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Winning Ads, and Fox's Busted Play

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By Tom Shales
Monday, February 4, 2008

Watching the Super Bowl for the commercials has become such an entrenched American ritual that there are now Super Bowl commercials advertising Super Bowl commercials. At Super Bowl XLII from Glendale, Ariz., last night, the NFL ran ads telling viewers to "see the NFL's SuperAd at the end of the 3rd quarter," and commentators told the home audience that if they missed any commercials or wanted to see them again, they could go to MySpace.com.

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There were even "sneak previews" of commercials to come during the horrible pregame show, a junky hodgepodge of football featurettes and ridiculous interviews conducted on a "red carpet" that led to only to anxious anchor Ryan Seacrest, of "American Idol" fame. Or infamy.

One problem with watching the game for the commercials last night is that the game itself, contrary to Super Bowl precedent, came to rousing life in the second half (after long dull stretches), the end result being that the New York Giants defeated the favored New England Patriots, 17-14.

Meanwhile, the winner for the most electrifying commercial should probably go to Audi, which introduced its fantastic-looking R8 model with a spoof on the famed horse-head scene from "The Godfather." The gray-haired man awakening in his mansion didn't find a horse's head in his bed, however; he found the discarded grill of an old car. Screamed like a banshee.

Then came the R8 bursting into view, a breathtaking sight. The price is probably breathtaking, too.

E-trade, an Internet stockbroker, had definite crowd pleasers in two ads featuring a computer-enhanced baby sitting at a computer keyboard and talking into the camera about his market decisions. In one spot, he spit up at the end of the ad ("Whoa!") and in the other, his clown Bobo made an unceremonious appearance. It was strictly LOL.

Bud Light always tries to win viewers over with humorous ads. Last night's included two in which the beer claimed miraculous powers for users -- first the ability to breathe fire, second the ability to fly. Both boons turned out to be bombs, however -- the ability to breathe fire unfortunately set a room ablaze -- and the ads ended with advisories stating that the abilities mentioned were "no longer available."

Dot-com commercials have proliferated in the last decade or so. One aspiring funster, Careerbuilder.com, takes dishonors for the worst commercial -- actually the worst two. The first showed a human heart dislodged from someone's chest and bouncing around on a keyboard and other office equipment. The second featured a sickening, multi-eyed, mutated spider thing dropping down from outside a window. Neither ad made its point and both were needlessly gross.

Whenever Fox has the Super Bowl, the pregame show is bound to be junkier than those on other networks. Standards are also likely to be lower. But when Fox rejected a smutty commercial submitted by GoDaddy.com, the company submitted an alternate spot that simply directed viewers to the Internet, where they could see the ad that was banned. A Victoria's Secret ad featuring a sexy brunette in lingerie aired late in the game, so late that the ad included the information "This game will soon be over" and advised use of the sponsor's product in postgame activities: "Let the real games begin."

Ads have definitely become more audacious in recent years as the field gets increasingly crowded and it's harder for advertisers to grab attention. Pepsi paid actor and singer Justin Timberlake a small -- or maybe large -- fortune to star in an ad filled with spills and stunts (some of which Timberlake allegedly did himself), but it flew by in a blur and was not repeated during the game. An ad for Bridgestone tires fared better, starting with the proverbial deer in the headlights and continuing as both rockster Alice Cooper and fitness guru Richard Simmons froze in the headlights, too.

Some advertisers raided the classics. Music by Rossini accompanied a cute ad in which giant Macy's parade balloons tussled over a giant floating bottle of Coca-Cola. The Charlie Brown balloon appeared from behind a building and sailed away with the Coke. The cola was also sold by Democrat James Carville -- looking as always like the delegate from the planet Zontar -- and Republican Bill Frist taking a friendly tour of Washington once a bottle of Coke brought them together.

Among the most overproduced spots was one featuring musclebound models in the "American Gladiator" mode wearing tight spandex athletic garb from Underarmour.com. A huge mob surging through the streets seemed stolen from the underrated futuristic thrilled "V for Vendetta." It was hard to tell, though, who were the fascist oppressors and who were the liberated hordes.

That red carpet business before the show was a thoroughly unadulterated flop. Seacrest had to ask such commonplace celebrities as John Travolta insipid questions and, of course, which team they picked to win the game. Red carpets are supposed to take people from their cars into the venue for some big event, but this one led nowhere, just to a circle also made out of red rug. The carpet was reportedly a half-mile from the stadium.

Pregame coverage was also marred by the apelike antics of aging former quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who managed to do almost all the talking, and laughing at himself, in an interview with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose eyes peering out from inside his helmet were the prevailing visual icon of the night. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers starred in a spectacular and inoffensive halftime show.

Fox must have run 100 promos for its shows "House" (a postgame episode aired) and "American Idol," both already hits, and 100 more of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," a fairly new series that airs tonight. "Sarah Connor" was advertised with nothing but violent bashings and crashings, while the announcer in one "House" promised that "after the game, the blood really starts flowing."

The assortment of ads that aired during this year's Super Bowl followed what is now a familiar pattern, though ads for hybrid cars were far more plentiful than in years past. There was the usual assortment of fancy-shmancy cellphones, dot-com companies and all kinds of truck torture, including the spinning of a Ford truck around and around at hyperspeed by only its tow hooks. Imagine.

At 6:30, time for the kickoff, Fox announcer Joe Buck declared, "Finally, football." Yes, but so much more besides.


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