Shales

At the Super Bowl, Minimal Offense and Lots of Safeties

By Tom Shales
Monday, February 7, 2005; Page C01

America could go to sleep safely last night knowing there had been no eye-popping "wardrobe malfunctions" during this year's Super Bowl halftime show, and that the game itself hadn't been the inflated bust, if you'll pardon the expression, that it sometimes was in years past.

Perhaps still smarting from last year's absurd hysteria over the inappropriate appearance of Janet Jackson's nipple, the NFL and the Fox network played it super-safe at Super Bowl XXXIX, with a Don Mischer- produced halftime show that tastefully starred Paul McCartney tastefully singing tasteful songs that the whole world loves.


Sean "P. Diddy" Combs shows off his new wheels in an ad for Diet Pepsi that aired during last night's Super Bowl broadcast. (Pepsi-Cola via Bloomberg News)

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He did appear to be lip-syncing "Drive My Car," "Get Back," "Live and Let Die" and "Hey Jude," but so what? It's very hard to do it "live" in a huge arena with little time to set up equipment. McCartney is one of the greatest pop musicians of all time, and just to have him there in Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium doing Beatles classics was thrilling in its way.

As for the game, it seemed adequately stimulating, even looking for a time as though Philadelphia's Eagles might stage a comeback. But they lost after all to those smirky snoots the New England Patriots (who were still smugly ridiculing an Eagles' flying gesture even when it was clear who would win). Controversy was almost nowhere to be found, not even in the commercials. The closest thing to overexposure came in an ad for GoDaddy.com, a Web hosting site; a buxom wench wearing a tight dress was almost rendered half-topless when one of her straps broke. But she grabbed it quickly and held herself together. What this had to do with GoDaddy.com wasn't clear.

Just before that spot aired, Diet Pepsi broke something of a barrier, albeit a barrier already in tatters, with an ad in which women admiringly stared at a handsome hunkyman who bopped down the street to one of the Bee Gees tunes from "Saturday Night Fever." The punch line to the commercial was that one of the young men who star on cable's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was also seen openly ogling the hunk.

Perhaps as recently as five years ago, certainly 10, it would be highly unlikely to see a gay person portrayed in a big-budget commercial that aired during America's night of nights for its sport of sports.

The commercial most likely to be remembered, or at least most likely to have set eyes a-poppin' (and some hearts a-flutterin'), was an ad for Heineken starring, impressively enough, Brad Pitt. Movie stars this big (and do they get much bigger?) normally don't do commercials -- except in Japan. Pitt had to have been rewarded lavishly for the spot, which showed him leaving a gorgeous apartment and sneaking out to replenish his beer supply, one step ahead of what looked like 10,000 reporters and photographers laying siege to the building.

Pitt just sauntered out, bought the brew and returned, untouched and unmolested by the madding crowd. The commercial just oozed money.

The Super Bowl has become so officially entrenched as an annual festival of commercial art that some commercials make reference to the fact. FedEx-Kinko's played this game in one of the cleverest spots of the night, a brief illustrated lecture on the top 10 ingredients for a successful Super Bowl commercial. One was a celebrity, so up popped Burt Reynolds. Another was an animal, so out lumbered a bear. Another was (attention, censors!) a "groin kick," so the bear kicked Reynolds.

A message about the product was considered "optional."

Monkeys were big, adhering to the FedEx-Kinko's advisory about including animals in commercial messages. Verizon Wireless offered an ad in which monkeys tried using bananas as cell phones. More successfully amusing were ads for the Web site CareerBuilder.com, showing a single human male trying to work in an office otherwise populated by chimps. In one of these spots (attention again, censors), a monkey underling smooched the (clothed) buttocks of the monkey boss.

"I work with a bunch of monkeys," the human male complained to a friend on the phone.

A spot that some people may have found very classy and others might consider exploitation of American patriotism showed U.S. troops walking through an airport, presumably on the way to or from a flight. Civilians in the airport waiting for flights slowly began to applaud the men and women in uniform, with the applause growing until virtually the entire terminal was cheering. The ad ended with a simple "Thank You" printed on the screen. And then, of course, came the name of the sponsoring corporation, Anheuser-Busch, which used most of its ad time trying to sell Bud Light and Budweiser.

The Fox network riddled the telecast with promos for its shows, and one of these, ballyhoo for the overwrought and overripe drama "24" (where the world almost ends every week), told viewers that since commercial time was selling for $2.4 million per 30 seconds, we should be impressed that Fox was willing to lose that amount by giving the time to "24," which it called "the most thrilling show on television."

Michael Chiklis, the actor who stars in "The Shield," on Fox's FX (cable) network, appeared during all the introductory hoopla to narrate a short film about how wonderful the Patriots were. But Will Smith, whose next film ("Hitch") is a Columbia Pictures release, not 20th Century Fox, got the honors when it came time to sing the Eagles' praises. Smith said he was "West Philadelphia born and raised."

Either a technical snafu or a sleepy director marred the part of the spectacle in which the teams storm the field from inside smoky (for some reason) giant football helmets. There was something very wrong with the sound balance on Fox and instead of a roaring crowd, the team members emerged to what was almost a snoring crowd. The sound was very flat and lifeless and the commentators, who normally refuse to shut up, went oddly silent.

It seemed likely that viewers were supposed to hear something at that point, maybe music and sound effects, but instead there was a kind of aggressive lull.

Several different approaches were taken on behalf of Diet Pepsi. In one, the famous P. Diddy (really, he is famous) was seen riding in a Diet Pepsi truck, so suddenly that became the thing to do in Hollywood, and all kinds of B- and C-list "stars" showed up in the drivers' seats. Diet Pepsi wants to position itself as so hip a cola that even the hippest hip-hoppers glug it down.

The Muppets dropped in on behalf of Pizza Hut, MC Hammer made a very brief comeback in a spot for Lay's Potato Chips, Gladys Knight appeared -- through the magic of special effects -- to be playing football, Pipless, for MBNA, and Ford introduced the new Mustang convertible with a scene that looked like it was taken from the offbeat film comedy "Fargo." Of course "Fargo" came out way back in 1996, so some people may have missed the reference.

Every now and then the three dorks in the broadcast booth were seen on camera, and always standing up, as if they were calling the whole game that way. In the fourth quarter, as the Eagles struggled bravely, one announcer asked, "How many football fans are screaming at the TV set saying, 'Hurry up!?' " A better question: How many fans were screaming at the TV set saying "Shut up!"? We'd guess quite a few, not that it ever does any good.


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