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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Superbowl of Commercials

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

I am an advertiser's dream as I settle down in front of my TV set at 6:00 PM Superbowl night to watch the big event. I couldn't care less who wins the football game. I am here to watch the commercials. And I realize that they've finally done it. They've made the ads at least as interesting as the game itself -- so interesting that the commercials are drawing their own audience.

The folks behind the Superbowl XXX spectacle have created two parallel games in tonight's broadcast. There's the football game. And then (for those of us with GAD -- gridiron attention disorder) there's the commercial competition. This is the Superbowl of TV commercials, too. Just as (theoretically) the best football teams are competing tonight, so too are the best commercials.

The pregame hype that's been going on for the past two weeks has been similar for both contests. While true football fans have been reading all about this play or that strategy, I've been reading all the behind-the-scenes details about the ads.

At 1.3 million dollars per 30-second spot, each commercial is very special (or at least SHOULD BE). Research shows that Superbowl commercials are recalled at more than double the rate of commercials run during "normal" prime programming. And with 58 commercials scheduled, it's important to be special, creative, and original. Advertisers reportedly spend over a hundred million dollars just FILMING the commercials -- more than it cost to make "Jurassic Park." I am expecting great things.

Pepsi scores twice early in the first quarter, first with a cute commercial about a Coca-Cola delivery man trying to "sneak" a Pepsi and finding himself the center of attention when the contents of a whole Pepsi cooler empties out on him. Then there's a great one about a pet goldfish which has learned how to do tricks in order to get a Pepsi (including playing dead by turning upside down and floating at the top of his bowl). It would take too long to tell you the whole plot (yes, commercials have plots) of this very brief commercial, but trust me; it's wonderful.

Budweiser has thankfully retired the "Bud Bowl" foolishness of beer bottles playing football. It was high-tech and all, but pretty lame. This year Budweiser's first play is having real horses (Clydesdales are the home team, of course) playing football in a field, watched by two curious cowboys. When one of the equines kicks an extra point through two telephone poles on the other side of the pasture, one cowboy turns to the other in shock and asks, "Do they ALWAYS do this?" "Naw," the second cowboy answers. "Usually they go for two." (It's a football joke). I like it.

And then there's the first fumble of the contest, by Master Lock, and it's a costly error. Master Lock is appearing in its 21st Superbowl tonight, and usually its playbook is pretty standard: shoot a bullet through a Master Lock to show how durable their lock is. They spend one-third of their annual advertising budget on this thirty-second spot, but it's been worth it in the past, because Master Lock has seen its sales rise consistently. This year they mess around with their tried and true formula and fumble badly.

They get the rights to an old Stephen Stills' song from 1968, and as a woman sings, "There's something happenin' here. What it is ain't exactly clear. There's a man with a gun over there tellin' me that I've got to beware," they show dozens of gritty, crime-based images: a helicopter's searchlight scanning the ground, a guy in a ski cap running away, a drug buy on a street corner, a punk trying to break through a storefront security grate, a woman nervously approaching her car parked in a municipal garage, police raiding a run-down house, a close-up of manacled hands. The images fly by quickly -- so quickly you can barely make them out. But the effect is one of fear. The woman keeps singing, "Better stop, children -- what's that sound?

Then the shot of a bullet piercing the Master Lock padlock. Their previous commercials were about quality. This one is about terror. I hate it. One point three million down the drain. Better luck next year.

The most consistent and creative performers throughout the rest of the game are Pepsi and McDonald's -- each time they get the ball they score brilliantly.

Nike scores a few yards by showing Pee Wee football games announced in the manner of an NFL year-in-review film. Oscar Mayer is thrown for a loss by sponsoring a "talent contest" to find the new cute kid to sing the "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener" theme. They screen 50,000 kids, show us clips of the purported losers, and then introduce us to the winner of the contest (Trent South, 7-years-old, of Sherman Texas). But they don't show us HIS rendition of the tune. A bad call.

There's also Charlton Heston, Budweiser frogs, Jack Palance, Wile E. Coyote, Deion Sanders, beavers, the Pink Panther, some ghosts, a penguin, and a dog that gets shaved by mistake. But they do not shine.

All told, the Superbowl ads cost $165 million dollars to make and then display. All in all, I suppose it's a pretty representative slice of American television advertising today. There were lots of beautifully filmed commercials, but only about 10% were truly creative or original or worthy of note.

The advertising game has its winners and losers, just like football does. And just as in football, I guess, only a few actually score a touchdown -- the rest are just there butting heads.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.