This Doesn't Ad Up

As a football fan, I'm tired of hearing about how the commercials are the main event on Super Bowl Sunday. Maybe that was true seven or eight years ago, when hyperclever, ultrapricey advertisements were still a novelty and Super Bowl contests were annual blowouts. But in the current era of NFL parity—thanks, salary cap!—the games have been uniformly competitive, if not always white-knuckle thrillers. The ads, meanwhile, have quickly become the most overrated part of the night. Once the game begins, we still itch for that first commercial break for our long-awaited dose of hyperclever ads, hoping for a good belly laugh, something that will go straight into the pantheon alongside Budweiser's croaking frogs. But it's time to admit that the golden age of Super Bowl ads is over. Nowadays, we're lucky if we get a halfway decent fart joke.

And so it was this year. The victor in the annual contest between Super Bowl and Super Bowl ads wasn't even close: the game won by a mile. Truthfully, it was over by the first break: the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester got the game off to an electrifying start by returning, for the first time in Super Bowl history, the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and, unlike the Indianapolis Colts, the ads didn't have the juice to strike back. The first commercial break—the Garden of Eden for Super Bowl ads—was a colossal disappointment: between Budweiser's rock-paper-scissors spot and a pair of at-best mildly amusing ads from Doritos and Blockbuster, there wasn't a keeper in the bunch.

It set the tone for the night. Super Bowl XLI wasn't the greatest of games. The rain made it gruesomely sloppy at times, and the Colts seemed in control the entire way, even while they clung to a slender 5-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter. But at least it had its moments, especially during that frenetic first quarter. Overall, the game was a solid "B." The ads were a total flop.

At $2.6 million for 30 seconds of airtime—that's about $85,000 per second—it's hard to fathom how any advertiser got their money's worth. Still, some companies managed to waste their money slightly less egregiously than others. Here are my winners and losers:

The Winners

Coca-Cola: Hats off to Coke's rather novel approach: a good ad is good whether you've already seen it or not. Why spend millions more crafting a new spot when you've got plenty of oldies but goodies in the, um, can? The soft-drink company recycled its terrific "Grand Theft Auto" spoof—in which a digitized hoodlum turns into a warm, fuzzy do-gooder once he gets a bottle of Coke in his hand—and the spot's visual wit stood out on a night in which cleverness was a rare occurrence. Coca-Cola also unveiled a new advertisement that took us "inside" a coin-operated Coke machine and revealed a Rube Goldberg world of conveyer belts and contraptions designed to deliver a bottle from its source to our hands. A simple idea with marvelously complex execution. This dot-com's "Survivor"-style, office-workers-in-the-jungle campaign was the only set of ads all night that made me consistently chuckle. Bonus points for supremely creative use of banal office supplies. These ads also worked because, on top of their humor, they served their function. I had no trouble remembering which company they were designed to promote because the message was simple: if you need a better job, you need us.

Chevrolet: I'm calling Chevy a winner if only because the company had the good sense to spare us from its please-God-when-will-it-stop campaign using John Mellencamp's "This Is Our Country." (Though the song did make a brief cameo in the fourth quarter, appeasing the three people who still like it.) I actually enjoyed the early, somewhat hokey, spot featuring famous faces lovingly caressing their various different makes and models of Chevys. It peddled the same message as the Mellencamp campaign—basically, "driving a Chevy is just plain American"—without the gross exploitation of the Iraq war and Katrina's devastation. And the automaker also had one flat-out funny spot: the men doing a Full Monty at the mere sight of a Chevy. Because fat men stripping are always funny.

Snickers: The only ad that made me laugh out loud was this spot about two auto mechanics chomping away on opposite ends of the same candy bar until they meet in the middle and kiss, a la "Lady and the Tramp." I don't want to reward vaguely homophobic, and predictably macho, advertising, but there's no avoiding the fact that, as sight gags go, this one was pretty novel.

Honorable mention: the Budweiser ad about how face-slapping is the new fist-bumping. For the most part, I thought Budweiser's raft of new advertisements was unusually uninspired, but this spot was the exception. The reason: slapping is funny. It has always been thus, since the days of Laurel and Hardy.

The Losers

General Motors: The spot featuring the robot who has a nightmare about getting canned from his factory-line job was nicely executed but disastrously ill-timed. Just a thought, but maybe this isn't the right moment for an American automaker to be cracking jokes about layoffs. Another crass, stupid ad featuring juggy women spraying each other with champagne. The intellectual basis for these ads seems to be that men like boobs. Basically, this is a company that thinks so little of its clientele that it believes our loyalty can be bought with nothing more than a flash of cleavage. Enough already.

Doritos: Frito-Lay, which owns Doritos, held an online contest in the weeks before the big game searching for the best amateur advertisement. Visitors to the Web site were asked to vote for their favorite submissions, with the promise that the winning ad would be aired during the Super Bowl. Basically, Frito-Lay paid $2.6 million to run an ad made and selected by people who know nothing about advertising. That's like shelling out the cash for a Lear jet and then hiring me to fly it. What a waste of money.

Salesgenie / Garmin: Speaking of wasting money... Both of these companies bought one 30-second ad apiece. Do you have any recollection of either spot? Neither do I. Do you have any idea what either of these companies sell? Neither do I.

Nationwide: Because of Kevin Federline's starring role, this ad probably got the most pregame hype, and I'm sure some analysts out there will argue that that alone makes it a winner. And to be fair, the spot itself wasn't so terrible. But think of it this way: even Britney Spears doesn't want to be associated with K-Fed. Why would you want that for your company?

This Doesn't Ad Up | Culture