© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2003
If TV is a mirror of society, what can we make of the orgy of consumerism and commercialism that is the modern-day Super Bowl telecast?
An ever-increasing percentage of Super Bowl viewers (a total 86.8-million watched last year's telecast) say they watch the show just for the commercials, which helps turn each contest into a big-ticket showcase for innovative ads urging fans to buy, drink, watch and eat their way to consumer heaven.
This year, the roster of Super Bowl ads seemed a little more restrained than in years past. Two of 2003's most talked-about commercials -- Miller Lite's "Catfight" and Nike's soccer streaker ad -- didn't air Sunday, while Pepsi Twist's buzzed-about clip featuring Ozzy Osbourne didn't require a single bleeped word (what the @#$$#@ is up with that?).
Instead, viewers were treated to a guy who has trained his dog to kick open a fire hydrant in sweltering heat (Sierra Mist); 7-foot 5-inch Houston Rockets center Yao Ming repeating his name to a blinged-out clerk who would only say "yo" while pointing to a no checks sign (Visa); and a guy in an upside-down clown costume who walked into a bar and drank a beer, making it look as if he were placing the bottle in an, um, sensitive area (then he asked for a hot dog from a disbelieving bartender).
Most of these commercials couldn't possibly live up to their pregame hype. Universal Pictures' big reveal of the computer-generated star in its superhero movie The Hulk looked more like a gussied-up PlayStation image, while a spot for Arnold Schwarzenegger's upcoming Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines had less footage than fans can watch online.
Gatorade's anticipated Michael Jordan commercial -- in which a modern-day Jordan plays one-on-one with his Chicago Bulls-era self and then faces a version of himself in college -- felt flat, mostly because Jordan's recent struggle to compete as a Washington Wizard had already reminded us all how much greater he was in years past.
Still, the Super Bowl's status as a magnet for young, male viewers ensured that most of the spots featured soft drinks, action-oriented movies, food products and beer (for the second year in a row, beermaker Anheuser Busch was the night's biggest advertiser, with 11 spots).
Best uses of an athlete in a commercial: tied between Reebok's fictional "Terry Tate: Office Linebacker" -- who tackled office workers for taking long breaks or making long-distance phone calls -- and Visa's spot with twins Ronde and Tiki Barber, who face a store clerk who isn't sure whether the ID Tiki presents is of the New York Giants running back or his brother, Buccaneers cornerback Ronde.
But the night's cheekiest moment came courtesy of NBC, which once again targeted the bloated Super Bowl halftime with a nimble programming alternative -- this time, a special version of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update featuring heady spoofs of American Idol, Lord of the Rings (including a spot-on Gollum impersonation by Chris Kattan) and the Super Bowl halftime itself (with Tracy Morgan as a perspiration-drenched Bobby Brown borrowing $5 from a wailing Whitney Houston).
My favorite line: WU anchor Tina Fey noting the Golden Globes' "triumph of anorexia" while flashing a photo of tutu-clad awards presenter Lara Flynn Boyle. The punchline: "Boyle is finally thin enough to wear actual Barbie clothes."
Beats a bejeweled, leather-wearing Shania Twain any time (though Jimmy Fallon's reedy falsetto warbling with the Jimmy Fallon Situation made me want to TiVo up No Doubt and Sting again, especially when his psychedelic nonsense ran over into game time).
Every broadcaster uses the Super Bowl as a chance to hype its programming. But Sunday's deluge of ABC ads made it look as if the alphabet network had some trouble selling its $2.2-million-per-30-seconds commercial slots -- offering up promos for its Dragnet remake, a relocated-to-Monday Practice, new Monday shows Veritas and Miracles and a special post-game Alias.
(An official at ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 said last week that, if the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, extended postgame coverage would likely push the telecasts of Alias and nighttime talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live into the wee hours.)
In the end, the big show's ad lineup faltered like the Oakland Raiders offense -- making this critic wonder if the Super Bowl of advertising hasn't passed its prime already.