It lasts 30 seconds. Assembled frame by frame, for 100 million eyes to see. It is the Olympics ad, the nexus of art and industry, the organization of ideas and electrons in the name of commerce. No, make that 200 million eyes. They come in pairs. They come in pairs to see what they shall see.
And what shall they see? Who will rule the Olympics of advertising? Who will crawl back home, abject, on the ground glass of ignominy, and who will win the precious, glittering gold?
--How this column would begin if John Tesh were writing it. But he isn't, so:
Man, do these ads ever stink.
Not all of them, of course, but lots of them. And most of those that don't stink are merely ordinary, and the best fall far short of extraordinary, which is ironic since the commercialization of these Olympics makes Peter Ueberroth's mercenary L.A. organizing committee look like the Little Sisters of the Poor.
That's why it was so dramatic on opening night when the final torchbearer appeared majestically above the horizon and it was the legendary Muhammad Ali.
We were expecting The Puttermans.
Well, why not? Amid all the huffing and puffing about the purity of sport and the Olympic ideal, the real story was $5 billion in sponsorships and related marketing efforts, such as the very pure and idealistic McDonald's Corp.'s "When the USA Wins You Win Sweepstakes."
No, it isn't easy to embrace the largely mythical Olympic spirit, to make it relevant to your advertising message, to seem a humble "proud sponsor" while aerobically patting yourself, and still to stand out among 40 other advertisers. But how the difficulty shows.
General Motors Corp. [via N.W. Ayer & Partners, Detroit], bereft of a genuine connection, is reduced to showing how its vehicles transport athletes to events--a claim beyond the reach of almost no transportation outfit, except of course the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. United Parcel Service [Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York], likewise, congratulates itself for delivering all the medals to Atlanta. (Whew, now there's a logistical achievement! Maybe that's what went wrong for the Chinese swim team. Their hormones went parcel post.)
And Home Depot [Richards Group, Dallas], in the most ludicrous comparison of the Games, strains to associate itself with Olympic coaches. "They lead. They encourage. They challenge. They teach. They listen. They push. They inspire. And, finally, when the time is right, they watch. As America's home improvement coaches, the people of the Home Depot believe in building dreams, just like the coaches of the athletes of the 1996 Olympic Games."
Hey, coach, which aisle for the Sheetrock nails?
So many banalities. So many gooey sentimentalities. And so many irrelevancies. A John Hancock Life Insurance Co. spot [Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston] shows us historical moments of Olympic triumph. Um, the insurance connection? A McDonald's spot [ Leo Burnett USA, Chicago] shows us a small fry morphing into a world-class sprinter and looking wistfully back, thanking God, no doubt, that he didn't eat those Happy Meals. And Pennzoil [Lois/EJL, Los Angeles] identifies itself as a "proud broadcast sponsor" of the TV coverage--advertising, in other words, that it is an advertiser. Pompous, sneaky and ridiculous.
Meanwhile, every few minutes some actual Olympic competition comes on, whereupon it is no longer advertisers' overwrought production yielding underwhelming results, but NBC's overwrought production yielding underwhelming results. For every heart-pounding thrill such as Tom Dolan's winning medley and Kerri Strug's vault, there are endless hours of Dick Enberg and Summer Sanders to endure.
(Imagine the payoff if McDonald's had gone with "The When Summer Sanders Says, 'That's What the Olympics Are All About,' You Win Sweepstakes.") But then, just when you despair of seeing any good TV at all, come the advertising analogs of Dolan and Strug: those charming (3 1/2 stars, not 4, as mistakenly awarded last week, due to an IBM computer error) Lee Riveted jeans spots [ Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis]; that warmly funny McDonald's spot, where the kid serves a soft ice cream cone as if it were the Olympic torch; that adorable Saturn spot [Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco] about the U.S. Bicycling Team; that cute Bud Light spot [ DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago], where the beer delivery guy does pommel horse exercises in a bar, and winds up sprinting across the screen for a pole vault.
Off network, Nike [Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.] has been typically, grittily, archly intrusive with Tony Kaye's stirring, super-slo-mo. One features sprinter Michael Johnson in the blocks. "There are two sides to a sprinter," voice-over Willem Dafoe intones. "The side that wants to crush his opponents and leave them blue and lifeless by the side of the track. And the other, darker side."
Another, a montage of deglamorized sporting moments--close-ups of athletes falling and bleeding and throwing up--is gruesome genius. It's gruesome genius that suffers only being grosser than necessary to document the price of victory and agony of defeat.
Still, probably the best spot of the Olympics so far is a simple comparison demo from Xerox Corp. [Young & Rubicam, New York]. No montages. No slow-motion hurdlers. No arms thrust upward in triumph. Just two color copiers, one moving slowly and one moving like a bat out of hell. Now there's a concept: using your millions of advertising dollars to explain how good your product is.
But never mind that, because there are bigger issues here. Summer Sanders has weighed in, but really, based on what we've seen so far, what are the Olympics all about? What is their message? What have we learned?
We have learned that Jeff Foxworthy is moving to NBC.
Copyright July 1996 Crain Communications Inc.