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In Ad Bowl battle, cost doesn't ensure quality

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By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2000


Let other critics wring their hands about the rampant commercialism and hype. The rest of us know the coolest Super Bowl show Sunday had nothing to do with Phil Collins, Enrique Iglesias or 10,000 dancing klieg lights.

It was the commercials.

And with an aggressive batch of dot-com advertisers shelling out an average $2.2-million for their 30-second shots at glory, Sunday's Ad Bowl shaped up as a spirited clash between Old and New School TV selling.

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The established companies came out strong, with Federal Express plopping a delivery truck into the Wizard of Oz (apparently, the Munchkins need helium to help with the high voice thing).

7up pitchman Orlando Jones -- who discovered what people will really take snapshots of if you announce a "Show Us Your Can" contest -- almost made up for corporate parent Pepsi Co.'s listless Pepsi One ad on a bobbing boat.

Among the new breed, information technology company EDS came up with the best meld of cybergeek cool and big-money style -- basing a stylish commercial on the insider term "herding cats." A group of hard-bitten cowboys showed off battle scars and their fluffy friends while guiding a group of computer-generated felines over a dusty plain.

Florida-area companies fared pretty well, with Tampa's Kforce.com showing a jobseeker walking down a Times Square-style red light district as a sleazy pitchman offers him hot jobs and monster jobs -- a sly reference to Kforce's biggest competitor.

Orlando stationery company OurBeginning.com also made a respectable showing with its "Angry Brides" commercial, centered on a fistfight that breaks out in a bridal store that only offers three brands of invitations.

In perhaps the day's most jarring spot, Christopher Reeve starred in a commercial for Nuveen Investments that employed computer technology to give the paralyzed actor use of his legs -- at least, on film -- for a commercial that looked forward to a future filled with medical miracles.

(As a convenient tie-in, Good Morning America's Diane Sawyer interviews Reeve today on ABC, asking why he did the ad, which aired on ABC Sunday night. Ain't synergy grand?)

Local affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 even got into the act, with goony photos of anchors Brendan McLaughlin, Bob Kendrick and Jay Crawford tossing around footballs. Keep your day jobs, dudes.

There's nothing like a cheeky mascot to bring the beer out of your nose during a commercial break -- and, despite having cool-school legend Samuel L. Jackson's voice, Hotjobs.com's irreverent glowing hand just wasn't cutting it.

Instead, Pets.com's sock puppet mascot stole the show, warbling an off-key version of Chicago's If You Leave Me Now for all his furry friends coping with masters at work (the fake microphone in his hand was a nice touch).

A few Super Bowl veterans also faltered this time out. Particularly, Monster.com, which fielded the most attention-getting spot last year -- featuring children saying they wanted to grow up to be forced into early retirement -- could offer only a stark ad built around Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken. Mountain Dew took home the Paid Too Much For It award, with two spots: one featuring a Gen Xer who chases down a cheetah on his bike, and another with four men singing Queen's rock hit Bohemian Rhapsody. Anheuser-Busch, the single biggest advertiser in the game, offered a host of animal-centered spots that were mildly amusing (hockey great Wayne Gretzky makes a cool designated driver for a Zamboni-style ice smoothing tractor, though).

Despite the loads of flashy "dot-com-edy," my favorite Super Bowl ad was the simplest: Offered by Brittanica.com, it featured a screen flashing questions such as, "What do refs do the rest of the week?"

In a blizzard of blaring images, sometimes the smallest voice gets the most attention.

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