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Bowling For Dollars

If there's one thing that we as a society simply can't stand -- I mean, apart from diet cola aftertaste, tedious congressional show trials and live-action sitcoms on Fox -- it's predictability. Give us tragedy and unending misery, curse us with boils and plaques of locusts -- anything but the cruel fate of finding ourselves stuck in a rut.

Why do relationships fail? Because they grow stale. Why do sweater-wearing TV critics give the majority of movies a big thumbs down? Because they're too predictable. Why do voters embrace a shape-shifting Arkansas hillbilly while giving the bum's rush to guys like Paul Tsongas? Because one's a lovable rogue, and the other was as dull as dishwater. We want our newsmakers colorful. We want the killer leaping out of the broom closet, shouting, "Booga booga!" We want our sweethearts to be just unhinged enough to make life interesting, though not so unbalanced as to require protective gear.

I bring this up because of the Super Bowl, America's day-long paean to sloth and over-indulgence. It's a day when thousands of men and women consume their body weight in guacamole and bean dip to answer a question that has baffled humanity for well nigh a generation: Which team did you say the Falcons were, again? Once, the Super Bowl loomed large on our cultural landscape as an event where anything could happen -- and usually did -- whether it was Joe Montana leading the 49ers on a last second drive to beat the Cincinnati Bengals or Bob Costas doing a sideline interview with Mr. T to promote the upcoming premiere of The A-Team. ("I pity the fool who don't tune in tonight, Bob.")

And now? Now, everything about the Super Bowl seems as formulaic and predictable as a Jay Leno monologue, whether it's the game on the field or the broadcast itself. As sure as night follows day, as inevitable as the tides, as certain that I will be unable to get through this annual Super Bowl postmortem article without making an off-handed reference to doomed Miami Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian, you can bet that three things will happen every year on Super Sunday. I will throw the full weight of my support behind the eventual loser. I will make way too much pasta salad for the annual Super Bowl party. And the Super Bowl commercials will fail to live up to their pre-game hype.

It was no different this year. Continuing a proud tradition that includes backing such dubious horses as the Buffalo Bills and San Diego Chargers, I embraced the Atlanta Falcons as the can't-miss upset team of the century. I'm now varying the routes I take home to avoid running into my bookie. As for the pasta salad, it's been a week since the big game, and I can't give the stuff away. Even the food banks are no longer taking my calls.

And the commercials? Just as the Falcons ran on to the field of Joe Robbie-Pro Player-Your Name Here Stadium full of piss and vinegar only to have their heads handed to them by the far superior Denver Broncos, the Super Bowl commercials debuted to much pomp and circumstance only to be crushed under the weight of their own expectations, fading from memory as soon as the final gun sounded. I only wish the bowl of pasta salad congealing in my refrigerator could disappear so quickly.

It's not that the Super Bowl commercials were uniformly bad. There were even a few clever spots that stood out from the steady flow of blandness that dominated the breaks during last week's game. But for the most part, the commercials came off like a wobbly Chris Chandler screen pass, tipped and battered and falling well short of the target. Hell, most of the spots seemed to be dusted-off repeats that advertisers trot out on any given Sunday to sell beer and cars and no-load mutual funds.

Well, that approach may work for the Federal Express-St. Jude Classic or the big Villanova-Boston College hoops showdown. But this is the Super Bowl, folks. Everything about it should be big, gaudy, overstated. Which more than explains the presence of Cher during the pregame festivities.

In case you missed it, the pop singer -- or at least, her cyborg replicant -- was led out on to the field by a small child (or possibly her newest boyfriend) to lip-sync to the national anthem. While the almost lifelike Cher convincingly mouthed the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner," dozens of young people provided a sign language interpretation of the song that looked like some sort of mass epileptic fit, no doubt causing millions of deaf people around the country to feverishly sign to one another "What in the hell is that about?"

That's just the sort of excess the Super Bowl needs to live up to its reputation as this nation's greatest one-day sports spectacle. Seven hour pregame shows! A halftime extravaganza that inexplicably merges the talents of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Stevie Wonder and Gloria Estefan! A Navy jet fly-over! Many, many Garo Yepremian references!

Fox -- network motto: It's not self-promoting if you do it often enough! -- tried its level best to live up to the challenge. It gave us Jason Priestley giving a tour of the Miami party scene. It featured Keith Olbermann in a shameless cross-promotion for Fox's ESPN knock-off cable channel. It even managed ham-fisted references to its own programming with spontaneous crowd shots of Ally McBeal's Calista Flockhart enjoying the game from the stands. (I'll believe Calista Flockhart would willingly attend a football game about the same time I'll believe she willingly chews her own food.)

I think the seminal moment of Fox's coverage came just before halftime. There was a shot of the Fox NFL set housing James Brown and Terry Bradshaw and flanked by a big "Fox Sports" banner. In the upper corner of the screen, there was the game score, bracketed by a Fox Sports logo. On the bottom of the screen, a caption informed the audience of what was coming up at halftime... on Fox! Which must have been a great comfort to all the people watching the game who mistakenly thought they had tuned into NBC.

Yes, Fox got into the garish spirit of things. But the commercials... they just blew. If you're going to pay $1.6 million a pop to hawk your wares to a captive audience, the least you could do is to make sure that the ad might, at some point, inspire people to buy your product as opposed to, say, doze off. Sadly, as the result of the game became even more of a foregone conclusion, the ads similarly petered out, until people at the Super Bowl party were begging -- pleading -- for John Elway to take a knee and end this tragedy of a farce.

That, or bring out Cher for some more high-spirited sign language fun.

