Barbara Lippert’s Post-Game Super Bowl Critique

By the looks of this year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials, I guess we’re starting to sublimate sex for cartoon characters, ad icons, superheroes, Muppets and “inaction” figures. With various horrors happening in the world, and growing conservatism at home, the Super Bowl delivered the advertising equivalent of boomer comfort food. The nostalgia trend explains the widespread use of Babe-like animals and washed-up celebrities, too.

Aside from Paul McCartney, who appropriately sang “Get Back” (to where you once belonged), the most representative of this return-to-Mac-and-Cheese movement was the spot for MasterCard. I didn’t love it when I saw it for the first time, before the Bowl. The idea seemed really derivative-at least two different advertisers have already used it. But within the context of this broadcast, it worked perfectly and appeared to be almost prescient.

First of all, no matter how you feel about advertising, the visuals make your eyeballs jump-they’re so familiar, they’re like a protective M&M coating on your corneas. Once they sink in, you’re free to solve the puzzle and locate the now-out-to-pasture character you secretly loved when you were 7-the Groucho-like Vlasic pickle guy or the shy little Morton Salt girl, for example. And in the first viewing, I hadn’t really noticed the Jolly Green Giant, with his massive frame hovering awkwardly outside the window the whole time, rubbing his nose up against the glass (hilarious). We also haven’t heard from Charlie the Tuna in awhile (at least I haven’t), and there’s a voice that breaks through the clutter. The true art of the spot, though, is in the deft way it brings out the personality of each of the characters. (And it even had a Diet Pepsi-like button at the end-they produced Carson Kressley to put a new spin on an idea they’ve done a thousand times, and then MasterCard produced Mr. Clean doing the dishes at the end of dinner.)

Similarly, the Visa spot with the superheroes looked cute and gets points for wardrobe (the Marvel characters sported their original comic-book looks, not those of the movie versions). But it went nowhere. After the initial high, with the comic burst of all the characters appearing in the parking lot, it somehow became smaller than life: They were all stuck together as a group, unable to express their individual personalities. I was as disappointed as Spidey and his peeps that nobody got to perform a superheroic act or two, and that we couldn’t hear more than a few words from my childhood fave, Underdog.

Speaking of smaller than life, Verizon ran the “miniatures” spot, which would have been OK except for the middle part with Ryan Seacrest standing and delivering a speech next to a board that looked like a PowerPoint presentation. I guess we’re nostalgic for everything but the hard sell.

The other Verizon spot with the monkeys and the bananas wasn’t new, but it fit the tone because it was comforting in a weird way. The profusion of monkeys throughout the night ties into the need to act out and regress. I liked the three-part series for CareerBuilder.com-it telegraphs the palpable desire to escape from the planet of the apes (in this case, chimps) and was a refreshing way to portray the soul-crushing banality of adult office life without doing an obvious copy of The Office or, in the second generation of that idea, Burger King.

Speaking of Burger King derivatives, Subway ran one spot with an entirely new Jared-free concept that seemed to come out of nowhere, and, although it was food-based, it was not at all comforting. On the face of it, the idea of the two slacker boys steaming the car up with the hot food seems clever (although BK already produced a spot showing two boys eating in a car and having a policeman come and yell at them). But the under-the-surface make-out joke and the need to be furtive just didn’t work in this outsized atmosphere.

FedEx delivered an outsized (45-second) meta-spot: a formulaic Super Bowl commercial making fun of formulaic Super Bowl commercials. I liked it-the sad thing is, everything it predicted came true. Although Burt Reynolds is heading into William Shatnerville, it made me laugh. But I thought it went on too long-it could have been crisper at 30 seconds. Also, the idea wasn’t exactly new and could have been attached to any product. FedEx Kinko’s fantastic office-based regular old non-Super Bowl campaign, with the Pho-ee-nix and “French benefits” jokes, will do much more for the brand.

Whereas the Budweiser donkey spot also was a piece of advertising about advertising, the problem is it referred to itself. The joke was based on knowing last year’s Clydesdale joke, and at the party I attended, I was the only person laughing. The quasi-Biblical animal opening, meant to be satirical, was taken straight by most people watching.

But speaking of weird mythological creatures, I loved the spot for Emerald Nuts. I especially enjoyed the unicorn with the English accent, who was seductive but continental and cold. It was the kind of spot grownup kids and regular kids could like.

Degree fit right into the tenor of the broadcast with its use of “inaction” figures, and the purposely cruder the production (the plastic doll, the obvious hand), the cleverer the copy, it seems. That’s a good combo, and I know my male fellow partygoers howled at all the mama’s boy jokes, including the six guilt trips. But it made me flinch. First of all, 40 years after Woody Allen started obsessing over it, isn’t (ahem) the stereotype about the suffocating Jewish mother a little dated by now? Second, was it supposed to be tongue-in-check that Degree is a real deodorant for real (risk-taking?) men? If not, I vote for Axe’s hairy armpit.

I give Anheuser-Busch points for making an obvious effort to elevate the general tone-but we know something’s tepid when a spot about a designated driver is one of the more entertaining ads for the evening. I also thought with the scolding cockatiel, the company was lecturing itself on being respectful to women.

All in all, the biggest surprise to me was that the Ameriquest work was surprising, smart, funny and great-it was at the top of my list. Another of my overall faves was hardly talked about-the spot for the Toyota Prius. It was so beautifully crafted, with such great effects, that in the beginning I thought an HP ad was a comin’. But, as with “1984,” the all-time favorite Super Bowl spot, the Prius ad could legitimately build something big because it stands for something big. As with the Macintosh, this new hybrid could change the way we live (and help humankind advance).

That’s something encouraging to chew on as we get out our apple juice and graham crackers for snack time.