Olympic Miracles on Ice

In contrast to the jokey, angry spots that semi-darkened CBS’s Super Bowl, the ads on NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage have been uplifting and bright as the Vancouver snow. There has been so much touching humanity on display during the spots that, well, sorry, I have to go cry again.

It’s the context. There’s an authentic narrative, a universal truth to being an Olympic athlete. It’s a story of talent, discipline, focus, persistence, sheer hard work and some luck. Unlike manufactured celebrity, the Olympian’s journey makes for a real human-interest story. Winter or summer, the Olympics are one of the few places where we see the human excellence of the world on display. Not incidentally, it’s also a place where men and women come together on an equal footing.

And that supplies the perfect backdrop for advertisers. They don’t have to come up with some random idea or joke that they hope will break through. Win or lose, it’s all about genuine and authentic emotion, power and beauty.

Before we get all carried away, it isn’t perfect. The opening ceremony, for instance, was a bit dull. Give the producers credit for including all the indigenous peoples. They had me at Inuit. But like Canada itself, the opener was perhaps too nice, too inclusive, maybe too real — further proof that repressive regimes tend to stage the best public shows. (China, Nazi Germany and Hollywood come to mind.) You can bet the Olympic torch would not have malfunctioned in Beijing.

But back to the misting-up part: On opening night, we also got to see the debut of “We Are the World,” the Haitian version. OK, it had some embarrassing choices. Justin Bieber getting the first solo? Jamie Foxx doing his Ray Charles? But with the shots of present-day Haiti, and Wyclef Jean doing his creole thing and ululating, I was bawling. I also felt bad, in a whole new way, about Michael Jackson. I could see the extent of his genius and his suffering.

Since then, nothing has stopped my tears: not the too-frequent ad breaks, not the tape delays, not even the mystery of Bob Costas’s newly lustrous hair.

Let’s start with two ads in my Lump in the Throat Club: first, the GE spot with the couple growing older together, as seen and narrated by the husband. After listing all the beautiful things they’ve experienced, he says: “The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen was the image on the screen that helped doctors see my wife’s cancer early, while it was treatable.” Four hankies.

I also lost it with the Chevrolet anthem about carrying our children. “We carry them for miles, through neighborhoods and nighttimes.” Sniff.

But mainly, I wanted to talk about the Visa work from TBWA\Chiat\Day.

Certainly, there’s stuff we’ve seen before. Not the Jamaican bobsled team again! However, with its cool new ice-blue tint (the graphic basis of the entire campaign) and broader focus (it’s about not listening to what other people think), the spot reconnects.

They did something similar with Dan Jansen. (The agency has been doing the glory-and-failure bit since Dan & Dave, but it’s what the Olympics are all about.)

Visa’s tagline, “Go world,” also still works. Introduced in Beijing, it says global inclusion in two syllables. And let’s face it: Morgan Freeman’s voice gives everything heightened meaning. There’s a reason CBS swapped him in for Walter Cronkite in introducing Katie Couric’s newscast: He’s the musical voice of an understanding god.

And we want to hear every crystalline word. The spots are well written, and Freeman is never more delightful than in the Julia Mancuso spot. “When she was a little girl,” he says, “Julia Mancuso drew a poster of herself as a gold medalist to hang on her wall.” The creative team got the actual poster and animated it in a similar, simple style. The graphics switch to live action of an exultant Julia winning in Torino. “‘Well, she doesn’t have to draw her own posters anymore.”

There’s a spot with snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, who, Morgan says, “is a sweet, fun-loving, nice-as-can-be girl. Except, of course, when she’s racing. Then she’s more like the lead driver of a demolition derby.” Somehow he makes “Lindsey” sound like three syllables.

And it seemed Freeman was speaking to us from the future when a spot congratulating Seth Wescott on his gold medal aired shortly after his race. (The agency works with NBC to make that happen. They did it with Michael Phelps in 2008.)

Visa is sponsoring next month’s Paralympics, too, also in Vancouver, and its spot with sled-hockey player Alexi Salamone produces chills.

Like the Super Bowl did, the Olympics are drawing historic TV numbers. That’s because we need to gather together around TV’s cool fire and feel human. And Visa’s ads — something old, something new, all in Avatar blue — work magic.

My guess is, even the Na’vi would approve.

See also:

“Yahoo Scores Gold for Online Olympics Coverage”

“Olympic Opening Boosts Brands”

“Coke on Thin Ice”