WORLD: STUART ELLIOTT IN AMERICA

Who lost the most when Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's right breast at the halftime show during Super Bowl XXXVIII? Why, Madison Avenue takes the boob(y) prize.

Let's put aside the hysteria over the stunt, exploited by conservatives eager to mobilise the so-called "family values" forces behind the Bush re-election drive. While the witch hunt evokes Joe McCarthy's Red-baiting of the 50s ("Are you now or have you ever been a breast barer?"), it's easy for professional scolds and busybodies to capitalise on the tension between America's traditional puritanical impulses and its increasing ardour for open displays of sexuality.

What really has made losers of advertisers and agencies is the incident's total domination of everything else happening that evening before and after the provocative duet. That includes the commercials shown during the game, for which marketers shelled out a record average of $2.3 million for each 30 seconds of time. In other words, after spending almost $140 million (not $14 million, as some git with my name and face got wrong in this space two weeks ago), the advertisers ended up busted.

Sponsors realise their spots must vie with the game itself for the attention of the mammoth Super Bowl TV audience. The joke each year is that agencies want the game to be close, but not too close - ensuring viewers are neither so bored by a blowout that they start changing channels nor so glued to the action that they ignore (or resent) the commercial interruptions. Indeed, the game was one of the closest ever, decided in the last four seconds.

But the brouhaha virtually stopped all post-game chat about the glitzy, extravagant Super Bowl spots, most of them making their public premieres before beginning regular runs on various networks. That day-after talk value is a major reason marketers are willing to pay such high prices for commercial time and then spend lavishly on marquee-name directors, not to mention the production costs. "We felt we were dealt a bad hand," a senior executive at a leading media buying agency, still smarting days later over the tempest in a C-cup, said. "No-one on Monday was talking about the commercials."

At PepsiCo, which ran seven commercials for its Lay's, Pepsi-Cola and Sierra Mist brands during the game, "it speaks to our extreme disappointment that our quality work has been overshadowed," Mark Dollins, a spokesman, told USA Today. The company, a Super Bowl mainstay, is seeking assurances from the National Football League that a similar flap will not take place again.

Talk about reaping what you sow or, in this instance, tit for tat. It's hard to understand how sponsors can be incensed when the ads this year were among the sleaziest ever, stooping to cheap laughs with tacky bathroom humour and to tawdry titillation with smutty innuendos.

One spot starred a farting horse. Another featured a dog biting a man's crotch ("good dog" for Bud Light, featured in this week's Gallery). Two promoted drugs for erectile dysfunction, one warning that erections lasting more than four hours "require immediate medical help". In two ads from PepsiCo, an elderly couple fought over a bag of crisps and a breeze lifted a Scotsman's kilt, exposing him to a boy who says: "That's just wrong."

Truer words were never spoken. Adman, judge not Janet nor Justin lest ye be judged.

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