Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl winners and losers

Another Super Bowl is over, and again my attention was on the commercials rather than the game — as has been true every year since 1995. (That a nice kid from Chico via Cal won MVP tonight was an added bonus for sitting through all the commercials).

One thing I found amazing was all the mediocre ads for which the sponsors paid $2-3 million a pop. Some of these were recycled ads — ones that had already run before. (Why???) Others were just plain ineffective, like anything featuring a Doritos bag.

Fox didn’t have to pay for its house ads, but the opportunity cost was huge as most of them failed. At last, in the 4th quarter the network used its time effectively with two understated parodies. The first was a House M.D. ad that was a knock-off of the famous Mean Joe Greene Coke ad. And then the famous-for-15-minutes star of some show named “Glee” started her ad seeming like a beneficent Oprah (giving away Chevy cars to students) until she confessed she it was a plot to ruin their amateur status. Fox Sports also had some good house ads for its Daytona TV broadcast.

Of course, anyone watching a 3.5 hour football game is going to get burned out on even the most clever ads after a while. But my favorite of the evening was the 60-second Audi ad in the first quarter, variously termed “Release the Hounds” or “Kenny G.” The parody worked on multiple levels, it was engaging, it had unexpected twists, and it had a coda.

I also liked two of the top-rated ads I saw mentioned in various polls. One was the Darth Vader ad for Volkswagen, and the other the Bridgestone “reply all” ad. Both would resonate strongly with techies here in the valley.

Among the ads for mobile devices, the average results were better. In the Android vs. iPhone OS battle, the score was 2-1. While no “1984,” the Motorola ad for its Xoom tablet was certainly catchy, as was (to a lesser degree) the Sony Xperia ad aimed at gamers.

However, when it comes to surprise value, Verizon Wireless beat them all with a very inexpensive ad showing off the iPhone 4 and bringing the return of the Verizon guy.

Still, it was amazing how many lousy ads there were, including most of GM’s $10+ million in Super Bowl spending. (The Lassie parody was the notable exception). Chrysler’s attempt to wrap itself in the flag drew headlines but not heartstrings — recalling Samuel Johnson’s line that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

The beer ads were also surprisingly flat. The exception was the Stella Artois ad featuring Adrien Brody (of the Pianist), outplacing multiple ads by sister brewery Anheuser Busch. (Many viewers also seemed to like the year-old Bud Light “asteroid” ad, but somehow I missed it live.)

Meanwhile, ads that would have been effective at other times got lost in the clutter, including most of the movie ads. With car chases and spaceships and explosions blurring together, it was hard to remember which movie was which, although I recall there was some movie coming by Steven Spielberg as well as movie-izations for at least two cartoon superheroes, Thor and Captain America.

Finally, what was really impressive — impressively awful — was how bad the websites were for showing the ads. I visited FoxSports (MSN), USA Today, Wall Street Journal, the YouTube AdBlitz, Hulu and Spike. I tried to use each site to search, browse, vote and hotlink, but most seemed to foul it up royally.

The WSJ site at least allowed voting, but their format required only one yes and one no vote overall. USA Today was glad to let me vote as long as I compromised my Facebook privacy and spammed all my friends (no thanks). On Hulu, I never could get the vote buttons to show up on screen.

The only site that worked as advertised was Spike’s, associated with the forgettable Viacom cable TV channel of the same name. It allowed me to navigate easily and link any video that I liked. In a few cases, I found official (or bootleg) copies of the ads on YouTube, which at least were quick to find and even quicker to bookmark.

How hard is this, folks? These companies had a year to prepare their website design and most failed the test. It seems like there are some new media VPs that should be encouraged to find other employment.

Update Monday 8:30am: I enjoyed the irony of the Groupon Tibetan restaurant ad (raising money for The Tibet Fund), but did not realize they were doing so as they plan to enter the China market. The Beijing bureau chief of Forbes notes this is 2-for-1 offensiveness, angering both Tibetan activists and their Chinese oppressors.

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