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Angry Vidiots vs. the Super Bowl III: Requiem for a Sock Puppet

O Sock Puppet! my Sock Puppet! The Super Bowl is done;
Fox signed off on its telecast, the Patriots have won;
But the ads shown during Sunday's game fell short of yesteryear's,
Like tacky spots from Budweiser and that awful Britney Spears:
No dot-com ads, No talking frogs,
No herding kitty hordes,
And on the couch the Vidiots lie,
Watching, pissed and bored.

OK, maybe it's not so dire that we have to start invoking Walt Whitman, but then again, maybe you didn't watch the Super Bowl last weekend. If you did, you saw a hell of a game -- highlighted by dramatic moments, an outcome in doubt until the final play and an improbable victor that spared us from prolonged exposure to the sight of St. Louis Rams owner Georgia Frontiere blubbering.

You also saw some very lame commercials.

In a sense, we only have ourselves to blame. The last couple of years, when American industry in general -- and high-tech companies in particular -- were awash in filthy lucre, we had nothing but sneering contempt for their Super Sunday advertorial offerings. Nice ads and all, we'd say. But shouldn't you be focusing on, you know, turning a profit before throwing away millions of dollars for a 30-second shot at brand awareness?

And now? Now, we'd given anything to see those pointless, shameless pitches for half-baked services and dubious products we'd never consider buying from companies we've never even heard of. Anything's better than another 30-second spot of August Busch III extolling Anheuser-Busch's proud, 125-year tradition of brewing watered-down beer.

Two factors contributed to this year's less-than-stellar crop of Super Bowl commercials. First, the economy did a reverse somersault with a full twist into the crapper, wiping out many of the foolhardy companies who've been throwing good money after bad to advertise during the last few Super Bowls. And many of the ones who've toughed out the recession thus far are saving their shekels, either for Winter Olympics promos or for such mundane, day-to-day things like meeting payroll.

Second, there's the not-altogether-insignificant matter of the world going to hell. Advertisers don't think we're ready to yuk it up after last September, so their impulse this time around was to tone down some of the more over-the-top touches from Super Sundays past. The impulse may be noble, but that doesn't necessarily mean the result will be successful. Tone down the ads all you want, but in the end, if our Marxist communications professors from college are to be believed, advertising is still all about convincing you that the latest and greatest products are just what you need to fill that gaping maw in your bleak existence. And it's just not that easy convincing folks who haven't tried the new Taco Bell quesadilla that they're missing out on a fulfilling life when there's the ever-present threat that Brit Hume is suddenly going to appear during the third quarter of the big game to announce that something awful has happened.

And so you get what we had Sunday -- bland, quickly forgotten ads awash with cheap sentiment, head-scratching celebrity endorsements, or the kind of ordinary effort you'd find in the commercial interruptions for a midseason Arena Football League game. In short, not the kind of creative output we've come to expect from the one day of the year we actually bother to pay attention to advertisements. Thankfully, we had Ty Law's coverage, Adam Vinatieri's foot and Mike Martz's bungled game plan to keep things close this year, but how often can we count on the NFL to provide us with a watchable championship?

You can't keep the Buffalo Bills out of the Super Bowl forever, you know.

So come back, Pets.com Sock Puppet. We know you went out of business, but this time, we promise to buy a can or two of Alpo online if it means an entertaining ad every January. And you, Monster.com -- ditch the somber footage of Rudy Giuliani and bring back the kids talking dreamily of careers in middle management, and we'll think about maybe using your service one of these days. We're even in favor of bringing back that Diet Coke-swiping monkey from Friends if it means surcease from the sorrowful sight of Britney Spears dressed like a hippie.

In the mean time, we're stuck poring over the bones from this Sunday's Super Bowl commercials -- and man, what a mess. We pulled together a panel of four Vidiots -- Jason Snell, Philip Michaels, Lisa Schmeiser and Gregg Wrenn -- and one Vidiot significant other. Their mission: take time out from watching the most exciting Super Bowl since Joe Montana found John Taylor open in the end zone of Joe Robbie Stadium to separate the winners from the losers, the advertising wheat from the promotional chaff. What our panel found was a handful of commercials worth the 30 seconds spent watching them, a lot more that faded from the brain as soon as Fox cut back to John Madden at the telestrator and a few standouts that perfectly illustrate why TiVo's ability to skip over ads should qualify its inventors for one of them genius grants.

And our panelists also discovered a nostalgic pang for sock puppets they hadn't felt since Lambchop landed a gig with the Big Puppet Show in the Sky.


The Swinging for the Fences Award
Charles Schwab
Grade: A
What It's About: The ghostly voice of Hank Aaron tries to convince San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds to hang it up -- before he breaks The Hammer's all-time home-run record.
The Last Word: A funny, timely ad that's almost enough to make us choke down our severe dislike of the grouchy, unlovable Bonds.

The 'Hey, Weren't You Chip Diller in "Animal House?"' Prize
Grade: A-
What It's About: To persuade a dubious clerk to cash his check, Kevin Bacon rustles up a sextet of people to prove there's only six degrees of separation between the two of them.
The Last Word: Nice effort, but when someone manages to turn The Bob Newhart Show drinking game into a Visa Check Card commercial, then we'll really be impressed.

The It's No Fargo, But It'll Do Award
H&R Block
Grade: B-
What It's About: In a scene straight out of a Coen Brothers movie, a faceless bureaucrat drones on about tax law changes. Which shouldn't be a surprise since the Coen brothers actually directed the ad.
The Last Word: This really made all the excitement of accounting hit home.

