Super Bowl Ads: Lots of Fumbles

The big game was big letdown, as were most of the commercials. Our expert marketing panel reviews what scored and what fell incomplete

Super Bowl XXXVII was an uncompetitive clunker -- and so were the ads shown during the game. At least, that's what six marketing gurus from the nation's top business schools thought. In their view, Madison Avenue came out as flat as the overwhelmed Oakland Raiders by offering a spate of silly or mostly ordinary commercials that businesses paid Super Bowl-size prices to air. Though ads on this year's contest cost $2 million a pop on average, many advertisers trotted out new versions of existing campaigns rather than create something original -- apparently, to hold down costs.

Still, like the victorious Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a couple of advertisers scored big with the marketing experts who agreed to offer their post-game critiques for BusinessWeek Online. Pepsi impressed our panel with funny spots for its Pepsi Twist and Sierra Mist drinks. And Budweiser, while irritating some of our judges with guy-geared sexist stuff, nonetheless got points for its ability to grab viewers' attention. Here's who scored -- and who dropped the ball -- in our experts' eyes:

Best ad:

Pepsi Twist. Featuring a self-parodying Ozzy Osbourne, Donnie and Marie Osmond, and a cameo from Brady mom Florence Henderson, this spot for the soda tickled nearly everyone. "There was great character acting in this spot, and it resonates perfectly with the target audience," said Christie Nordhielm, marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Dan Howard, marketing professor at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, liked the ad but points out that Ozzy's mumbling, stumbling act "didn't do much for him personally."

Worst ad:

Dodge Ram -- by a mile. This universally dissed commercial ends with a passenger coughing up a slimy piece of beef jerky onto the pickup truck's windshield. The driver looks on in disgust -- and so did our marketing experts. "Buy this truck because some goofball spit up on the windshield?" wonders Nordhielm. "It was in such bad taste that people asked me to remind them whose ad it was later just so they would remember to talk about it tomorrow," says Paul Argenti, corporate communications professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.

Best use of a primate:

Sierra Mist. Apparently, monkeys make good pitchmen. Just like E*Trade, which scored with a dancing monkey in Super Bowl XXXV, Pepsi made a splash with a refreshment-seeking baboon that found satisfaction in the soft drink. The ad was a humorous send-up of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Cox's Howard considers it "highly unusual, attention-grabbing, and they tied it well to the product benefit."

Biggest buzzkill:

The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. This organization's sober spots warning about the dangers of illegal drugs certainly stood out in tone and message from the beer and babes commercials that sandwiched them. Our experts were split on whether that was good. SMU's Howard thinks the heavy themes -- teenage pregnancy, vehicular homicide -- ensured that people would take note amid the night's whimsy. Julie Edell, marketing professor at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, thought the ads would spur communication between parents and children in the family-dominated audience. But Kellogg's Nordhielm found the spots condescending -- and she doesn't buy the grim statistics: "If this was an ad for a brand, they would be sued for false advertising," she says.

Biggest attention-grabber -- for the wrong reasons:

Quizno's. The sandwich maker emphasized its superior ingredients -- always a good thing. But the oddball ad, which featured a dead bird in a cage and a chef in his underwear, raised eyebrows. The takeaway was supposed to be the singular dedication of Quizno's chefs to making great subs, but the end result was "highly unappetizing," says Michelle Greenwald, marketing professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.

Least improved (tie):

Cadillac and AT&T Wireless. The venerable carmaker is trying desperately to win over a new generation of fans with well-produced spots that zip to a Led Zeppelin soundtrack. Problem is, our experts still aren't persuaded. They laud the look of the ad, but simply don't believe there's anything "breakthrough" about Cadillacs. Stanford Graduate School of Business marketing professor Ward Hanson calls the Cadillac ads "painful to watch." Duke's Edell offers a dissenting opinion: "They had great imagery and engaged someone who might be interested in that product."

And AT&T Wireless' mLife ad campaign pushing its cellular services continues to confuse just about everybody. "What's AT&T's mLife about?" wonders Greenwald. Nordhielm asks: "Tell me again why I would trade my real life for an mLife?"

Most consistent:

Men had plenty of skin to ogle on Super Bowl Sunday, mostly in promos for TV shows or movie trailers. Frequent split-screen views of scantily clad Jennifer Garner in ABC house ads for its drama Alias blended in with gratuitous shots of bikini babes for the All-Star Sunday football and ice hockey specials. They offered "a lot of the usual stereotyping of women as sexy bimbos," says Columbia's Greenwald. "Just when you thought the Swedish Bikini Team had retired," laments Nordhielm.

Most in need of sensitivity training:

Budweiser. Beer ads have long been notorious for less-than-dignified depictions of women. But a Bud Light commercial in which a man stares aghast at the supersize derriere of his girlfriend's mother (supposedly an indication of the way his girlfriend will one day look) crosses the line. Says Greenwald: "It's a somewhat surprising choice, given that the beer with the highest female consumption is light beer."

Still the Super Bowl champ (financially):

Budweiser. Kellogg's Nordhielm figures that the brewer will be the only advertiser to recoup its investment in the pricey ads -- of which it bought 11. "If you're willing to spend more than $20 million and collectively offer the best set of commercials, you deserve to have an increase in sales," says Dartmouth's Argenti. One seemed prescient early on: In a lampoon of the National Football League's instant replay, a zebra peers into a replay booth while two teams of Bud's trademark clydesdale draft horses look on in boredom. After the commercial break ended, viewers watched the real game's referees blow a call -- which was remedied after a replay -- on a Tampa Bay kickoff return.

While our experts regarded this year's ads as lackluster, they expect better results once the economy improves and ad spending picks up. That's cold comfort for viewers who tuned in as much for the commercials as for the game. Like the defeated Raiders, they'll just have to wait till next year.

By Brian Hindo in New York

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