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Hey, did I have the right channel on?

Because if I did, the big story of advertising's Super Bowl XXXVI isn't what took place. It's what was missing.

For all the talk of ostentatious displays of advertiser patriotism and muted, post-9/11 sobriety, only three spots-and only one with a commercial message-referenced the current troubles. Fox's broadcast was dependably over the top, but Madison Avenue displayed astonishing restraint. And humor, as always, was king.

This is good. Nobody wanted to see the Kill Osama Bowl.

Also conspicuous by its absence was the cavalcade of fleshpots that had characterized the past few Super Bowls. This year's advertising roster was essentially a Sex Free Zone. Even Britney Spears, last seen writhing around a pole like a dirty stripper, was as modest as could be.

And finally, for the first time in memory, there was not a single EHD (extravagant, humiliating disaster). Yes, there were a few clinkers, but nothing you could describe as a complete fiasco. No utterly pointless (fill-in-the-blank).com. No "Lemmings" insult to the target audience. No gazillion-dollar Alamo Rent-a-Car boondoggle. No mercenary hate-crime from Just for Feet. Not even a good, solid two-bit production embarrassment from Autobytel.

What we saw, despite everyone's expectations, was a pleasant evening of mainly excellent advertising. Oh, and a football game. Who won? Whenever the commercial pods ended, I went to the bathroom.

4 stars.

Pepsi. BBDO Worldwide, New York. Simply irresistible. This 90-second Joe Pytka masterpiece uses teen sex kitten Britney Spears-in an unusually demure performance-to take us all on a trip through the generations of the Pepsi Generation. The spot (and its various components in separate :30s) reinforces Pepsi's youthful image while being adorable, fascinating and fun from its dated b&w beginning to its charming, winking end.

3 1/2 stars.

AT&T Wireless. Ogilvy & Mather, New York. Marvelous 15-second teaser spots beg the question "What's mlife?" and a midgame :60 begins to answer it. In the greatest example of navel-gazing since the Levi's "elevator" spot, AT&T takes us on a tour of bellybuttons young and old. Actually, from old to young; this spot works backwards to childbirth when we see the umbilicus about to be cut. The inspired proposition: "We were meant to lead a wireless life." Oh, mlife is AT&T's next-generation wireless network. Details to follow, but point brilliantly made.

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Ogilvy, New York. A powerful proposition: When you buy drugs, you may well be subsidizing terrorism. It's a dramatic way to counter the "victimless crime" argument and to portray the ramifications in the starkest terms. Legalization advocates will seize on the premise to propose removing drugs from the black economy altogether, but this campaign serves the government's purpose more than it undercuts it.

Charles Schwab & Co. BBDO, New york. Another unexpected and yet perfectly appropriate use of famous athletes in a financial services spot. This one has baseball slugger Barry Bonds hearing voices, a la Field of Dreams. Only they're coming from the PA system. Home-run king Hank Aaron is trying to talk Bonds into retirement before he overtakes the record. Bonds-true to form-is only irritated. Big laughs.

HotJobs. Brand Architecture International, New York. In a job interview, a candidate responds to all the interviewers' questions by simply repeating them verbatim. It seems disrespectful and self-defeating until you realize she's seeking work as a court stenographer. Very, very clever.

M&M's. BBDO, New York. A weary traveler checks into a chichi hotel, with all its amenities, including the chocolate on his pillow at bedtime. The chocolate turns out to be a neurotic, talking M&M. The message: when you think chocolates, don't forget M&M's. Laugh-out-loud funny.

Anheuser-Busch. DDB Worldwide, Chicago. Cedric plays Cyrano in a barroom with hilarious results. A Texan visits Soprano-ville, N.J., with hilarious results. A man and woman shop, very differently, for a Valentine's Day card, with hilarious results. And a slapstick gag about satin bed sheets, pretty hilarious, too. Furthermore, they're all still, one way or another, about beer. Oh, and add to the list a freaky spot from Fusion Idea Labs, Chicago, about a falcon trained to hunt Bud Light. Terrifying and ... hilarious.

3 stars

Levi's. TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco. Chosen among three spots offered to Internet voters, this Spike Jonze-directed ad features an unusually loose-limbed guy strolling down the street in flyweight Levi's jeans. "Crazy Legs," the spot is called, and it uses digital magic to have the actor's upper body move normally while from the hips down he looks like a marionette on Quaaludes. Strangely arresting.

Cadillac. D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich. This is lovely advertising that at once reminds us of Cadillac's revered place in our cultural memories and introduces the striking, sexy new bodies which at long last do justice to the cars' impressive guts. The slogan is "Break Through." This advertising, on this venue, doesn't quite-but over time it will.

