To some people, the Super Bowl is a football game. To others, it’s a marketing derby.
“Careers are made, and careers are ended, on these commercials we’re about to see,” said Lewis Williams, a senior vice president, creative director, at Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc., a Chicago-based advertising agency.
Williams was addressing more than 100 attendees of the fourth annual “Super Advertising Bowl” at Washington University’s Olin School of Business while Sunday’s game was starting on a giant screen above him. Every year, MBA students, their friends, Washington U. faculty and ad execs like Williams gather to rank Super Bowl ads.
During halftime, Advertising Bowl participants vote for their favorite commercials.
Any ad shown during the Super Bowl must stick in people’s minds. Otherwise, it’s not worth the money, Williams said. “It’s the Super Bowl,” he said. “It has to be different.
“The Super Bowl brings out that wild streak in every client; nobody wants to look like a square,” Williams said. But, he warned, “With that leeway, a lot of people do some really bad ads.”
This year, though, advertisers might have erred on the side of caution, Williams said later, rolling out spunky yet largely predictable spots that ultimately might be forgotten.
Indeed, it was three of the more edgy ads – a dog lunging at a man’s crotch, a child swearing and an old couple competing for a bag of chips – that won the top three spots at Olin’s event.
This year, as usual, Anheuser-Busch Cos. scored several touchdowns with advertisements that catered to the brewer’s core consumers while probably entertaining all demographic groups. Williams and his colleague, Todd Cromheecke, a senior vice president and account director at Leo Burnett, gave high marks to a spot in which a donkey aspires to be a Budweiser Clydesdale.
“We like the donkey!” Williams said.
But it was another spot that won first place. In that ad, two men compare the talents of their respective dogs. One dog can fetch a Bud Light from a cooler, prompting his owner – who is about to open the beer – to say, “What can your dog do?” The other dog succeeds in stealing the Bud Light for his owner by lunging at the first man’s crotch.
The crowd at Washington University erupted in laughter at the escapade. Williams said, “Thumbs up, baby!”
Another ad for Bud Light, in which a horse passes gas in front of a woman’s face while she’s on a date, got mixed reviews. “It didn’t really do anything for me,” said Beth Hunsicker, a master’s student and an organizer of the Advertising Bowl. It “doesn’t make me want to drink beer.”
More than a few ads seemed to make no splash.
One was a spot for Levitra, an anti-impotence drug made by GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer. Mike Ditka, a former Chicago Bears coach, talked about the difference between football and baseball in the ad, concluding that baseball would benefit from Levitra. It drew wrinkled brows from audience members.
An ad for Daimler Chrysler, in which a man has a monkey hanging on his back because he can’t find a cool family car, loses the monkey only when he buys a Dodge. As he leaves the dealership, he waves at a salesman surrounded by monkeys. Only a few people chuckled.
PepsiCo Inc., however, came out well. Its edgy cross-promotion with iTunes featured teenagers who have been sued for downloading music from the Internet.
Teenagers are likely to be attracted to the rebelliousness of the ad, Cromheecke said, and the ad successfully got its message across: If you buy Pepsi, you might win a free song from iTunes. Though it didn’t break new ground, Cromheecke said, “Strategically, it was very smart.”
Pepsi’s other ads weren’t hits. Though a Sierra Mist spot with a bagpiper striking a Marilyn Monroe-like pose was amusing, critics at the Advertising Bowl said it would be forgotten quickly.
An ad for Chevrolet, in which a kid says, “Holy, sh …,” when he sees a new Chevy model, won second place. The ad built up to that moment by picturing several children with soap in their mouths.
An ad for Frito-Lay, in which an elderly man and woman race for a Lay’s potato-chip bag, took third place. The audience laughed when the man grabbed the bag, only to turn around and watch his opponent hold up his dentures, which probably fell out when he was racing for the bag.
One ad that tried to be edgy but didn’t quite hold up with the audience was a spot for Charmin toilet paper. A football player has a piece of toilet paper hanging out of the back of his pants. The ad ends with a voice-over suggesting that Charmin provides comfort for your end zone.
“It was a cute tagline, but I don’t think the ad paid off,” Hunsicker said. “The theme (of the Super Bowl) doesn’t tie in well with the product.”
Though the Super Bowl offers some of the splashiest ads and, potentially at least, some great bits of entertainment, it’s still about selling a product for advertisers, Williams and Cromheecke said.
And in an age when many people would just as soon TiVo commercials out of television, the Super Bowl ad stage is more important than ever.
“It’s the big day,” Cromheecke said.
(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Business section on Monday, February 2, 2004.)