Super Bowl's Biggest Fumbles | Adweek Super Bowl's Biggest Fumbles | Adweek

Super Bowl's Biggest Fumbles


Here's a cheery thought: People are losing their homes and their jobs, and you're spending $3 million on a Super Bowl ad? How wasteful and obnoxious!

Or maybe not. You have to weigh the insensitivity factor against the enjoyment people get from seeing their favorite brands cracking wise on screen. What's more, I would argue that, counterintuitively, the greatest concentration of appalling, ill-conceived and inconsiderate ads ever to run on the Big Game occurred in 1999 and 2000 -- a flush time of millennial optimism and the height of the Internet bubble. More money, more waste.

Of course, with Super Bowl ads, everyone's a critic, and one woman's wrath at a fart joke is another man's balm. And no matter how bad the spots are, some would argue that no one really loses, because they live on in perpetuity on the Internet. And you know what they say about publicity and spelling your name right.

In trying to reach 100 million people, it seems axiomatic, or at least common sensical, to avoid certain themes. Like, for example, suicide. So, why do marketers revisit them? Unconscious death wish? There are no hard-and-fast rules about the worth of shock value, but in no particular order, here are my picks for four of the worst Super Bowl ads ever:

Apple: 'Lemmings' (1985)
Talk about perverse. A bunch of dark-suited, blindfolded employees whistle "Heigh ho" as they hold their attaché cases and jump off a cliff, like lemmings to the sea, and it was bleak bleak bleak. Even more unfortunate: It was the follow-up to the best Super Bowl ad of all time, Apple's "1984," also done by Chiat/Day. It was as if they came to bury it.
Happily, sales didn't fall off a cliff, but it took another 15 years for the brand to return to the Big Game.

General Motors: 'Robot' (2007)
Two years before Rick Wagoner flew on the corporate jet to D.C. to beg for a bailout, GM was already in trouble, having laid off thousands, some of whom had indeed been replaced by robots. I get that we love anthropomorphism, and the "Danger, Will Robinson!" thing. But why center this beautifully shot drama, by Deustch, around a robot who makes a mistake on the line and gets fired?

Even for the viewer drunk only on guacamole, it was hard to follow: The whole perfection theme got lost as the robot took odd jobs, became robo-homeless and flung himself off a bridge. (Did "Lemmings" teach us nothing?) Suicide prevention groups protested, and the death scene was later excised. Still, the message seemed to be that GM had axed this charming little yellow guy, too.

Just For Feet: 'Kenya' (1999)

For sheer cluelessness, nothing beats Just for Feet's "Kenya" spot from Saatchi & Saatchi. In terms of cultural sensitivity, it makes Burger King's "Whopper Virgins" look like the humanitarian work of Angelina Jolie.

Set in Kenya, where people famously go shoeless, the spot shows a group of Great White Hunters in a ginormous Humvee actually tracking down a black man running in the wilderness. They sedate him. He drops to the ground unconscious (the feet-first shot makes him look dead), and they force a pair of shoes on his carefully cultivated bare feet.

The capper: The guy awakens in pain, and starts running like a wounded animal, trying to throw off the shoes. Hilarity ensues.

Racist, imperialist or just plain stupid, the ad fueled outrage. The client became the first to sue its agency for malpractice; Saatchi countersued. That year, the brand went bankrupt.


Nuveen: 'Christopher Reeve' (2000)
While Just for Feet might have felt blindsided, for the next year's Super Bowl, Fallon took a much more conscious risk to put Nuveen, then a little-known investment company, on the map. It ended up in the hot seat.

Creepy and exploitative then, in hindsight the ad seems positively mawkish. Set in a futuristic New York City, it showed the wheelchair-bound Reeve getting up and walking to accept an award for breakthroughs in medical research. But the special effects were less than skillful, and the result looked a bit grotesque.

So was the commercial's giant stretch of a strategy: Unless you put money in a Nuveen account, there won't be enough funds for medical research to help people like Christopher Reeve walk again.

Soliciting funds for Nuveen by showing the shock of Reeve walking? Crass, manipulative and downright sad.

Weirdly, that same year, the same agency did one of the best Super Bowl ads ever: "Cat Herders" for EDS. And that's the way it goes!

Let's hope we don't have to give out too many penalties this Sunday.