This simply will not do. So in the hopes that our nation's advertisers can get their act together in time for next year's contest at the Georgia Dome between the Broncos and whatever patsy the NFC puts up, here's a review of the commercials from last week's Super Bowl -- the good, the bad and the ugly. And if it seems a bit late to be doing a Super Bowl review a week after the game, bear in mind that a week is how long Fox's pregame show seemed to last.

The Good.

  • Budweiser's Louie the Lizard spots: I know people think the Budweiser frogs are tired and should be put out to pasture. (Or to swamp. I really don't think frogs can be put out to pasture.) I know many folks are cheering what appears to be the end of this long-running ad campaign. I know that embracing such an exhausted concept for a commercial makes me appear tragically unhip.

    But I don't care. I love that damn lizard.

    The two ads, which aired early on in the game, answered some of the haunting questions from last year's top-rated Bud commercial. The frogs can say things besides "Bud," "Weis" and "Er!" The frogs are every bit as sociopathic as their lizard nemesis! Man, do those frogs hold a grudge from last year when Louie tried to blow them up!

    If anything, this latest series of Budweiser commercials calls out for even more frog-oriented advertising. Will Louie and the frogs be able to put their differences aside? Will Budweiser ever give them their jobs back? And what of Frank, the put-upon lizard who always played Louie's unwitting foil? What role in the frogs' attack did Frank play?

    I think about these things late at night, you know.

  • Monster.com's ad: Probably the funniest ad to air Super Bowl Sunday, this black-and-white number featured children talking about what they wanted to be when they grow up, with a cynical '90s twist. "I want to be a 'yes man,' " said one whippersnapper. "I want to be forced into early retirement," another one chimed in.

    If all ads were this funny, there would be no need for long, unfocused articles about Super Bowl commercials on second-rate Web sites. Which is why we must never allow Monster.com to air another ad again.

  • The World Wrestling Federation's commercial: Any ad which features people smashing folding chairs over each other's heads is one to be reckoned with. But I have to wonder, what's really the point? I mean, are viewers expected to see the ad, leap up from the La-Z-Boy, slap their heads and say, "Pro wrestling! Of course! That's what's missing from my boring, humdrum life."?

The Bad.

  • Apple's Y2K ad: I was actually indifferent about this spot until just a few hours ago when my PowerBook -- made by the good men and women at Apple -- gave up the ghost. So instead of writing this article in the comfort of my own home, I'm spending a Sunday afternoon in the stifling confines of my cubicle-strewn office, pounding away on a cold, unforgiving Hewlett-Packard PC. So Uncle Phil now hates Apple and Steve Jobs and all they stand for.

    Sure, Apple seems to be saying, our computers crash more often than ValuJet. But hey, when the millennium rolls around, at least they'll work just as crappy as they do today. And now, they come in lime!

  • Frito-Lay's BBQ chip spot: The ad features a well-put together woman in a tight-fitting T-shirt, walking though a library. The library patrons -- who all happen to be men -- don umbrellas and rain gear. The woman munches on chips as if they're the most sexually gratifying snack food she's ever devoured. All the sprinklers in the library go off. The woman leaves the room. The men put away their umbrellas. The woman returns and bites emphatically on one last chip. The sprinklers go off again, soaking all the men. They bow down in homage to their chip-eating temptress.

    I think the ad is making a sexual allusion of some sort.

  • Pizza Hut's ad for its New York-style pizza: At last, our nation's scientists have a new riddle to ponder: Which is more likely to put people off their food, the sight of Pizza Hut's grease-laden, artery-clogging new pizza, or the sound of Fran Drescher's voice?

    My money's on the Nanny.

  • Pepsi One's "Reservoir Dogs" rip-off: How out of it was I when this ad came on? When the shot came up of Cuba Gooding Jr. smugly leaning against the hot dog stand, I shouted out, "Hey, it's Gary Coleman!"

    My apologies to Mr. Coleman, who has enough troubles without being linked to this turkey.

  • Buy.com's ad: Hey, it's a guy sniffing a dog's butt! That's really... Oh, it makes me want to... Hey, it's funny because it...

    Oh God, where's Fran Drescher when you need her?

The Ugly:

  • 7-Up's "Un" campaign: Here's a troubling new development. Ads that require back story.

    In the cruel Orwellian universe envisioned by folks at 7-Up, there's an all-powerful cabal of Fascists who try to ruthlessly stamp out the brave bohemians who spurn conventional colas and sports drinks to revel in the joyful rebellion that comes with sipping 7-Up's flavorless swill. Won't you cast aside the cruel shackles of Coke and Pepsi and join the glorious 7-Up revolution? Won't you stick it to the Man by guzzling can after can of the Un-cola?

    Um. No. But thanks for offering.

  • Bud Light's "Paper or Plastic?" commercial: Most of the people at the Super Bowl party thought that this spot -- featuring two doofuses who decide not to buy toilet paper because they won't have enough money to purchase a six-pack of Bud Light -- was really clever. Me, I found it kind of sad.

    Oh, I get the point -- Bud Light is just so damn good, you'll eschew simple human hygiene just for a chance to quaff your man-sized thirst with our watered down brew. But really, if you're at the point where you're skimping on toilet paper just to have enough shekels to buy light beer, it's time to check in to the nearest detox center.

  • Progressive Auto Insurance's halftime ad: E.T., the beloved extraterrestrial who charmed an entire generation, becomes a callow pitchman, selling out to Corporate Amerika. I understand Spielberg's got to move product, but what next -- Oskar Schindler hawking Hebrew National hot dogs?

    Maybe next year.


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