World: Super Bowl XL: Big on effects but low on ideas

The annual advertising showcase featured expensive ads but was a missed opportunity to stand out, Ewen Cameron says.

People like to come to New York, especially British ad types. When they are here, over on a shoot or for a client meeting, I find myself caught up in a familiar ritual. It takes place in a Lower East Side bar with a cold (yes, cold!) Newcastle Brown fuelling a conversation called: "What's happened to America?"

To paraphrase the discussion, it goes like this: "We were all there for you after 9/11. But now? Halliburton? Desperate Housewives? Pat Buchanan?" From there, the conversation generally gets worse.

From across the pond it is very easy to read this country as a great mass of junk culture with no history, bounding across the world on the back of a simplistic moral (even fundamentalist) religious code that reduces all subtlety, all debate and all contradictions to a kind of Tuesday-evening, made-for-TV movie. In said movie, the goals are oil and entertainment, and the outcome is never in doubt.

Of course, this could not be further from the truth. No nation in history has been as dynamic, divergent, progressive and truly pioneering in all areas that matter as this one. Then along comes the "Ad Bowl", with its cocktail of celebrity over substance, production over ideas and "emotional-ism" over humour. Then I see a smug smile returning to my visitor's face.

From the first notes of The Star-Spangled Banner onwards, this Super Bowl had the mild hysteria of a revivalist meeting. However, surely the advertising offered a moment for a brand to be different; the chance to stand apart and to stand out.

It could have done what it was meant to do: showcase the brightest and best ideas in our industry. Surely $2.5 million for 30 seconds demands a little originality? Instead, the collective voice of the ad industry simply joined the chorus of "Halleluiah!"

There was the usual batch of frat- boy beer ads that seem so familiar, because the jokes are. There was the red-carpet parade of over-produced, under-concepted extravaganzas from the likes of Pepsi and Gillette. Gillette actually launched a razor with six blades and bored us for 60 seconds about it.

And the worst category of all: car ads. Interchangeable; indistinct; inexcusable. Cadillac lost confidence, trying - through lots of expensive post-production - to literally graft Euro-luxury on to its US personality. Toyota and Ford, at last drawing mainstream America's attention to the notion that there might be an alternative to ten-miles-per-gallon gas-guzzlers, did so.

But there was so little that was memorable.

So, was there anything worth mentioning from Super Bowl XL (which, by the way, the Pittsburgh Steelers won by the score of 21-10)? Indeed there was. But what there wasn't was much in the way of new thinking.

I had fully expected a raft of internet teaser spots: 30 seconds aimed at getting you off the TV and on to the internet to get the real goods. Old-fashioned TV advertising has become just that in the minds of many clients and the sizzle is on the internet. However, the work that was good this year was good in a fairly conventional way: good script with a funny twist that was well executed.

Sprint is one example. Despite a pretty generic line ("Yes you can"), the spots were truly fresh, funny and well-realised executions. One features a guy with a music track on his phone for every eventuality in his life, including the theme song from The Benny Hill Show for chasing women around his burning apartment when his couch catches fire. The second, "one-upmanship", is realised by demonstrating the crime-deterrence feature of a new hi-tech phone. The phone is thrown aggressively at anyone trying to steal our guy's wallet.

FedEx took the much-trodden route of primitive man, but did it well with a Neanderthal fired for not using FedEx. When the fired caveman complains that FedEx has yet to be invented, his boss replies: "Not my problem." Our downtrodden primitive walks out dejected and kicks a dwarf dinosaur, before himself being crushed by a massive dinosaur.

Ameriquest dared to continue its vein of dark humour, most notably a young doctor using the charge from a defibrillator to kill a fly.

As the fly's carcass falls on the patient's chest, the doctor, electrodes still in both hands, says over his prey: "That killed him." Then the patient's family appears in the doorway of the room.

Careerbuilder.com continued its popular theme of "working with monkeys" with a spot introducing a new character, who claims to work with a bunch of jackasses. We see a room full of jackasses, resplendent in appropriate office attire.

The commercial from Emerald Nuts is truly eccentric. It is also truly difficult to describe. You would do better to check it out on the web.

It may just have been the best spot of the Super Bowl.

Much was anticipated from Burger King, Crispin Porter & Bogusky (the reigning darling of the US ad press) and "The King", a funny character that grew in popularity during the US football season. Yet the agency came out with a highly conventional big- music production featuring "The Whopperettes".

It is the kind of spot Pepsi has trafficked in forever. Speaking of Pepsi, it used the game to debut a duo of Jerry Maguire-inspired spots in which the agent pimps his client (a can of Diet Pepsi), first to P Diddy for an album deal, then to Jackie Chan for a movie deal.

The cost of this yawn must have made the money they spent on media seem like a bargain.

In the end, Super Bowl "Extra-Large" (XL?) was perhaps best captured by the half-time show. No wardrobe-malfunctioning Janet Jackson offending the sensitivities of the US family audience this year. No rap music flaunting its raw urban ambition into the suburban households of mainstream America.

Only the aged Rolling Stones singing unconvincingly that they "can't get no satisfaction". Satisfaction was everywhere. And when everybody is satisfied, well, you will not get much that's new.

- Ewen Cameron is the chief executive of Berlin Cameron United.