Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Disabled List

Game over. What did we miss? Well, the first Super Bowl ad casualty in this year of post-malfunction funk was Mickey Rooney’s tush. All things being equal, an 84-year-old derriere is a sight I don’t mind skipping. Plus, the spot was for Airborne, a cold-remedy company that appeared to spend about $149 per 30 seconds on production for previous spots (and that included the Brady). So I had my doubts that Mickey’s rear end would have been given the cinematic reverence, never mind the lighting, it deserves. I can’t blame Fox for passing.

Still, the heightened censorship standards reflect beyond-the-beyond levels of hypocrisy, cynicism and irony. Where do we begin on the subject of Fox and morality? And the people who nixed Mickey’s towel-drop—the NFL—are the same folks who created that cheesy promo with the Naked Desperate Housewife losing her towel in the Eagles’ locker room.

The NFL was the first line of defense, so to speak, in this year’s Super Bowl censorship wars; and Fox (say no more) was the NFL’s mouthpiece in drawing the line in the sand to advertisers. Choke. One agency guy whose spot was rejected was told, and I quote this verbatim and am not making it up, “We don’t want breasts associated with the NFL.” I guess we’ll have to kill all the cheerleaders.

When George Carlin came up with his list of words banned on TV, did he envision the clunky, Orwellian phrase “wardrobe malfunction”? This year, those words, plus two spots that recreated the JJ boo-boo in some form, were banned from the broadcast, because Fox did not want to refer to the “unfortunate events” of last year. Now, “the events” of 9/11 were unfortunate. Janet Jackson getting her cup ripped off was a piece of cultural history— and you can’t wipe out last year’s most TiVoed moment just because you want to.

On the other hand, for advertisers, it’s the overly obvious way to go—and the weird metal nipple cover has already been satirized in at least two ads in the past year. That a Budweiser spot showing a stagehand causing the malfunction (with no breast in sight) was nixed and ended up drawing crowds to Anheuser-Busch’s Web site was a total win for the brewer. The ad was clever but hardly dazzling, and the big corporation (which, speaking of glass houses, brought us last year’s farting horse and crotch-biting dog) gets to look rebellious and heroic, decrying the nanny state, fighting the man.

Whereas first-time Super Bowl advertiser, a Web-hosting company, did get a breast-popping joke in by dint of changing tight shots to wide shots and removing the WM words, an even more over-the-top spot, created from extra footage, was rejected. When I read in our own pages that company founder Bob Parsons told The AdStore’s Paul Cappelli that he’d “love to have a beautiful woman with a nice ample chest with my company name across her shirt,” I could not believe he had said it in earnest—that such a successful entrepreneur could sound like such a doofus. This is not a gas-station calendar, buddy.

Through some conceptual gymnastics on the part of the agency (Cappelli called it “making melonade out of melons”), the spot can be taken as a parody of such tripe. It’s a disingenuous parody, since it’s still all about the logoed melons. But all the layering makes it work—there’s a commercial-within-a-commercial spin, a setting in Salem (ooh—witch trials!) and a very C-SPAN/congressional hearings feel. It ends with a geezerish judge grabbing an oxygen mask (while the ample-chested one gyrates) and a woman on the committee asking, “Can’t you wear a turtleneck?” In its out-there, campy, Old Navy way, it makes some points about censorship and hypocrisy while offering some well-paced laughs.

Parsons posted the rejected work on his Web site, and hits are up like 40 percent. The Net has changed everything—one reason last year’s spots were so crude and stupid overall was that so many Web sites now post and rate the spots, and advertisers tried desperate short-term tricks to be liked.

Similarly, for the first time, consumers also have access to some of the spots before the Big Game. So if an advertiser is oblivious enough to sink a fortune into a commercial that tries to be “lighthearted” about sex and religion, it will hear from protest groups. That’s why Ford ended up pulling “Charity,” its spot introducing the new Lincoln Mark LT pickup truck, before it ever ran.

You don’t have to be a religious zealot or a sex-abuse victim to be offended by it. First off, memo to Young & Rubicam: Not everyone in the U.S. is white and Christian. Second, at a time of such divisiveness, and the seriously grievous things that have come out about the Catholic Church, it seems just perverse, provocative and contrarily dumb to make a commercial about a Christian minister who ogles and fondles a vehicle (before he gets the keys ripped out of his hands by the venal yuppie-dad LT owner). With this lame setup, we never even get to see the truck in action—it’s stuck in the parking lot.

I know the “lust” joke comes from using the letters LT, but speaking of sins and sinners, isn’t this more a case of greed and envy? Even the director Tarsem couldn’t do much with this dog of a concept—the spot has a contemporary look but should have run (and been quickly forgotten) in 1961. It ain’t no Xerox monks, that’s for sure.

Of course, when you create something this muddleheaded about a man of the cloth and his urges, you have to wait for the public to weigh in. But glory hallelujah—if it had included a hint of a breast, the censors would have yanked it before it saw the light of day.