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By Ellen Neuborne If a Martian landed on Earth at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 28 and tuned in to watch Super Bowl XXXV, he would have been in a pickle when the commercials came on. The lineup this year was funny, often well-targeted, but full of inside jokes that would have baffled even the most sophisticated extraterrestrial. You had to know the back story to get many of these ads. From Bob Dole's Pepsi spot spoofing his previous pitch for Viagra, to Budweiser's Act II of its ground-breaking "Wassup" spoof, the multimillion-dollar ad bowl proved once again that the Super Bowl isn't just a sports festival. It's an ad soap opera, in which we follow our favorite characters through the years, with a few new players brought in each new episode to join the cast.
These weren't commercials in the traditional sense. They were marketing ploys. And there's always plenty of Super Bowl ad drama, wondering which companies, if any, got their money's worth out of the game. My picks:
Best ad: E*Trade. This was close, because you have to hand it to Anheuser-Busch for figuring out a new way to build on "Wassup." Preppy white guys enunciating "What are you doing?" with dorky bravado was very funny and a great gift to all of us who were too unhip to pull off imitating last year's ad. Even so, top mark this year goes to E*Trade for its dot-gone obit. The ad -- which borrowed from traditional Westerns and even Planet of the Apes, was filled with great moments, from the Pets.com sock puppet carcass to the tear-streaked face of the chimp surveying the littered landscape. But best of all, the ad deftly delivered the E*Trade's message: "Invest Wisely." The dot-com debacle provided a perfect backdrop. The ad got points for humor and for efficacy -- a rare combination in a Super Bowl ad.
Biggest disappointment: EDS. This spoof on the bulls of Pamplona had the makings of a good one, but the image of the men running with the squirrels was lost because it took far too long to understand what, if anything, was going on in this commercial. And the sure sign that the ad is in trouble comes at the end when text has to pop onto the screen and explain to the viewer that the squirrels are meant to represent small and nimble competition. If we got all the way to the final five seconds without getting it, the ad didn't work.
Best head-to-head competition: The battle of the wireless providers. Forget the ongoing rivalry between Monster.com and HotJobs.com. The biggest slugfest on the ad waves this game was between Verizon (formerly BellAtlantic) and Cingular (formerly Cellular One), both pushing wireless services. Both companies posted multiple spots, but this round went to Verizon. Its ads were were engaging enough and pure in their message of fostering communication between family and friends. Cingular, it appears, got caught in a common Super Bowl trap: Its ads were entertaining but lacked a strong business message. Lots of men in tights. What were they selling again? If you're going to use the Super Bowl to launch your brand name, you have to give the viewer a message to remember. All I remember is white guys can't dance.
Biggest waste of a great ad: Charles Schwab. If you were busy getting your beer at the first moments of the game, you might have missed Sarah Ferguson, former Duchess of York, in a marvelous cameo placement. Schwab's ad is in fairy-tale form, and a lovely young girl is told a charming story about how she'll be carried off by a prince and taken care of for the rest of her life. Unless, says the divorced royal, it doesn't all work out. Then, she had better know her p-e ratios. Great message, funny set up, totally wasted on the testosterone-filled moments of the Super Bowl kickoff. Context does matter in advertising. I hope to see this ad resurface someplace where woman can respond to its dead-on punchline.
The true test of any Super Bowl ad is in the coming months. That's when it'll become clear if any of these hit a chord with consumers, if any of these companies got any traction for their $2 million-plus investments. Last year's game proved that the pricey ad time is no place for neophytes. In the coming year, we'll see if the well-capitalized veterans do any better. Then it's on to next year's extravaganza. Neuborne is contributing writer for BusinessWeek Online