by Jonathan Salem Baskin on 7 February, 2012 - 21:18
I know, they’re funny, and ads with animals and/or kids can't lose. Last night was a ritual for some of us to judge and compare the commercials during a football game that we otherwise wouldn’t have watched. We’re going to spend a few days enduring incessant “best of” lists, marketers will perform some complex gymnastics to explain why the spots are brilliant business strategy, and ad agencies will refer back to all this buzz when it’s time to revive their pitches to sell Super Bowl spots to their clients next year.
But the ads suck, and here’s why:
Advertising is in decline. Consumers have lost their faith and reliance on ads.Instead, they’ve adopted social media tools to research and make many purchasing decisions.This shift is as much a result of advertising’s failures as social media’s benefits (there is ample evidence that it’s a woefully imperfect and incomplete substitute).The Super Bowl encourages ads that are silly, entertaining, and have no discernible link to purchase decisions.Not only do these ads reaffirm the reasons people ultimately hate advertising, but also spam social media platforms with the same effect. So we are entertained, but we really don’t care.
Celebrating Super Bowl ads is kind of like praising restaurants for their atmosphere and decor while ignoring the fact that their kitchens are empty...or the food sucks. Super Bowl ads are empty communication calories. And that goes for the overtly silly ones (most of them) and the purposefully serious ones (like Chryslter's "Halftime in America," which was a beautifully produced 2-minute paen that was as inspiring and commercially-inert as fist-pumping to "Born in the USA").
I can’t begin to fathom why advertisers and their agencies so willingly perpetuate this annual industry-sized act of self-immolation. It guess it could be used for making big announcements to a large audience -- like a virtual trade show floor, only for any product or service that had huge news to share -- but apparently the strategy is to create brilliant ways to pleasantly waste everyone’s time while presuming to make lots of outdated branding associations and whatnot that consumers have already rejected. Or not even trying.
I think it’s a pleasant distraction from an otherwise ugly situation for brand marketing. Many big ad agencies started off 2012 with significant staff layoffs. Big brands have similarly slashed marketing people (Microsoft and P&G) and ad spending (Unilever). Nobody has figured out the math on what works (or why). It’s reasonably certain that the Super Bowl hoopla isn’t any help, though.
So here are my picks for the commercials that sucked the most, and why (in no particular order since they’re all bad):
Priceline -- The Shatner commercials have been wonderfully successful for over a decade because the ads have been gloriously simple and effective: Priceline negotiates the travel deals its customers request, and Shatner pretty much repeated this mantra in a variety of ways. What sucks now is that the company is abandoning its only product difference and going to a fixed-price offering a la Travelocity and all of its competitors. The Super Bowl spot has Shatner plunging to his death in a metaphoric reference to this change in policy, and the company has encouraged us to focus on his “retirement” as simply a marketing ploy (will he rise from the dead like J. R. Ewing?). It’s a willful distraction from the underlying change in company practices which utterly blows up its brand and reputation. Priceline chose to tease and play with its audience instead of use the opportunity to tell it the truth (creatively and inspiringly, of course).
Coke -- I remember when Coca-Cola signed the deal with Creative Artists in Hollywood in the early 1990s, and how asking non-advertising experts to create advertising was heralded as a brilliant idea. The polar bears cavorting with bottles of Coke were one of the early results of that partnership. They were dumb then and they’re dumb now. Coke has been often brilliant with advertising that said “Drink Coke” (sometimes literally) and helping consumers understand that its ubiquitous availability made it an inescapable standard. The polar bears do nothing of the sort and, worse, the CGI isn’t even cuddly.
VW -- I thought last year’s kid dressed up as Darth Vader was so wonderful, even though making the connection to VW for any other reason than it was smart enough to hire a smart agency to come up with the spot. This one requires extraordinary feats of consumer attention, patience, and creativity in order to qualify as an ad, really: So the dog goes on a diet and works out so he can chase a VW bug, and then we're transported to the bar in Star Wars so aliens can rate the commercial against last year's spot. All of which should remind us of...what...how yes, how none of it has anything to do with VW? Also, thisad referencing another ad business must violate some basic rule of advertising (remember Microsoft saying nothing about its own products while its “I’m a PC” campaign?).
Cars.com -- Sorry, this one was just really bad. First, the alien head popping up behind the guy is too “M.I.B” and it’s kinda uncomfortably freaky. Second, the singing is irritating, not funny, and it requires far too much deconstruction by the viewer (he’s singing because he’s happy he has information he gathered on cars.com, I gather). Third, the spot gives you no understanding of how, why, or what cars.com actually gave that consumer, other than grafting a singing alien head onto his back.
CareerBulder -- The chimp thing never worked for me because it raises such a basic conundrum: If arguably every person who works in an office thinks at least one or some of his or her associates are as irritating as monkeys, then isn’t every office filled with monkeys? If CareerBuilder wants to tell us that there’s no escape, or that in the end we’re all monkeys, then this is a smart ad. It has also generated protests from animal rights groups for making monkeys seem to friendly and happy when they’re an endangered species (or something like that). Controversy is an old standard in the marketing game, and if generating it with this spot was purposeful, it’s doubly stupid.
GoDaddy -- OK, this stuff makes Cars.com seem like Masterpiece Theatre. There’s nothing I can say other than that there’s something tragically wrong with a company that spends so much money to tell so many people that it has horrible judgment.
Acura -- When this spot started I was scared it was going to be like those terrible spots for Microsoft in which Jerry Seinfeld slummed with Bill Gates in a discount shoe store. This one got pretty funny but it was in the same vein...all about Jerry and not at all about the product. The very idea that Mr. Famous Guy would go to any lengths to bribe Joe Nobody is a reach, at best. Also, it used to be the Detroit Big Three who so expertly wasted marketing money to motivate consumers to not buy their cars (to the tune of $6 billion spent in one of the years leading up to the recent economic meltdown). Those brands are actually coming out with much better advertising these days (I love what’s coming out of Ford), so maybe the ad agencies turned to the Japanese companies to steal their money instead? Did you catch the stuff from Toyota? Equally pointless, but very creatively so.
Honda -- This was perhaps my favorite bad spot, only because I loved Ferris Bueller's Day Off and I’m impressed by how youthful Matthew Broderick has stayed. But as advertising it illustrates only how far afield a brand can go to say nothing about itself. The spot has nothing to do with Honda and everything to do with references to an old movie, which I’m sure the strategists reasoned would appeal to the consumer demographic for the van (it’s a van they’re selling, right?). But ads are supposed to convey information that said consumers can use -- David Ogilvy wrote that a great ad was one that didn’t draw attention to itself, but instead imparted understanding and inspiration about a product or service). This ad is all about this ad. Any brand could have funded it.
In fact, the Honda spot has my vote for the most-talked about commercial (it was already the most-watched ad on YouTube a few days ago), and then the most-forgotten brand sponsor.
There were lots of other bad spots -- but again, I was entertained by a few, like the little kid taking a pee in the pool -- but they all sucked for one or more of the reasons I’ve already mentioned.
It makes me sad, really. So much money, time, and creativity wasted on further ruining the reputation and future of advertising as a communications approach. So as you catch one more “best of” list or laugh with a friend about one of the spots, ask yourself if any of it will matter at all to your next purchase decision.
Ads are supposed to sell, and all the Super Bowl ads did was sell the medium down the river.
(Image credit: Ferris Redux)
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