Why Many Super Bowl Ads Failed to Score

Marketers Keep Forgetting That the Best Ads Are Simple and Direct

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain

The Financial Times ran a story this week on the "infomercial king" of the U.S., British-born Anthony Sullivan. Mr. Sullivan says his job is to pitch products, not to market them, and he likens those who practice the dark art of marketing as "black-suits-wearing namby pambies."

The basics of selling, or how to put a crowd "under the ether," as he says, haven't changed: The pitch has to be succinct, compelling and direct.

Yet too many campaigns are just the opposite: complex, confusing and oblique. I've already railed against recent commercials by Xerox and UPS as having so many moving parts they're almost incomprehensible. As I said, marketers and their teams seem to have other priorities than moving the merchandise: execution as opposed to strategy. With so many platforms to deal with, it's not hard to see how marketers could be more involved with the mechanics of the message than the message itself. Or, as one agency exec told me: "Execution is becoming an excuse for ideas."

That sorry state of affairs was certainly on display at the Super Bowl ad fest. The few commercials that worked were simple and straightforward. They started with a basic premise about the product and they drove it home in a compelling and uncomplicated way.

GM was forced to keep the Chevy Volt commercials simple and to-the-point because they were dealing with a new technology. BMW's X3 model is made in America, and the German car maker didn't try to muddle that message. Verizon is now selling the iPhone, and its spot used the "test guy" saying, "Yes, I can hear you now" to demonstrate that Verizon was better than AT&T.

A lot of other spots were stupid or unfunny or in bad taste. A commercial for Doritos hit the trifecta -- it was stupid and funny and in bad taste. It showed a guy sucking the finger of another guy to get the last morsel of Doritos and then ripping the pants off another guy so he can smell the Doritos residue enmeshed in the fabric. Really weird.

But way too many ads were so complicated and elaborate that I couldn't tell what the product was trying to get across. I read on the Audi website that its Super Bowl ad is supposed to demonstrate that the days of the old lux are over to make way for the new lux of Audi. Here's how Audi tried to demonstrate that basically simple premise:

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The scene opens with stuffy, elitist-type characters in a luxury prison. The cells resemble gaudy, over-the-top royal replica rooms with all the trimmings. Two of the inmates begin an escape by picking the lock on their cell door. Alarms go off and the warden gets on his antique phone to command the release of the dogs, which turn out to be beautifully coiffed Afghans charging out from behind the gates. Kenny G music wafts through the prison to mellow out the inmates.

After climbing down a rope to a courtyard, the older escapee heads toward a classic white Mercedes, and the younger guy calls to him, "Lancaster, no! It's a trap!" But Lancaster responds, "Nonsense, my father owned one" and gets into the Mercedes. The younger prisoner drives off in a black Audi A8 to freedom but the older man is driven back into the prison as he complains "Great goodness, I've been hoodwinked!"

The commercial closes with the text "Escape the confines of old luxury."

That's a mighty long way around to make the point that Audi is the new lux. When I watched the commercial for the first time I wrote, "I have no idea what it's all about." Only after replaying in a half-dozen times (with numerous pauses) was my assistant Nancy Whelan able to piece together the foregoing scenario.

And then there's the HomeAway.com commercial. It's also a very involved tale about the Ministry of Detourism, test rooms of people in mock hotel rooms and families fighting because they are squeezed for space. The premise, I take it, is that HomeAway.com can prevent this tragedy, but all I remember is a baby getting splattered against a glass wall and slowly sliding down the glass with his (her?) face smushed on it.

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So let's recap here. Good ads are simple and direct. Bad ads aren't. It's all a matter of discipline, a characteristic that advertisers have a woeful lack of these days. No wonder the informercial king calls them namby pambies.

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