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Commercial appeal

Pricey Super Bowl ads have to do more than just move a product: They have to move you. How do they do it?

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published February 4, 2007


Once again, experts of all kinds stand ready to dissect today's most anticipated TV event: the Super Bowl commercials.

Once again, they're going to get it all wrong.

That is, if they focus too much on whether the air time - priced at $2.6-million per 30-second spot - sells the products. Because that is completely not the point.

"It's the trade show of commercials," said Bob Horowitz, producer of CBS TV's annual salute to the best Super Bowl ads. "It's not about boosting your business - it's about the fact that you have to be there. Entertainment value over the (product) pitch."

Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, an Albuquerque, N.M., advertising agency that presents the online Adbowl poll, cited a formula for a classic Super Bowl ad: big idea, well-executed, with a surprise ending.

"It's like saying that making a blockbuster movie is easy," he said, laughing. "There has to be a story line, a climax and some sort of a delightful surprise."

Barbara Lippert, ad critic for Adweek magazine, says there are two top trends this year:

- Consumer-generated ads (three companies, Doritos, General Motors and the National Football League, have sponsored contests where the public submits ads).

- B-list celebrities (Robert Goulet for Emerald Nuts, ex-Mr. Britney Spears, Kevin Federline, for Nationwide Insurance) and a guy who claims several companies have offered to buy time so he can propose marriage.

"In the age of TiVo and fast-forwarding through commercials, the Super Bowl is the only program that will be watched by 100-million people in real time who actually pay attention to the commercials," Lippert said.

So how do you judge whether this year's crop of Super Bowl ads measures up?

We looked at the classic spots of the past, picking out a few key ingredients that make - or break - a long-remembered Super Bowl ad. Here's the breakdown.

 

TUNE IN: Super Bowl kickoff is at 6:25 p.m. today on WTSP-Ch. 10.

ON THE WEB: See more Super Bowl ads at links.tampabay.com.

The new stuff

K-Fed and Nationwide Insurance: The former Mr. Spears is shown in a bling-filled rap video until a crusty boss yells "Federline! Fries!" and we see he's actually daydreaming while working in a fast-food joint. A sorta-celebrity spoofing what he knows we all think of him = Super Bowl ad gold.

Doritos: One of the five finalists in Doritos' public contest features a guy taping up his bag with duct tape to stop his roommate; as he closes his door to leave, we see the roommate taped to it with more duct tape. Cool idea + funny twist = hot contender.

Budweiser: One of its nine Super Bowl commercials features a pet shop full of parrots re-enacting the famous "Whassup!" commercial. Cute animals + cool technology + beer = can't-miss commercial.

NFL: The winner of the NFL's American Idol-style commercial pitch competition, New Hampshire's Gino Bona, describes an NFL spot with teary fans washing off face paint and putting away foam fingers at the season's end. It's so good, I don't even need to see the finished spot, to be revealed today. Average guy + big idea + funny, poignant message = priceless.

Humor

When it works

The key ingredient for any Super Bowl commercial: the more absurd, the better (bonus points for using kids or animals). Business technology firm EDS's "cat herding" commercial - with hard-bitten cowboys talking up the tough life of wrangling cats - is a recent classic. Etrade's spot with a guy in an emergency room with money coming out his wazoo is another.

When it doesn't

Too mean, too creepy or just unfunny stuff is deadly. Who thought Bob Dole leering at Britney Spears would sell more Pepsi or farting horses would sell Budweiser?

Sex

When it works

When there's just enough sizzle to draw attention. Ali Landry tossing Doritos around a laundromat and Cindy Crawford turning young boys' heads with the help of a Pepsi excite without requiring a cold shower.

When it doesn't

When it's too much, too obvious or too creepy. GoDaddy.com makes a crusade of producing spots the networks won't air, including one with a woman washing a car that looks more like a strip-club lap dance.

Celebrities

When it works

Big names work when they make fun of themselves or twist their own images. Coca-Cola's spot with defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Greene tenderly handing a kid his jersey after a football game is one of the best-remembered Super Bowl commercials ever.

When it doesn't

A celebrity can overwhelm the spot, making the commercial more about the star. Nobody remembers what Diddy was pushing in his 2005 Super Bowl ad - Diet Pepsi - but his ride sure looked fly.

Big ideas

When it works

The right notion at the right time (bonus points for using cool visual technology to make memorable images). Apple's 1984 ad introducing its Macintosh computer is the best-remembered example; Anheuser Busch's 2005 spot showing the public applauding troops headed to Iraq counts, too.

When it doesn't

When it's too convoluted or depressing. What does a miraculously walking Christopher Reeve have to do with an investment firm? Not much in the minds of viewers, as Nuveen Investments discovered.