Super Bowl Ads Show The Darndest Things

By Christine Sparta

Viewers of Sunday’s Super Bowl such unusual things during commercial breaks as Christopher Reeve walking again, World Wrestling Federation commercials without wrestlers, and e-cowboys making online reservations to get out of town.

“I hated the Christopher Reeve spot, said Tim Cuprisin, a television and radio columnist at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “All advertising is basically manipulative, but I thought this pulled the wrong chains – I don’t think the connection was there.” The image of the paralyzed actor walking might be plausible for a hospital chain or medical Web site, but not for an investment company, Cuprisin said.

One winner in this year’s Super Bowl ad competition was Anheuser-Busch, which aired a variety of spots, the columnist said. USA Today’s annual Ad Meter poll agreed. It ranked three of the beer spots among the 10 most popular Super Bowl commercials. Their appeal was they were neither mean nor manipulative, said Cuprisin, pleased at the departure from “babes and bikinis” in beer ads seen in years past, and at the passing of Bud’s talking frogs.

While he liked the spot for E-Trade, a commercial that used a likeable monkey to tout the stock trading site, he says that dot-com commercials have a long way to in terms of effectiveness. “Most of the e-commerce commercials are all attitude, and I think it’s unclear what they’re selling.” He cited’s spot – which is based around the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken and ends with a little girl floating in the air – as an example of the dictatorship of the creative side of advertising.

Wrestling fans might have missed stars like The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin in the World Wrestling Federation spots, which instead depicted excited wrestling fans in a nursing home, maternity ward and beauty pageant.

“That surprised a lot of folks,” WWF senior vice president and spokesman Jim Byrne says. “The cool thing about the commercials was the payoff, the unabashed enthusiasm of WWF fans in unexpected places.” He said ABC “compelled” WWF to buy a minimum of three spots – and then rejected one portraying elderly rabble-rousers in a nursing home.

“They looked at it in storyboard form and weren’t enamoured by it,” says Byrne. “I guess it was difficult for them to imagine retirement-aged people could be as exuberant or enthusiastic as we depicted them.” To compensate for the rejected ad, the maternity ward spot aired twice during the pre-game show.

A call to ABC Sports was not returned.

To maintain an element of surprise on game day, Byrne says, WWF showed only a truncated version of the beauty pageant spot on its Web site in advance to entice surfers to tune in. The three commercials are now available on the site (

The rejected spot aired on USA Networks during WWF’s Halftime Heat wrestling special. It was the second year for Halftime Heat, which featured clips of recent Pay-Per-View grappling events and a much-anticipated interview with Austin.

Byrne says ABC’s halftime show “would have been much more suitable for the Olympics. There was a real niche for counter programming.”

Critic Cuprisin thinks the WWF’s contribution succeeded in reaching the “definitely male, obnoxious” demographic it was intended for – a group unlikely to endure “one of the goofiest halftime shows.”

Nevertheless, WWF’s beauty pageant spot topped USA Today’s online poll, followed by an E-trade spot featuring a monkey. WWF’s victory in the poll certainly wasn’t hurt by the fact that the WWF site linked to to make it easier for wrestling fans to vote.

The most unpopular commercials, according to the online poll, were’s and Nuveen’s Christopher Reeve spot.

While the Ad Bowl may have disappointed, it was offset by the quality of the football game between the Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams. The outcome was in doubt until the final play. As Cuprisin said, “You don’t have big markets and sexy teams. It was a surprise bonus to get a game that was worth watching.”

The tight game actually helped one spot gain attention. Football lovers were still tuned in when, a Web site that offers travel bargains on short notice, hit the airwaves.

“We got a great response out of it,” said David Miranda, CEO and founder of the site, who gambled on a tail-end spot right at the buzzer.

Web-savvy people logged on immediately afterward, driving site traffic to a peak of 300,000 visits per minute, Miranda says, boasting that the spot eclipsed the popularity of last year’s and spots

“Dot-coms have become more prominent. Dot-coms are more a part of our everyday life. It wasn’t surprising,” says Miranda, a former vice president of brand marketing for Holiday Inn Worldwide.

Maybe. But in Cuprisin’s view, few online companies have really impacted consumers with dot-com ads that often have ambiguous story lines.

“Most people that watched the last Super Bowl and this one probably still don’t have a clue what is,” he says.

Miranda says his 30-second spot, the company’s first, is reminiscent of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. It depicts a group called the e-cowboys who make cyber reservations to hustle out of town at the last minute to ditch a tornado. The spot cost over $550,000 and included special effects by Adam Seiden of Industrial Light & Magic, a company that worked on feature films such as Twister and Jurassic Park.

When it comes to Super Bowl commercials, Miranda eschews previews and clings to the notion of the element of surprise.

“It’s like reading a book and then seeing the movie. It takes the fun out of it. We’re happy we didn’t,” he says.

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