Most Ads Weren't As Good as the Game

BW Online's panel of marketing pros lament the loss of upstarts at the Super Bowl. Still, they found plenty to like -- and to dis

Football games don't get much better than Super Bowl XXXVIII's back-and-forth slugfest. The New England Patriots clinched their second title in three years on the blessed foot of kicker Adam Vinatieri, whose field goal with four seconds left put the Pats ahead of the Carolina Panthers, 32-29. It's too bad Madison Ave.'s advertisements didn't measure up, according to BusinessWeek Online's panel of marketing experts from top business schools who gave the traditional Super Bowl sideshow uniformly lukewarm reviews (for a rundown from a decidedly nonexpert perspective, see "Beer, Back Hair, and Erection Woes").

As they noted in last year's post-game roundup, our gurus from some of the nation's top business schools again saw familiar ads from familiar advertisers. Old standbys Pepsi (PEP ) and Budweiser (BUD ) peppered the Super Bowl broadcast, on CBS (VIA ) this year, with predictably amusing and irreverent fare that will likely further endear the soda and beer makers to their established clientele.

But our panel noted a dearth of ads from startup businesses and technology companies -- the entrants that often spark innovation in advertising with breakthrough, high-concept spots. At an average of $2.3 million a pop for these ads, "it's hard for companies to justify [the cost] right now," says Michael McCarthy, a marketing professor at Miami University of Ohio. "They're not going to be frivolous about it."

No one may have reached the level of Apple's (AAPL ) benchmark "1984" tour de force, but our panelists spotted definite winners and losers. Here's how they saw it:

Best Ad

IBM/Linux.

Cheers poured in for IBM's (IBM ) Linux ads featuring former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. The gurus thought the iconic Ali was the perfect man to sell the Linux message of "shake things up." "That's just what Ali did in his time, and it's precisely what they're trying to do [with Linux]," says Dan Howard, a marketing professor at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business.

The ad's clean production also left a favorable impression. "Juxtaposing him against the young, freckle-faced kid was memorable," says Michelle Greenwald, a marketing professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Business.

Worst Ad

H&R Block.

Poor old Willie Nelson may have received a warm welcome from the Houston crowd for his pregame bow with fellow country singer Toby Keith, but the tax preparer's talking Willie Nelson doll left our marketing gurus shaking their heads. "I didn't get the H&R Block message," says Kevin Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "I was distracted by the gimmick of the doll."

Even those who caught the ad's intended irony -- Nelson's past tax troubles -- found the connection strained. Greenwald, however, offered a dissenting opinion. "It showcased the company as having a sense of humor, and it indirectly communicated that it knows all about allowable deductions," she says.

Detroit's Finest

Chevrolet.

Auto makers offered a study in contrasts during the Super Bowl. Honda (HMC ) aired a repeat of its Pilot SUV ad campaign, which stars a man raised by wolves ("I hate that ad," laments Keller). Cadillac (GM ) presented new spots in its ongoing, Led Zeppelin-backed campaign to lure in younger, hipper, drivers.

Chevrolet garnered the most praise, scoring winners with its new ads for the small, sporty Aveo and the convertible SSR pickup truck. The Aveo ad depicted a group of lanky basketball players climbing into an Aveo and finding themselves dwarfed by its roomy interior. Says Greenwald: "The Chevy ad did a good job of visually depicting the car's key benefit: a small, affordable car with more room inside than you'd expect."

And our experts thought the sly SSR piece, which showed kids with bars of soap in their mouths, had an appropriately different feel (the kids wound up getting their tongues cleaned after issuing a breathless one-word expletive upon seeing the hot new hard-top convertible). "Chevrolet may benefit from the ads that show they're revitalizing their car line-up with not just new models, but different concepts," says Julie Edell Britton, a professor at Duke's Fuqua School.

Most Subversive Billion-Dollar Corporations (Tie)

Apple and Pepsi.

