Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Boys of Winter

Super Bowl XXXVIII: The tension! The testosterone! The toilet paper!

Now one of the few broadcast occasions at which male viewers can be faithfully tracked in the macho-millions, this year’s Ad Bowl provided a place for the perplexed men of 2004 to relax and get down with their bad, anti-metrosexual selves. Charmin joked about comfort in the end zone, and proto-slob Homer Simpson was about the biggest celeb to appear in any spot.

OK, we also had tough guy Mike Dytka for Levitra, Willie Nelson and Don Zimmer for H&R Block, and Patton Oswalt for Sierra Mist; and Muhammad Ali appeared in old footage for Gillette and, newly, as the wise man for IBM/Linux. But that list still says something about the anti-glam nature of this year’s spots (notwithstanding out-of-game appearances by Jessica Simpson and J. Lo). As for other Super Bowl ad standbys, as of press time last week there were no primates (but one donkey) and no supermodels (just swimsuit-clad female athletes for Visa), but we did get some sweaty men in skirts/blow-up-clown jokes, a few oldsters knocked to the ground (yuk yuk) and at least one alien. The spots I liked best had a wry, wise-guy, “Yeah, we’re at the Super Bowl, but we’re relying on brains, not special effects” tone.

With its hideously low-tech horror-movie alien, the FedEx spot was downright stupid and hilarious—a refreshing kind of insider commentary on what makes a USA Today chart-topper. In the usual dowdy office setting, “Jenkins,” the creature with the drip-dry shirt, tie and human mask with a speaker stuck into its mouth, sits at his desk and repeats, “Let’s use FedEx,” as his tail thumps and his voice emits primordial swamp belches. Naturally, his boss loves him. The bargain-basement alien was simple, smart and good for a laugh.

BBDO seemed to have a thing this year for changing identities. In one spot, two bears forage for food and find plenty of garbage in an old cabin, but the cooler is empty. One of the animals passes himself off as your typical hard-livin’ Alaskan mountain man (aviator glasses, a Rocky-the-flying-squirrel hat and a flannel shirt) to buy Pepsi at the general store. (Think the bear version of Northern Exposure.) The line, “Nothing goes better with leftovers” is clever, and the visual of the bear using ID to cash his check is so dopey, it’s a crowd-pleaser.

More perplexing to me was “Crossroads,” which brings to life an 11-year-old Jimi Hendrix. The kid is perfectly cast, and the re-creation of a 1953 town is dead-on. It’s a classic Pepsi joke—that the electric guitar is the choice of a new generation, and Coke stands for accordion music. (And turning the first few riffs from “Purple Haze” into a polka is unexpected and funny.) But surely the people who remember Jimi Hendrix would not want to see his life trivialized for a Pepsi joke. Plus, if you think about it, the single commodity that helped turn Hendrix into a music legend wasn’t Pepsi—try LSD.

But back to our manly theme. When I first heard that AOL, via Wieden + Kennedy, had decided to use the guys from American Chopper to star in spots for the “Top Speed” version, my eyes glazed over, not being in on the whole Nascar sensibility myself. But the ads are delightful crossover gems. The Teutuls are naturals on camera, and in this drama, you can find the themes of great literature: the raging father, the oldest son who can’t do anything right, the youngest not allowed to do anything wrong. And I love the gritty reality look: No one makes a “journey,” and there are no roses, hot tubs or limos, just weird-looking dudes fooling around with crank cases.

The funniest AOL spot sends the übergeek with curly hair off in a speeding car souped-up with an AOL “Top Speed” motor that goes up in a puff of smoke. When he returns, looking like Falstaff, they ask where he was and he calmly replies, “The renaissance.” It mixes a mad-scientist/Back to the Future vibe with the knowing everydayness of the ESPN SportsCenter jokes. And the connection to these guys who know how to build things is a perfect way to woo back AOL’s dial-up subscribers.

MasterCard, via McCann-Erickson, also tapped into the idea of men and the things they love—in this case, Homer Simpson and Duff beer. As the typical suburban husband on a Saturday, Homer is shown doing errands and chores, going through the motions of a standard MasterCard commercial (“haircut, $75″—”seventy-five bucks!” Homer shouts, outraged).

He ends up at Moe’s bar, and as he pops peanuts, we hear, “Getting your errands done quicker to spend more time with your family: priceless.” He doesn’t budge, so the line gets repeated. “Yeah, I heard you the first time, stupid voiceover!” Homer says, heading out the door and knocking a guy with glasses and a cane to the floor. Priceless. In 30 seconds, it manages to convey the full breadth of Homey and the entire MasterCard message. (A whole band of the usual Simpsons crew worked on it in addition to the agency folk.) It’s simple and effective while not attempting anything epic.

By the way, there were two ads that showed a man’s softer side: Cialis, with that couple in side-by-side tubs, and Gillette, with “The Best a Man Can Get,” which with its moody, aspirational black-and-white cinematography, was sort of sweet and romantic: Cialis with razors.

I don’t think history was made, but overall, a lot of the work suggested we’re going back to the future—and so far, it’s a comfortable place.

AMERICA ONLINE

WIEDEN + KENNEDY, PORTLAND, ORE.

TIM HANRAHAN, JED ALGER

MARK FITZLOFF

RYAN O’ROURKE

CHERIE APPLEBY

HANK PERLMAN/ HUNGRY MAN

FEDEX

BBDO, NEW YORK

TED SANN

ERIC SILVER

JIM LEMAITRE

MATT VESCOVO

ELISE GREICHE

FRANK TODARO/ @RADICAL.MEDIA



MASTERCARD

MCANN-ERICKSON, NEW YORK

JOYCE KING THOMAS

TIM DILLINGHAM



ROBERT FROST

SAM CERNICHIARI

FILM ROMAN



PEPSI

BBDO, NEW YORK

TED SANN

DON SCHNEIDER

DONNA WEINHEIM

TOMMY HENVEY

REGINA EBEL

JOE PYTKA/PYTKA