Sunday, February 6, 2011

"This is what we do" - Best of the Super Bowl commercials

While a departure from my normal content, how can you not write about pop culture on Super Bowl Sunday?

It's very tempting to go with the snark and run through all the ads that weren't worth $.03, let alone $3,000,000. But we're going to try and keep it mostly positive around here. Mostly. Let me just get a few things off my chest and then we'll move from good to better to best.


First, Doritos. I will still eat your chips, but your Super Bowl ads always annoy me for their lack of creativity and, in this year's case, an added dose of gross awkwardness. Instead, just show me a cool ranch chip close up for 30 seconds and I'm sold.

Second, to everyone that used sex and/or slapstick to sell your products (and you were legion), I say this: you're just blending with the crowd at this point. And where you do stand out, it creates an emotional response that makes me want to be a brand anti-advocate. I'm talking to you, GoDaddy and Pepsi Max. (And yes, as I put on twitter, my wife happened to buy our first ever 12-pack of Pepsi Max while she was at Costco during the first quarter. Ill-timed.)

Okay, that feels better. Let's get to the...


Transformers movie trailer

I will not see this movie. I repeat: I will not see this movie. The trailer is awesome (I actually like the siren robot horn - adds to the drama), but I've got you figured out, Michael Bay. Your roots are in commercials and you know how it's done. The problem is, you can't film a whole movie like a 30-second commercial (which you do) and have it be good. So I'll watch your movie promo and think "Maybe this time will be different! Maybe the movie will be as good as the trailer." But I know better, Mr. Bay. No Pearl Harbor sneak attack on my wallet (or my senses).

Bridgestone "Reply All"

Both Bridgestone ads were pretty good, but I had read earlier in the day how this one came to be. It's a fascinating article in Fast Company that goes behind the scenes on how ad agencies go "all in" when they are creating a Super Bowl spot.

You've got to love how well the commercial illustrates the impossibility of retracting an email. It's good not just because it's funny, but because it captures our age: digital communication, once you hit send/publish, is out there immediately to laptops, desktops, and mobile phones. My favorite is the guttural yell as he rips the cords out of the server bank. The futility is the funny.

Kind of reminds me of an email I got back in 2005. Moving right along...

Volkswagon Black Beetle

I wouldn't say CGI Beetles are the best way to get me excited about your product, but this spot had just enough going for it to make my list. First, I like the song (though not so much the cover they used). Second, the two stripes on the Beetle left little doubt where we were headed. Or so I thought. Here is what I think made this ad stand out:

That shot alone was enough to get me excited. Something tells me they are going to get rid of the flower holder as a major selling point in the new Beetle.

CarMax "Kid in a candy store"

It moves quickly and expects the viewer to keep up. Plus, I probably like word play a little more than the average person. You can see people quoting this one in the days ahead. "I feel like a hippie in a drum circle!"


Kia Optima "One Epic Ride"

I caught on to the "bigger and better" thing they had going on when Poseidon showed up, but this got really interesting when it kept going after the aliens grabbed the car. Really, where do you go from there? I thought "wait, are they going to have God show up and grab this car?" Well, not quite. Just the Mayans using one of their time-traveling, car-summoning wormholes.

Considering the idolatry going on in this ad, I'm kind of glad God didn't get involved. And I don't really see him driving a Kia.

Volkswagon "The Force"

Okay, full disclosure: I have a five year-old son that I could picture doing most of the stuff our mini-DV (Darth Vader) does in this ad. Those clever VW ad wizards know their target audience, and it's a slightly more affluent version of myself.

When I was right around my sons age, I had a Star Wars themed birthday party. Unbeknownst to me, my uncle's friend had a full blown DV costume, showing up at my party and simultaneously frightening and delighting all in attendance. My parents got a great pic of Darth holding me up over his head, but I'll have to dig that one out another time. In any case, more bonus points for nostalgia.

Love that they got permission to use "The Imperial March".


Chrysler "Imported from Detroit"

I liked it when I saw it live, but loved it when I re-watched with my full attention. So many elements masterfully woven together: The Detroit setting, the cinematic stylings, the phenomenal ad copy ("it's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel"), the visual narrative that begins with factories and skyscrapers but evolves into the human story, the emergence of "Lose Yourself" at the same moment the story shifts to the car, the look of (dare I say?) steely determination on the faces of everyone you see...I could go on. This was more a movie trailer than a commercial; it draws you in to a larger story that goes way beyond the Chrysler 200. As Chris Brogan tweeted, this was the first car ad that wasn't about a car. I think that is a good thing.

"This is the Motor City, and this is what we do" - Eminem, with the only words spoken directly to the camera.

As the car drives off onto the streets of Detroit and the video fades to black, the following appears one word at a time:

Maybe it is because this article was fresh in my mind, but the wording and visual styling made me think there was a nod to Apple on this one. Presentation, Emotion, and California Detroit. It certainly has the three components.

One final note: Who came up with such a great ad? Well, it did kind of feel like a Nike ad, didn't it? None other than Portland-based Weiden+Kennedy, known almost equally now for their work on Old Spice.

So are TV commercials the contemporary art form that shapes our culture more than any other?  Some say so...and I'm inclined to agree. Knowing why they speak to us is an opportunity to see into the soul of our culture, understanding that the stories they tell are the ones we, as carriers of the ultimate narrative, will be working to replace. Or redeem.

You must banish from your mind the naive but commonplace notion that commercials are about products. They are about products in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales. — Neil Postman