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Ads That Pushed Our Usual (Well-Worn) Buttons

In recent months, Americans have been disappointed and appalled by Wall Street, banks, the big-budget film “Australia,” investment counselors, Detroit, the governors of at least two states, hedge fund managers and even the geese at La Guardia, which used to know better than to interfere with those metal birds they fly among.

After Sunday, you could add Super Bowl advertising to that lengthening list of letdowns.

Few commercials that ran during Super Bowl XLIII on NBC offered viewers anything special. To paraphrase a line from the movie “Sabrina,” you could pick some ads out of a hat blindfolded and come up with better ones.

Although the country’s circumstances are far different than in previous years, many of the more than 50 spots shown on Sunday would not have seemed out of place in any Super Bowl of the last decade or two. All the elements that are supposed to make for successful big-game commercials were displayed, over and over again, as if bonuses were being awarded on Madison Avenue for the least creative briefs.

Slapstick violence? Check. Celebrities? Check. Sex, and occasional sexism? Ditto. Nostalgia? Sure. Using opera as background music? Uh-huh. Babies, animals, baby animals — check, check, check.

Even some approaches billed as new — like a pair of commercials in 3-D, for the animated film “Monsters vs. Aliens” and SoBe Lifewater — were not so; the Coca-Cola Company ran a spot in 3-D for Diet Coke in 1989.

It was regrettable, a missed opportunity, that so few of the two dozen sponsors dared to be different on Sunday. Perhaps they were afraid they had to play it safe because of the economy and the national mood.

As a result, commercials for many brands — among them Bud Light, Coke Zero, Doritos and Pepsi Max — channeled the Three Stooges with broad physical comedy.

If you enjoy watching men tossed out a window, struck by a bus, hit by a golf club, tackled by a football player or laid low by a snow globe to the crotch, then this year’s Super Bowl was for you.

Animal lovers had a night to remember as advertisers like Budweiser, Castrol, Cheetos, Monster.com and Pedigree brought out a menagerie of birds, bulls, chimpanzees, dogs, horses, lizards, monkeys, moose and warthogs.

A particularly worn device for Super Bowl ads — an overreliance on familiar faces — got a real workout. A lifetime subscription to People was not necessary to spot, in more than a dozen spots, stars who included Muhammad Ali, Alec Baldwin, Bob Dylan, MC Hammer, Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan, Ray Lewis, Ed McMahon, Conan O’Brien, Danica Patrick, Troy Polamalu, Will.i.am, Serena Williams and Tiger Woods.

Thankfully, some sponsors recalled the advice Franklin D. Roosevelt gave about fear and produced commercials that tried to speak to consumers the way they are today rather than V, X or XX Super Bowls ago.

For instance, Careerbuilder.com, owned by a consortium of media companies like Gannett and McClatchy, offered support to workers worried about changing jobs in a wretched economy.

The commercial, by Wieden & Kennedy, used exaggerated humor to suggest that “even if you make loads of money” — symbolized by a man drinking gold bars liquefied in a blender — “it may be time” to look around.

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Spots for Frosted Flakes, sold by Kellogg , and Pedigree dog food, sold by Mars, struck the type of altruistic note that resonates in tough times. The Frosted Flakes commercial, by the Leo Burnett unit of the Publicis Groupe , promoted a program to rebuild children’s fields and playgrounds. The Pedigree spot promoted an adoption drive (who could resist the words “Help us help dogs”?). The Pedigree agency is TBWA/Chiat/Day, part of the TBWA Worldwide division of the Omnicom Group .

The E*Trade Group put the babies in its commercial to good use, allaying concerns about the economy by telling viewers, “It’s times like these E*Trade can re-plan your investments.” The spot was created by the Grey unit of the Grey Group, part of WPP.

And who enduring a recession does not like something for nothing? Denny’s ended its commercial, by the Goodby, Silverstein & Partners division of Omnicom, with an offer of a free Grand Slam breakfast at participating restaurants for eight hours on Tuesday.

The Business of the Super Bowl
The Business of the Super Bowl

Also, the Universal theme park in Orlando, Fla. — part of the NBC Universal unit of General Electric— concluded its commercial during halftime with a giveaway on a Web site (universalheroes.com) of 100,000 free seven-day tickets.

What follows is an assessment of some of the other high and low points among the commercials shown nationally on NBC during the Super Bowl. The spots are among more than 40 provided to reporters before the game.

ANHEUSER-BUSCH A decision by the Anheuser-Busch division of Anheuser-Busch InBev to play up its famous Budweiser Clydesdales paid off in an example of animal acts that actually worked.

A spot about a love affair between a Clydesdale and a circus horse, by the DDB Worldwide unit of Omnicom, tugged at the heartstrings. And a commercial providing a fanciful version of how the Clydesdales came to America, by Waylon Advertising, deftly blended humor, schmaltz and patriotism.

Another smart move was to capitalize on the dry wit of Conan O’Brien for a Bud Light spot, by DDB, that spoofed the penchant among money-mad celebrities to endorse products overseas. The make-believe catch phrase in the commercial, “Vroom, vroom, party starter,” may well become an actual one.

CASH4GOLD Years from now, if the world dodges another Depression, viewers will smile when they recall that a company paying money for scrap gold ran a spot on the vaunted Super Bowl. Yet unlike advertisers that seemingly selected celebrities at random, Cash4Gold, part of Albar Precious Metal Refining, picked its stars — Mr. McMahon and MC Hammer — carefully: their financial difficulties have been widely chronicled.

And if the world does not dodge another Depression? Look for Super Bowl XLIV to feature a commercial for Cash4Blood. The Cash4Gold agencies are Arnold Worldwide and Euro RSCG Edge, units of Havas.

HULU Another shrewd choice of a celebrity, in this instance Mr. Baldwin, echoing the character he portrays so hilariously on the sitcom “30 Rock” — which is, not coincidentally, among the TV shows computer users can watch on hulu.com, a joint venture of NBC Universal and the News Corporation. The commercial, by Crispin Porter & Bogusky, a unit of MDC Partners, had the best (and most warped) sense of humor of any Super Bowl spot.

PEPSICO A commercial by TBWA/Chiat/Day, featuring Mr. Dylan and Will.i.am, rewrites history by presenting Pepsi-Cola as the choice of peaceniks, hippies and other youthful rebels. In reality, the Pepsi-Cola parent, PepsiCo, was led at the time by Donald Kendall, a friend of Richard M. Nixon’s, and the soft drink was considered the Republican soda.

SOBE LIFEWATER The premise of the spot in 3-D for SoBe Lifewater, sold by a unit of PepsiCo, was that it is inherently funny to watch football players dance ballet. The Super Bowls of the 1960s are calling: They want their stereotype back. The outdated concept, alas, undercut the appeal of a catchy song, “SoBelieve,” written for the commercial. Agency: the Arnell Group unit of Omnicom.

Copyright 2008 NYTimes.com. All rights reserved. This article: Ads That Pushed Our Usual (Well-Worn) Buttons, originally appeared on NYTimes.com.

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