The Good Budweiser Award
Budweiser/Bud Light
Grade: B+
What It's About: Cedric the Entertainer schools one of his friends in the art of pickup lines and an out-of-towner takes the "How Ya Doin'" question a little too literally. And a guy uses his falcon to retrieve Bud Lights from terrified restaurant patrons.
The Last Word: A trio of entertaining spots. But like the slobbering drunk down at your favorite watering hole who falls to pieces after one drink too many, perhaps Budweiser should have stopped at three.


The Bad Budweiser Award
Budweiser/Bud Light
Grade: C-
What It's About: A guy and a gal are shopping for greeting cards. She spends a lot of time searching for just the right one; he blindly grabs for one after carefully shopping for Budweiser. Meanwhile, a smoking hottie can only convince her load of a husband to come join her for a romantic interlude when she promises to let him drink Bud Light. Hilarious hijinks don't ensue.
The Last Word: I'm telling you, men and women are just sooooooooooooo different. Am I right about this, fellas? Huh? All right, my time is up -- tip your waiters and waitresses!

The Tragical History Tour Memorial Cup
Grade: C
What It's About: Almost-lifelike teen singing sensation Britney Spears takes us on a tour of Pepsi jingles from the last 50 years. See Britney as a '50s teenybopper! A '60s singing sensation! A filthy hippie! A Robert Palmer impersonator! And as her usual, skanky self!
The Last Word: Britney Spears in flower-power garb is supposed to make us nostalgic for Pepsi jingles? The only thing that makes us nostalgic for is the Chicago police, circa 1968.

The Canned Tuna, Extra Dolphin Award
Grade: D+
What It's About: A guy vacationing on a tropical isle meets a surly talking dolphin and discovers that they both use Yahoo.
The Last Word: Wait a minute -- the dolphin uses Yahoo? How? Does he use his flippers to type? Does the computer work underwater? Who's the dolphin's ISP? This ad raises more questions than it answers.

The Does Anybody Remember Laughter? Trophy
Grade: C-
What It's About: Cadillac unveils its new, ass-ugly box cars, while Led Zeppelin croons in the background about how it's been a long time since they rock 'n rolled. Apparently, it has.
The Last Word: Bobby, Jimmy -- if you needed the money, you should have just asked.

The This As Probably Would Have Been More Effective If We Hadn't Tasted Their Sandwiches Already Award
Grade: C-
What It's About: A devious market research guy tricks hungry Quizno's patrons into choosing sandwiches from rival delis by shooting them with blow darts and threatening them with guillotines.
The Last Word: Perhaps that's a little bit too much backstory for a couple of 30-second ads. Ah well, at least that Jared kid wasn't whining at us to lose weight.

The Have Another Hoagie, Tubby Prize
Grade: D+
What It's About: That Jared kid whines at us to lose weight.
The Last Word: We're beginning to like Jared better when he was morbidly obese.

The Just Say No... to Dumb Ad Ideas Award
Partnership for a Drug-Free America
Grade: D
What It's About: The next time you buy drugs, you might as well be writing a check out to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist friends.
The Last Word: We're guessing the heroin users who happened to be tuned into the game Sunday probably were in no shape to follow the ad's logic.

The Coming Soon to a One-Day Rental Section Near You Award
Many, many movie ads
Grade: C
What It's About: Chris Rock as a CIA agent! The Rock as a Scorpion King! Bruce Willis as WWII POW leading a daring escape ("Hoooo-gan!")! Vin Diesel as... um... a scary-looking bald dude...
The Last Word: If we wanted to see movie trailers, we'd head down to the local multiplex. What can we expect next Super Bowl Sunday -- THX ads? Coca-Cola's Movie Title Jumble? Commercial exhorting us to make tracks to the snack bar to load up on Goobers and Bon-bons?


The Huh? Award
Grade: C
What It's About: Even today, we have no earthly idea.
The Last Word: Our panel was bitterly divided on this one. Three panelists thought the ads were confusing and that the "What is mLife?" ads leading up to the big halftime unveiling were a waste of our time and AT&T's money. Two other panelists kind of liked the campaign -- but then again, neither one of them is typing this sentence. So we say it blows.

The We Said Socket Puppets, Not Clay Puppets Award
Lipton Brisk
Grade: C-
What It's About: Lipton fires the little clay celebrity puppets it's used to hawk iced tea because, as the ad says, "It sells itself."
The Last Word: It had better, because these ads sure don't help. On a side note, we can remember when Pat O'Brien used to anchor CBS's coverage of the NBA finals. And now? Now he's reduced to acting opposite of clay puppets. The message? Stay in school, kids.

The Smoke 'em If You Got 'em Trophy
Grade: D+
What It's About: Cigarettes are bad for you. Really bad. There's been studies.
The Last Word: Hey, we're all for stamping out teen smoking as much as the next guy. But if that means everyone becomes a sanctimonious prick like the folks in the Truth.com ads, we're tempted to descend upon the local elementary school with a pack of smokes and start telling the young people that cigarettes taste like sweet, sweet candy.

The Too Many Trips to the Well Award
Grade: B
What It's About: The darling of last year's Super Bowl ads, the E-Trade Monkey, stars in a disastrously conceived Busby Berkley-esque musical tribute to the E-Trade's new Web page.
The Last Word: We never thought we'd be disappointed in any advertisement that prominently features chimps, but here we are.

The Evil Budweiser Award
Grade: F
What It's About: The Budweiser Clydesdales take a trip up to New York and genuflect before the Manhattan skyline.
The Last Word: "You know what would really take the sting out of those terrorist attacks? A nice cold glass of Budweiser..." As tasteless as the Busch's family's awful beer.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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