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The Super Bowl of Stupidity

Never mind the investigation by the Federal Communications Commission into the Super Bowl halftime show that ended with the baring of Janet Jackson's breast. Where is the inquiry into the crude, crass Super Bowl commercials celebrating a dog trained to bite crotches, a flatulent horse, a monkey pitching woo to a woman, a man tortured with a bikini waxing and an elderly couple fighting over a bag of potato chips?

The 57 national paid commercials that ran during Super Bowl XXXVIII on CBS on Sunday - the ads sold for a record average of $2.3 million for each 30 seconds - are being castigated for bombarding viewers with more vulgarity and tastelessness than in any previous Super Bowl.

The overwhelming barrage of what the trade publication Advertising Age condemned as adolescent bathroom humor - intended to appeal to the millions of younger men who watch the Super Bowl - may be why most ad critics complained in their post-mortems yesterday about a dearth of memorable or outstanding commercials, despite all the anticipated face-offs among competitors in big consumer-product categories like automobiles, computers, credit cards, prescription drugs, razors and soft drinks.

"It was a stupidity sweepstakes," said Richard Lewis, a worldwide managing director at TBWA Worldwide in New York, part of the Omnicom Group.

"There's no accounting for taste," he added, "but the smarter marketers shouldn't put up with this any more."

Perhaps it was fitting that after the halftime show a man ran onto the field naked, his body painted with the address of a gambling Web site. It symbolized the squalid, sleazy Super Bowl commercials streaking past the television audience.

"What really jumps out at us is how many of the Super Bowl advertisers are saying implicitly that their consumers are pretty dumb," said David Altschul, president at Character in Portland, Ore., a consulting company that specializes in creating and reviving brand characters.

"Considering the enormous cost to marketers for these spots," he added, "it always amazes us how little is devoted to truly building characters that resonate and make lasting connections with their target audiences."

Fraternity-house humor has been an intrinsic element of Super Sunday advertising for many years, the better to appeal to the men ages 18 to 34, weaned on gross-out comedy, who predominate among the more than 140 million Americans estimated to have watched at least part of the game. Still, the many sophomoric spots, with punch lines centered on bodily functions, violence and double entendres, may have hit a new low.

"The whole evening was themed that way," said Steve McKee, president at McKee Wallwork Henderson in Albuquerque, referring to the lowbrow nature of the halftime show as well as the commercials.

"Our expectations are really high each year, so it's easy to be disappointed," Mr. McKee said of the extravagant Super Bowl spots, which can cost $1 million or more to produce in addition to the air time. "But advertisers seem to be following a formula that they're milking a little too long."

"And now other advertisers are jumping on the bandwagon, saying, 'Hey, that works; we need to do it, too,' '' he added. "I thought the Sierra Mist commercials were for Bud Light," a beer brand known for its puerile humor. The Sierra Mist spots, by BBDO Worldwide in New York, part of Omnicom, were focused on sight gags like a Scotsman who wore nothing under his kilt.

Of the commercials that finished in the top five in the 2004 version of an annual online survey developed by McKee Wallwork, called Adbowl, three can be categorized as classless. Two were for Bud Light, sold by Anheuser-Busch; one showed the dog trained to bite crotches and the other a flatulent horse that spoils a sleigh ride. The third spot presented the elderly couple wrestling over a bag of Lay's chips, sold by the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo.

"It's lowest-common-denominator humor," said David Blum, senior vice president at Eisner Communications in Baltimore, which surveys consumers each year on expectations about Super Bowl advertising.

In the survey, which Eisner released last month, only 9 percent of respondents said they would watch the game for the commercials, the lowest answer to that question since 1996. By comparison, in 2003, a record 14 percent said they would watch for the spots.

"Maybe people have started to get a sense of this" taste level of the commercials, Mr. Blum said.

"Or maybe it was that the game was so good," he added, "the commercials got in the way."

The attack-dog spot for Bud Light, created by Downtown Partners in Chicago, part of the DDB Worldwide division of Omnicom, received the highest score of all the commercials rated by consumers for USA Today in its closely watched annual Ad Meter survey. The Bud Light horse spot, by the DDB Chicago office, was No. 4 and the Lay's spot, by the BBDO Mexico City office, was No. 5.

In a survey by America Online, part of Time Warner, in which more than 1.6 million votes were cast, the horse commercial came in second, followed by the aggressive dog at third. (A commercial about a donkey seeking to join the Budweiser Clydesdales, by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, part of Omnicom, finished first, but only by a small margin over the sleigh-ride spot.)

The commercial finishing fourth in the America Online survey sought to get laughs from a talking monkey making a move on its owner's date. The commercial showing the comedian known as Cedric the Entertainer receiving a bikini waxing instead of a massage came in sixth. Both were for Bud Light and both were created by DDB Chicago.

Posted on aef.com: February 6, 2004


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times - February 3, 2004

Copyright © 2004 The New York Times. All rights reserved.