Barbara Lippert’s Critique

In the Sham andHollow At tempts at Patriotism Department, you can’t blame Super Bowl advertisers for the football players’ Stars ‘n’ Stripes nasal strips. Nor can you criticize them for Bono’s pièce de résistance, the full hairy-armpit reveal of red, white and blue lining his rock-star-studly denim jacket. (And isn’t sweating on the flag against the law?)

But Budweiser Clydesdales aside, this year one of the most notable Super Bowl spots, Pepsi’s, was less about patriotism and more about nostalgia, an attempted return to innocence—a weird, winking innocence that we’re too old and cynical to achieve. So we end up with our old standbys: sex, dancing animals and advertising self-parody.

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ spot for E*Trade (now E*Trade Finan cial) stands guilty on at least three counts. Goodby, of course, is brilliant at inside-ad jokes—ironic circles of self-reference that are so dead-on smart that they make fun of their own hype while successfully hyping nonetheless. But this time the agency might just have outsmarted itself.

Two years back, when the Bowl was littered with go-go dot-com ad vertisers, E*Trade showed a chimp dancing on a folding chair in a garage (just as all those fabled dot-coms started in garages). “We just wasted $2 million bucks,” the tag said, letting everyone in on the joke. “What are you doing with your money?”

Last year, in the Bowl’s best ad, the chimp went from the folding chair to his high horse, sitting tall in the saddle, dignified, a tear running down his cheek as he appraised the entire dead dot-com landscape. Sorry, sock puppet. Adios, pimentoloaf.com. The monkey parodied the 1960s PSA showing a proud, silently crying Native American assessing polluted lands and rivers. And the spot also brilliantly commented on the money madness of the previous year, positioning E*Traders as the ones who were still here, the smart ones.

After a spot like that, how do you get off your high horse? Well, you can always try a top hat, a cape and a Busby Berkeley-style floor show: a musical about money. In a giant production number, Jonah the chimp slides down a ramp through several pairs of female dancers’ open legs (come on, if I didn’t point this out, who would?) and ends up riding an arrow up, up, up. Despite all the happily dumb excess around him, and the weird sexual energy, the chimp is riveting, and delightful to watch.

Then all the air goes out of the spot as Mr. E*Trade, CEO Christos Cotsakos, appears. Reading a newspaper that declares E*Trade’s spot the worst in Super Bowl history, he woodenly asks, “What were you thinking, a musical?” So he fires the poor chimp—which hits a tender nerve. By this time, Jonah has become superhuman—smarter, more sensitive, more divinely gifted than any mere mortal—and letting him go is not only insensitive to the millions now laid off in a devastatingly bad economy, it makes the boss look irrational and egomaniacal.

To add insult to injury, he tells Jonah, “I got a friend in Florida,” and next thing we know, Jonah is being shot off in a rocket, naively smiling and giving us a thumbs-up. We can only imagine what awaits him. How cruel! Where are those PETA people when you need them? Plus, the imagery of the monkey in the rocket is hopelessly 1950s Russia Sputnik. Why suggest that? It’s one war we’ve already won.

The Lipton Brisk spot, from J. Walter Thompson in New York, was also an inside-the-industry parody involving an actor getting fired. In this case, a Danny DeVito “puppet” (they don’t actually look like puppets to me, but I like the claymation) is let go on the set of a commercial by the ad guy and the director, because the product is “so good, it sells itself.”

The spot is very busy, with lots of action and violence and celeb appearances in the flesh and clay, and jokes involving size and scale (including the large-ish Al Roker announcing that “the puppet community is up in arms”). But this insider’s self-awareness is not done cleverly. It’s the Darren of Bewitched inside-advertising syndrome: Why remind people that something good sells itself? Does that mean if a product has great advertising, it must therefore stink?

Then there was the inside-the-industry focus-group setup of the Quiznos campaign, from Cliff Freeman and Partners. Although some were shocked that such dark, dart-blowing and guillotine-testing humor surfaced so soon after 9/11, this same idea—a parody of a focus group—has been used regularly by Cliff Freeman since B.C. (That’s the thousands of ad years since Before Clara—since Clara Peller trumpeted, “Where’s the beef!” and Freeman created Wendy’s commercials showing focus-group testing. More recent work for Budget Rent a Car and Little Caesars also sent up the dark consumer science.)

I did appreciate the great visual detail of the green testing room, with the 1970s rya rug up on the wall in the dart spot. And after so much patri otic mush, some viewers were no doubt relieved to get back to bad taste—although the guillotine spot used a fake limb, whereas in the past there probably would have been no compunction about showing actual blood spurting, I’m sure. The dart spot was much stronger, but still looked as though it could have come out of the Cliff Freeman archives from anytime in the last 20 years.

But back to innocence, which leads us to Pepsi’s Britney, who is, as she famously sang, “not so innocent”—but is all about winking at innocence. The first surprise, of course, is for BBDO New York to have Pepsi revisit its old jingles: Coke was al ways the one to go back to the mountaintop. But the songs really resonate, and they show that Pepsi is deep in the culture. (I was also grateful that I didn’t have to think about Bob Dole, or his member.)

The opening of the spot is a delightful, belly-button-free shocker: It’s the teased, 1950s Miss Spears, channeling Marilyn Monroe—or Madonna by way of Marilyn by way of Peggy Lee. Ironically, this ad re-creation allows Britney range and depth. Here she becomes a vessel for all sorts of ’50s fantasies: She looks great in that Laurie Petrie-dancing-around-her-living-room-in-Capri-pants way, and sounds amazing, producing a true boop-boop-be-doop voice.

As the ad progresses, there’s Hullabaloo Britney and Beach Blanket Britney and Hippie Girl Britney, but none of these is as interesting as the original malt-shop scene. (Internet voters agreed.) That’s because it’s the furthest back, and we want to project on that time a Happy Days sweetness and purity—a time of tail fins and no worries—that we know didn’t exist in the ’60s or ’70s.

The 1989 look is a really scary Britney’s head on Robert Palmer’s body, backed by his signature chorus of robo-bimbos. We were watching along innocently, and suddenly the spot gets polymorphously perverse. Why not have her impersonating Michael Jackson with a plume of smoke coming out of her head? It would be no less offputting.

I’m not sure her 12-year-old fans liked sweater-girl Britney. But the 45-year-olds sure went for it. They missed the actual Pepsi generation—they were too young. (Now they are more like the Pepcid generation—oh, that acid reflux!) For three seconds there, in the opening of that Pepsi spot, we are that innocent.

But maybe we aren’t that cynical, after all—we still want to believe that a product can bring glamour, excitement and sex to our lives. (“m life” equals sex life, right?) Then it boils down to such wonders as a new ring tone for your cell phone—Paul McCartney’s “Freedom,” perhaps?