Barbara Lippert’s Critique

By itself, the word bobsled is pretty funny, but teamed up with Jamaican, it’s always a killer. Even if an entire movie, Cool Runnings, has already been devoted to the improbable story of the Caribbean islanders who made it to the 1988 Winter Olympics, “Bobsled” is a sassy spot, part of a new campaign promoting the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. (It’s an evolution of the “Celebrate humanity” campaign that TBWA\Chiat\Day introduced for last summer’s Sydney games.)

“Bobsled” sets the actual Olym pic footage of said bobbers and sledders to Bob Marley music. As with the reggae pacing, the commercial is easygoing and pretty delightful. Call it life imitating art imitating life—the real thing, as edited here, has its own cinematic charm. I hadn’t realized that the guys pushed off so well but ended—less than gloriously—with one team member’s helmeted head banging and bobbing against the track wall.

But it’s not like we’re getting our jollies from simply watching them go splat. The feeling conveyed is knowing and joyous—we know the team members were not injured, and we also get the full lu-u-mp-in the thro-at staccato poetry of a voiceover that only Robin Willi ams at his most twinkly can deliver. (All the talent donated their work, as did the agency, and the radio, print and TV will run on donated time and space.)

As with using the Jamaican bobsledders, this “Here’s to the losers” idea isn’t particularly new or shocking, especially from Chiat\Day. They trotted it out brilliantly lo those many years ago for Ree bok, when it very publicly sponsored two track-and-field athletes, one of whom, Dan O’Brien, didn’t even qualify for the Games. The agency quickly came up with an “Athletes are glorious” approach that had more truth and humanity in it than any of the competitive huffing and puffing that preceded it. And TBWA\C\D’s Emmy-winning 1998 Apple TV commercial started out with, “Here’s to the crazy ones … the misfits, the rebels, the round pegs in the square holes …”

There’s another nobility-of-the-loser Olympics spot that’s organically great. It shows footage of “The Hermannator,” the Austrian downhill racer Hermann Maier, at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. He falls through one fence and then another, then falls backward again. We learn through a super that a few days later he won two gold medals.

The focus on the non-gold makes for a fresher take on the classic Olympic-sponsor formula that long ago went stale (slow-mo foot age, chariots of fired-up music) or too “We Are the World” (“When people communicate blah blah, we are a true global village blah blah”).

There’s another thread here that is truly revolutionary—two spots focus on the younger market and underscore more extreme images of snowboarding and freestyle skiing with the music of Radiohead and Daft Punk. For an otherwise conservative Olym pic committee to OK the use of Radio head, known for its meditations on technology and media oversaturation, is pretty cool. It’s so different from the more run-of-the-mill spots, including “Smile” (filled with pictures of smiley athletes and a voiceover that starts, “When you smile, I smile. That’s the deal. …”) and “Opponent” (“You are my adversary, but you are not my enemy …”).

It’s also one smart way to deflect the now only vaguely recalled scandal surrounding the payoffs from the Salt Lake town fathers to the (then) bestowers of the games.

All in all, this is something new: commercials that are feel-good but not exactly warm and fuzzy—for the Winter Games, they are cold and fuzzy.