Budweiser. Hill, Holliday, Connors Cosmopulos, Boston. Truthfully, the sentiment and obviousness of seeing a Clydesdale team bow with respect toward lower Manhattan made us wince. But the film is beautiful and as understated as such a mournful paean can get, and we understand that most viewers will be touched. Unnecessary? In our view, yes. Cashing in on tragedy? No. Arnold worldwide, boston. Ex-mayor Rudolph Giuliani, with a sadly incomplete Manhattan skyline behind him, thanks America for its support. Rudy looks a little reptilian (something about his eyes) and his delivery is a bit stiff. No matter. The sentiments seem genuine, and's quiet sponsorship-announced only with an ending logo shot-is duly noted.

2 1/2 stars

E-Trade. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. Look, the chimp is funny, and the tongue-in-cheek Busby Berkley routine is eye-catching, but all the visual noise, executive cameos and plot twists obscure-rather than call attention to-the message about the re-engineered E-Trade. (The follow-up campaign, however, is exceptional. Stay tuned.)

Visa Check Card. BBDO, New York. In the latest twist on trying to cash a check without ID, the victim is actor Kevin Bacon, who has to prove his connection-via six degrees of separation-to the cashier. The "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" is a clever reference, but a little inside for this mass audience. And the where's-your-i.d. gimmick is still a dumb way to position a debit card. Yo, everyone carries i.d.

Lipton Brisk. BBDO, New York. A commercial within a commercial. Ha ha. Actually, there are some big laughs here (anger and resentment in the puppet community, for instance). And the selling proposition about the new, improved Brisk is repeated to a farethewell. The problem is, the jokes and the message have nothing to do with one another. It's entertainment + sell entwined like a double helix but never intersecting.

Anheuser-Busch. DDB, Chicago. Robot demolition derby, a goofy designated-driver message and Busch scions talking 125 years of heritage. Just FYI, Little Big Horn also has 125 years of heritage.

Quizno's. Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York. For the third time (previously Wendy's and Domino's), Freeman trots out the consumer-research gag-this time about an insane method, involving an anaesthetizing blowgun dart, for fudging the results. The timing is a little clunky on this one, and the toasted-sandwich USP squeaks through but not as vividly as it might have.

Universal Studios Orlando Resort. davidandgoliath, Los Angeles. This is a parody of resort-destination ads, with all the generic elements-plus Frankenstein's monster, roller coasters and other incongruities woven in unexpectedly. The atypical elements soon overwhelm the parody, however, creating as much confusion as intrigue.

American Legacy Foundation (truth). Arnold Worldwide, Boston. More video documentation of guerrilla anti-tobacco tactics in progress, focusing on the lethal poisons in cigarette smoke. The message and the tone are strong, but the intentionally primitive camcorder look of the production is overdone and the images annoyingly difficult to register.

Dockers. Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, San Francisco. This is an extraordinarily ingenious positioning: creased trousers being the male equivalent of the "little black dress." It is also a very good creative idea: squeezing men into actual little black dresses. But the execution goes off in too many directions and damn near fails to make its point.

Yahoo! Black Rocket, San Francisco. A very charming encounter between a vacationer and a talking dolphin (the voice actor is fabulous). The vacationer found his obscure tropical getaway using the Yahoo! search engine-by which means the dolphin also learned to speak. I know the claim is exaggerated on porpoise, but-as Yahoo truly is an instant gateway to vast knowledge-wouldn't it be better to be literal?

2 stars

Visa. BBDO, New York. Footrace between world-class sprinter and NFL star winds up including a racehorse and a race car. The message: Visa sponsors everything. Um, isn't that like advertising that you do a lot of advertising? Like, who cares?

Subway. Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer Euro/RSCG, New York. Jared, Subway's poster dieter, is shown kibitzing strangers about the low-fat eats. His acting is decidedly better than previous displays of rigor mortis, but we see him from the neck up only. Hmmm. Arnold, boston. Funky (and distracting) graphics accompany action shots of an Olympian in training. The punch line is that, apart from the glamour and thrill of competition, this guy needs a job. And is helping. Ah, when Olympic tie-ins force advertising themes on you incompatible with selling your product.

H&R Block. Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. The Coen Bros., borrowing a page from Barton Fink, create a dated, austere, sepia-toned, institutional, Ayn Rand hell of suffocating tax-code bureaucracy. It perfectly sets up the problem of the tax code's impenetrable mysteries. It oversteps, however, by proposing that H&R Block's army of migrant tax preparers are specially qualified to penetrate. In other words, it isn't true.

Philip Morris. Y&R Advertising, new york. Lame spots remind parents to browbeat the kids about smoking. Once again, no matter what unsavory motives we can presume (and we can), the net direct effect of the ads will be positive.

1 1/2 stars

Taco Bell. FCB, San Francisco. Guys ogling a steak quesadilla as if it were a luxury car. Pretty stupid, if you ask me.

Blockbuster. Doner, Southfield, Mich. A rabbit and a guinea pig, thanks to the miracle of digital effects that have long since ceased surprising or delighting anybody, talk and dance outside of a Blockbuster store. It's kind of cute, actually, albeit for no apparent reason. Take the Budweiser lizards, remove the wit, and: voila... the Blockbuster rodents!

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