A Super Bowl Full Of Bad And Clumsy Ads

My BusinessWeek colleagues Burt Helm and David Kiley—proprietors of this fine blog—were kind enough to let me crash their annual Super Bowl party. That is, I crashed their annual Super Bowl ad review feature for BusinessWeek.com, which will go up online just after the gatorade coolers get upended by the winning team. (And it can be found here.)

This is how I came to spend several hours on Thursday and Friday watching a bunch of ads that will be broadcast during the game tonight. Judging from by the 85% or so of this year’s Super Bowl ads that I’ve seen as of 5 PM Eastern time Sunday, this year there is less reason than ever to watch the game for the commercials.

Everything seems kind of … tamped-down. Very few spots let loose with the kind of unbridled idiot humor (I am a fan of “Jackass,” so I have a deep and abiding respect for idiot humor) you’d expect-–and, indeed, have come to expect—for the Super Bowl, and the boisterous indoor tailgate partiy atmosphere in which much of this country watches the game.

(Hats off to Pepsi’s “I’m Good” and to Conan O’Brien’s ill-fated Swedish star take for Bud Light—even if it manages to let O’Brien score sackfuls of cash for endorsing Bud Light while pish-poshing the entire idea—to name a few, for not giving in. And, all right, let’s tip a hat to GoDaddy, which did not back down from it’s tried and true. I haven’t yet seen the Cash4Gold ad, but by all accounts they’re in this camp as well.)

Notionally I understand what’s going on here. The economy is in shambles; you can smell the fear levels rising on the streets and in the stores; an exhausted nation confronts wars and a not-yet-solved banking crisis. Somewhere marketing and ad execs were huddling, worrying that they might mess this up. The kind of flip ‘tude that would fly any other year, they must have thought, wouldn’t in ’09. Somehow they might tick everyone off by running an ad that’s not in the tenor of these sober times . . . .

Oh, come on. This is a football game. And today’s game is, apparently, a very big football game. (Forgive me if you are a football fan. I’m not one myself, but I understand this is a very important day for your people.) This is a Sunday. This is pure escape. This is a few hours grace from having to worry about the day-to-day. This, more than ever, is a time to let loose. This is not a time for the death of irony, or the death of idiot humor. Because we need it now more than ever. I give the metaphoric back of my hand to the advertisers that went squishy this year, that went all well-intentioned, rather than going full-blast for what everyone expects a Super Bowl ad to deliver.

So the tone this year seems off; the attempts for ads (ads!) to acknowledge the world at large seem clumsy and especially inartful. What we got was earnestness (hello, GE, and way to use a song that’s 75 years old! And, hello, Pepsi’s ad linking Will.i.am to Bob Dylan—and way to go, Bob [coughing], even if you apparently only agreed to let them use your likeness and not your song). And tonal misfires, like Heineken and Coke Zero. And variations of the horrible cornball jock sentimentality that’s never far from the surface at a major sporting event (hello, Budweiser’s not-funny ad of Clydesdales though the generations. And hello, NFL’s commercial for itself.)

All would be forgiven if the funner ads were actually, how you say, funny. But few of them are.

Don’t audiences crave entertainment more than ever when times get tough?

UPDATE 9:07 PM: That Heroes ad just before halftime--the one set in a football game--was, actually, quite good.

UPDATE MORE: The big winner for the ads? NBC. Hulu, Heroes, the testimonials for Conan. Isn't it time that we admit that the advertising part of the night belongs to the network airing the Super Bowl? Or at least it should if that network's smart about it?

NBC was. Even when you count that gruesome ad for its Monday night lineup.

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