What Recession? No Downsizing in Super Bowl Ads

By Tom Shales
Monday, February 2, 2009

If corners were cut in the presentation of Super Bowl XLIII, it was hard to spot them. Maybe the commercials overall were a little less lavish, maybe less beer flowed and fewer luxury cars tooled along sleek and sylvan superhighways, but if pulled out of context and shown to an impartial audience of creatures from outer space, it's unlikely the game would be labeled the First Super Bowl of the New Recession.

The usual elements were there, often in mad abundance: a Toyota truck drove through a giant tower of fire; Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head went out for a spin on Bridgestone tires (Mrs. PH's mouth fell off); a young Clydesdale tried to mimic a dog's stick-fetching routine but brought back an entire tree limb; and "grease monkeys" turned out to be literally that, chimps running a garage in behalf of Castrol motor oil.

That much-adored talking baby who sits at a computer keyboard being cool and hawking E-Trade was joined by a hip African American toddler, perhaps as a nod to America's first black president. Otherwise, signs of the times were fairly scarce, with one exception being two 3-D commercials that aired at the end of the first half.

Three-D is making a comeback at the movies and on DVDs, and those who had procured the proper cardboard-and-cellophane glasses at their supermarket saw effective, eye-popping (and eye-poking) uses of the special effect, although the glasses also lowered light coming from the screen, no matter how big the screen, by what seemed like at least 40 percent. And ow, how they hurt the bridge of the nose.

One 3-D ad featured balletic football players pitching flavored drinking water and the other offered clips from the forthcoming Dreamworks film "Monsters vs. Aliens," chief promoter of the 3-D exercise. NBC, this year's Super Bowl network, has scheduled an entire episode of its almost-hit "Chuck" to air in 3-D on the network tonight.

The halftime show was limited to a mere two dimensions but proved a hugely happy crowd-pleaser -- Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band rushing through a quick medley of their hits, among them "Born to Run," "Glory Days" and the title tune from their new album, "Working on a Dream."

Quick-witted Bob Costas of the NBC anchor team noted that an already historic 100-yard interception return that ended the first half with a blast was accomplished by "one guy we'd think was not born to run," hefty Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison. While football fans wouldn't likely say this year's game equaled last year's in terms of sustained excitement, the turnabout proved not only fair play but electrifying TV and kept the game from being eclipsed by its commercials.

Contrary to Super Bowl tradition, the game proved to be a nailbiter to the very end, with the Pittsburgh Steelers squeezing out a 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

In depressing support of the notion that anyone can be corrupted if enough dough is involved, Bob Dylan's recording of "Forever Young" was prominent in one of those syrupy, mushy, squishy and gushy Pepsi commercials about how integral the soda is to rosy memories of an America gone by -- a sentimental then-and-now kind of thing.

Registering as less offensive was a later spot themed to the line "I'm good," uttered cheerfully by victims of violent acts as a way of selling Pepsi Max, "the first diet cola for men."

But it was Doritos corn chips that waged the most amusing battle on the snack-food front, one of them done in the Self-Mocking Exaggeration vein: One crunchy bite of a Dorito and the consumer observed such welcome fantasies as a pretty girl losing her clothes and a menacing cop turning into a monkey.

Another Doritos spot, done in the spirit of "The Office," featured a man getting an accurate prediction from one of those eight-ball toys by throwing it against a vending machine to smashing effect. This inspired a co-worker to try the same thing after asking the ball, "Will I finally get that big promotion?" Unfortunately when he heaved the object, it landed squarely on his boss's crotch (that old reliable laugh-getter seen so often on "America's Funniest Home Videos"). It may be a cheap joke, but in this case it delivered the goods.

Folks who like to plan their moviegoing months if not years in advance were teased with spots for such distant premieres as that of "G.I. Joe," which doesn't open until August. The commercial featured a scene that one assumes will be in the film (although you never know), a very realistic depiction of the Eiffel Tower being overtaken by some kind of climbing vine and then toppling, heartbreakingly, to the ground. The Eiffel Tower has toppled previously in movies, including the Blake Edwards comedy "The Great Race," but it's still a shock to see it happen, just as it is every time the poor old Statue of Liberty gets knocked off its pedestal by a tidal wave or a monster.

In terms of both spectacle and violence, Audi took honors again with another in its series of Super Bowl ads featuring Jason Statham and a sexily spoofed-up sports car from the "Transporter" action films.

It wouldn't be a Super Bowl without beer commercials, and one of this year's best ads was a spot for Bud Light that vaguely seemed to acknowledge America's deep recession. At a meeting in a conference room (more "Office" influence), a young executive suggests as an economy measure that "we stop buying Bud Light for our meetings." In the next shot, the man is seen crashing through a window and falling to the ground (and escaping without injury) as penalty for his sacrilege.

And so it went. The game began with the usual preliminaries, these including a soulful reworking of the national anthem by Jennifer Hudson and, earlier in the day, an interview with President Obama by Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show (Lauer also showed up in a commercial for a fantastical-looking movie called "Land of the Lost," featuring Will Ferrell and a bunch of dinosaurs), and an appearance on the field by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and the flight crew of the damaged plane that landed safely in the Hudson River.

The ceremonial flourishes, the oblivious-to-the-economy commercials and, oh yeah, the game itself combined again to make the Super Bowl the very essence and definition of a quintessential national event -- and a crash course in national habits, morals and values. For better or for worse . . .

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