A Letter From the Editor

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I recently had a root canal, and I enjoyed it more than watching Super Bowl XXXV. Call me crazy, or a foreigner (guilty on both counts), but four hours of watching hulking vessels of testosterone attempt to bulldoze everything in their path is not my idea of quality time. To be sure, the battle between the Ravens and the Giants was a tea party compared to the jingoistic celebration of the ten-year-old Gulf war victory that preceded it. What images of smiling four-star generals and soaring fighter jets (including a Stealth bomber) have to do with sportsmanship, I'll probably never understand. The grandiose footage had the surreal, ominous overtones of a military parade put on by any two-bit dictatorship: farcical and unsettling at once.

Thankfully, that's as far as the cultural disconnect went. Plenty of commercials - the reason I'd tuned in - hit the spot, providing the excitement that, curiously, the combined talents of Norman Schwarzkopf, 'N Sync, and a bevy of 300-pound linebackers failed to generate.

I counted close to 80 spots during the game, not including movie trailers and network promos. Of course, the majority were predictably awful, just like most commercials during any other program. (Thank God/Allah/Bernbach for the commercial skip button on my Replay digital VCR's remote, although I didn't permit myself to use it this time, being on duty and all.)

It's tempting to verbally flog the creators of the many subpar spots, but I have neither the space nor sufficient reservoirs of vitriol. Their punishment will be their shame: the shame of boring - make that annoying - some 80 million viewers with soulless, bloodless and idea-less come-ons for the likes of Blockbuster Video, Fujitsi, and Dentyne Ice chewing gum. And the shame of pissing away about two million dollars of the client's money for lack of inspiration, elementary salesmanship, and creative judgment. But even the commercials I did enjoy had something that marred them: a vaguely derivative feel. This was a Super Bowl that saw few Big Ideas and no startling new trends. Creatively, Madison Avenue seems to be on a comfortable course that is just a few degrees removed from lethargy.

But let's take Johnny Mercer's advice and accentuate the positive: of the 80 commercials, 23, or 29 percent, made my list of those I could bear to watch repeatedly. Not bad (but not quite up to last year's number either). Good old Budweiser effortlessly took up two places on the shortlist. The brand's creative performance (kudos to DDB) was indicative of the overall status quo, which remained unchallenged; all the brands and their agencies in my Unofficial Creativity Top 10 had already distinguished themselves with excellent advertising in previous years. The only surprise was the relative weakness of the new Volkswagen spots. Based on Arnold Advertising's past work, consistently likeable and frequently brilliant, I'd expected their latest VW efforts to easily woo and wow me. But I found the commercial of the Volkswagen up a tree just plain confusing. And how many more comical spots are we going to see with bears chasing people (in this case, a VW driver who'd been petting a cub in the wild)?

Quite a few Super Bowl commercials were remarkably self-referential, including my two Bud favorites. There's the very funny spot with three white preppies who enact their own version of last year's `Whazzup' blockbuster, but substituting the phrase "What are you doing?," spoken in affected boarding-school tones. Another Bud takeoff of the original Charles Stone version is a big sci-fi production in which an alien returns to his planet, where he is asked what he's learned during his stay on Earth. Just one word, apparently: the inevitable "Whazzup," which he delivers with the requisite gaping maw and protruding tongue_- to great effect, as the entire alien population is soon whazzupping like mad.

Another self-conscious advertising reference occurred in an E*Trade commercial, courtesy of Goodby, featuring a chimp on horseback who happens upon a dot-com ghost town. In one shot, a wrecking ball smashes through the facade of an e-business gone bust, scattering debris, including an object that looks suspiciously like the Pets.com sock puppet. Touche!

Now, I'll be the first to admit that such allusions can be navel-gazing, insider-pleasing indulgences, but given the popularity of the original spots, that didn't strike me as the case here. Besides, it's all in the acting, the editing and the overall execution - and those happened to be flawless.

Much as I liked these commercials, my perfect Super Bowl moment this year came when an announcer intoned that "Super Bowl 35 is sponsored by exit wounds," which kinda caught me by surprise. Turns out that Exit Wounds is a new action movie.

With any luck, and Mike Ovitz willing, next year's Super Bowl will be sponsored by Rotting Flesh.

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