By Thane Peterson Surveys show that roughly a quarter of the Super Bowl XXXVIII's viewers on Feb. 1 tuned in mainly to watch the ads. Since the game -- for once -- was actually pretty exciting, with the New England Patriots beating the Carolina Panthers 32-29 on a last-second field goal, some viewers may have been too distracted to pay close attention to the five dozen or so commercial spots that aired during the game.
CBS (VIA) charged $2.3 million per 30-seconds of ad time on this annual winter rite that has become the Super Bowl of Madison Avenue, too. Some of the ads were first-rate, some so-so (see BW Online, 2/2/04, "Most Ads Weren't As Good as the Game"). For those who got too caught up in the game to notice, herewith the first annual Moveable Feast Superbowl Advertising Prizes (or SAPs, for short):
New National Obsession: The Male Crotch: One Super Bowl ad battle this year actually involved two prescription drugs aimed at preventing erectile dysfunction. The ads for GlaxoSmithkline's (GSK) Levitra featuringike Ditka, the tough-looking former coach and Chicago Bears tight end, was the clear loser, in my opinion. If Ditka's growling mien isn't enough to turn the nation's erectile-challenged men off sex, I don't know what is.
The winner here was a line delivered almost surreptitiously at the end of the ad for Eli Lilly's (LLY) rival drug, Cialis. After listing potential negative side effects, such as headaches and diarrhea, the announcer noted that "erections lasting more than four hours, while rare, require immediate medical attention."
Talk about effective advertising! If doctors'offices aren't stampeded in coming weeks by aging males hoping to score a prescription, I'm a monkey's uncle.
Runner-up goes to a Bud Light (BUD) ad about two men and their dogs -- one of which is crotch-biter, whose talents force a beer from one fellow's hand into the other. Very funny -- and one of the highest scorers in post-game polls. Honorable mention goes to a Sierra Mist soft-drink ad from Pepsi(PEP) in which an overheated marching-band member in a kilt cools his privates by standing over a subway grate, like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch. "That's just wrong," says a little boy in the ad. You're right, young man.
Best Cross-Species Humor. Speaking of monkeys, they figured prominently in Super Bowl ads this year. One Bud Light ad featured a guy's pet chimp who hits on his date ("How do you feel about back hair," the little guy asks?),and Dodge ran a spot inwhich a suburban dad runs around with a monkey on his back (symbolizing his inability to find an exciting family car).
However, my favorite was the ad from Honda (a prototype of it ran in several markets prior to the Super Bowl) about a suburban mom whose husband was raised by wolves. This entry managed to tell the poor guy's life story with many amusing touches along the way. In the end, we see him running bare-chested through the forest with other wolves. Now does that make you want to run out and buy a minivan, or what?
Best Alien Humor. No winner, here. The only entry was the Federal Express (FDX) ad featuring an alien (as in Martian, not illegal immigrant) office worker wearing a mask. Ho-hum.
Hollywood Hype Award. No winner here, either, although not for lack of trying. At least a dozen spots tried to pitch equally dopey Hollywood adventure films aimed at luring young males back into movie theaters. Half the films in the ads won't even be released until April or May. Memo to Hollywood execs: By spring, most of the target audience will have long since forgotten the Super Bowl and will be obsessed with a new video game (which is why they don't go to movies anymore in the first place).
Hypocritical Public Service Award. This, as always, was perhaps the most hotly contested contest. Should first prize go to Philip Morris for running an alleged public service spot noting that one out of five American children under the age of 13 experiment with cigarettes? (I can think of lots of more effective things Philip Morris could do about that problem, including not selling cigarettes.)
Or how about to CBS, the National Football League, and sponsor AOL (TWX) for coming up with a rap- and hip-hop-heavy halftime show full of the usual violent and misogynistic lyrics. I mean, isn't Nelly, one of the rappers in the show, the same guy who signed a lucrative marketing deal to promote a power drink called Pimp Juice? And what was with Justin Timberlake ripping off Janet Jackson's blouse on national TV?
No, the winner here is clear: the NFL for refusing to allow Bono of the rock group U2 to sing a duet with Jennifer Lopez about the problem of AIDS in America. Never mind that Bono was a show stopper in the post-9/11 halftime show two years ago. The NFL says Super Bowl off-field activitiesshould be about entertainment not "single issues." Now, let's get this straight. Pimp Juice, exposed breasts, the N-word, and violence are O.K., but J Lo and Bono trying to raise awareness about the scourge of AIDS is off limits? Hmmm. Nice call, NFL.
Give-It-a-Rest Award. A tie here between the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org and the animal rights group People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. Both griped loudly after they tried to run ads during the Super Bowl and were nixed byCBS, citing its policy against "advocacy ads." As a liberal myself, I have to say -- Come on guys! Nothing could set liberal causes back faster than running a bunch of holier-than-thou advocacy ads during the Super Bowl.
This is one of the few times during the year when a majority of Americans gather together for a common purpose. Roads are empty during the broadcast, and restaurants (though not taverns) are largely vacant. America has more important things than politics to think about during the broadcast, such as beer-guzzling, back-hair jokes, and erectile dysfunction. Oh, and football. Let's not get distracted. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online