Kudos to both savvy marketers from our panel for the buzz-worthy introduction to the Pepsi-iTunes promotion. The ad cleverly tweaked the recording industry's aggressive lawsuits against illegal music downloads -- another round of which were announced only several days ago. "The tie-in was terrific, assuming anybody under the age of 30 was watching," says Christie Nordhielm, professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School.

"It's a great idea for generating trial of iTunes and sales of Pepsi," McCarthy says. "With 100 million free iTunes being offered, the Pepsi spot should have a positive and immediate impact on sales," agrees Greenwald.

Most Offensive

Budweiser.

One Bud Light commercial had comedian Cedric the Entertainer in for a bikini wax. Another showed a flatulent sleigh horse igniting candle held by a man's unfortunate date in front of her face. Still another showed a football referee taking a berating from a coach on the sideline. The reason he's able to take it? His wife lets him have it at home.

Was there any doubt that Bud ads would be patently offensive? And is that a bad thing? No, and no (depending on whom one asks). Most of the marketing profs felt Bud did a great job of playing to its base -- the male football fan. "Budweiser continues to capitalize on its long experience with the Super Bowl, and of course the pure logic of advertising beer on a football game" Nordhielm says. "All these guys have to do is generate top-of-mind awareness, and they know how to do that."

Still, the risk in trawling the boundaries of tastefulness is that at least some of the commercials are bound to offend some of the audience. SMU's Howard got a chuckle out of the referee ad but not the farting horse. "It's really a disgusting association with that brand," Howard says, calling it the worst ad of the night. "It was particularly crass," agrees Fuqua's Edell Britton.

The Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Award

America Online.

In an effort to help stem subscriber losses, AOL (TWX ) rolled out a new series of commercials featuring the stars of Discovery Channel's American Chopper show. Our panel agrees that the spots effectively communicated the increased speed of the AOL service. "Now all they have to do is deliver on their rather aggressive promise of blindingly fast Internet access," Nordhielm says.

But Howard questions whether the Chopper crew's blue-collar appeal is what AOL needs. "It seemed segmented to a lower-scale income group." Several note the reality-show feel of the commercials. "It has that rough, D.I.Y. feel," says Keller. "But some of the ideas were better than the actual production values." And Miami-Ohio's McCarthy wonders whether many people will recognize the American Chopper hosts -- those who don't may be confused.

Cry Me a River Award

AOL/NFL.

In addition to the Chopper ads, AOL also sponsored the halftime show. Long a repository for college marching bands and positive messages, this year's version included artists P. Diddy, Nelly, and Kid Rock. Marquee performer Janet Jackson's steamy duet with pop idol Justin Timberlake was pretty daring fare for the Super Bowl halftime show. And that was before Jackson wound up with her breast exposed. The NFL, CBS, and MTV, which produced the halftime show, have all disavowed the stunt. "That was pretty racy stuff for the NFL," Keller says. It's a long way from Up With People.

Biggest Winner (tie)

Pepsi and the NFL.

The beverage maker had a good night. Its effective Apple tie-in, a smart spot starring bears with fake IDs, and an amusing Frito Lay ad, in which an old man literally tries to step over his wife to grab a bag of chips, overcame stale, unappealing Sierra Mist commercials. "Pepsi's 'It's the Cola' campaign is executionally and strategically right on, and more than a shot across the bow at Coca-Cola," says Nordhielm.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue had a great night -- the game itself actually took center stage. After a lackluster first quarter, it quickly developed into a well-played nail-biter, with rising-star quarterbacks Tom Brady of New England and Jake Delhomme of the Panthers introducing themselves to millions of viewers. And the league even scored with a cute house ad for its new NFL Network. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and coach Bill Parcells, plus a cadre of NFL stars including Warren Sapp, Torry Holt, Priest Holmes, and Zach Thomas belt out Tomorrow, already priming football fans for next year.

Another competitive NFL season and thrilling Super Bowl like this one, and football fans will be bursting into song -- whether or not they remember any of the big game's ads.

By Brian Hindo in New York

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