Remember the Reebok commercial on last year's Super Bowl?
Me neither, though, days before the game it was deemed to be such a creative breakthrough, possessing such overwhelming potential to capture the imagination of the entire commercial-viewing public, that neither Reebok nor its ad agency would even discuss it. Too big. Too exciting. Too extraordinary.
Whatever it was.
The fact is, most Super Bowl ads are similarly unmemorable. Yet this year, for Super Bowl XXVI, once again Pepsi Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Gillette, Masterlock, 7Up, Nike, Panasonic, Merrill Lynch and other advertisers will spend $800,000 per 30 seconds to bring their messages to the year's biggest TV audience. What they're hoping for, of course, is not Reebok's forgettable experience. They're hoping for -- gambling on, actually -- the "1984 Effect."
This refers to the watershed advertising event of Super Bowl XVIII: Chiat/Day Advertising's 60-second spot introducing Apple Computer's Macintosh. The haunting, Ridley Scott-directed minidrama featured an auditorium full of slack-jawed citizens of the future, spellbound by a giant telescreen image of their autocratic Big Brother in the midst of a doctrinaire harangue. In other words: an Orwellian nightmare -- until a gorgeous, athletic young woman comes sprinting down the aisle and flings a large hammer at the screen, sending Big Brother into tele-oblivion. Then, the grave voice-over: "Introducing the Apple Macintosh, so 1984 won't have to be like '1984.' "
America was stunned. A novel publicity campaign had teased the ad, so viewers were waiting for something dramatic, and in no way were they disappointed. The tyranny Apple was slyly allegorizing, naturally, wasn't a dictatorial government but rather a vast, looming, sinister IBM dominating our lives -- a hyperbolic vision established as the foil for Macintosh, which was brilliantly positioned as a tool for the heroically independent thinker.
Not everybody got it, but everybody felt it; "1984" was the greatest television commercial ever produced. And, since then, every advertiser and his agency has been trying to repeat the magic, with generally pitiful results.
Two years ago, for instance, Nike spent a fortune to produce and promote a Super Bowl spot called "Announcers," which featured a montage of Al Michaels, Marv Albert, Tommy Heinsohn and other mike jockeys interrupting play-by-play action to observe, "Nice shoes!" Now Nike is no stranger to PR cultivation: Witness "Bo Knows . . . " et al. But the goal of creating Bo-level excitement and a new buzz phrase for the vernacular never materialized.
In the same year, filmmaker Scott teamed up with Chiat/Day/Mojo to produce a futuristic spectacular -- this one a Blade-Runneresque fantasy about the Nissan Turbo Z and a 21st century speed trap. Another million-dollar budget, another promo campaign, another flop. And it's sort of a pity because it was a pretty cool spot, if you get past its incautious celebration of raw automotive speed and power. America, however, was not particularly moved.
If you are beginning to discern a pattern, your eyes do not deceive. This is a nation with several thousand advertising agencies, but only one of them -- Chiat/Day/Mojo -- seems to be perennially in the Super Bowl Bombast Sweepstakes. Indeed, fittingly enough, Chiat was responsible for the biggest Super Bowl Dud of all. This was in 1985, the year after the Macintosh triumph. With the help of the pre-game publicity, viewers were primed for another Apple event. What was this extravagant production all about? How do you follow a genuine phenomenon? How do you top "1984"?
Answer: You don't.
The spot was called "Lemmings," but it should have been called "Lemon." It featured a bunch of junior-executive clones following one another mindlessly over a cliff into the sea (like IBM users. Get it?), and it left viewers utterly cold.
Which, of course, gets to the heart of the $800,000 Super Risk. While it's true that the Super Bowl is a bona fide event capturing a bona fide mass audience and generating bona fide excitement, it also generates a bona fide opportunity for Super Distraction. And that only happens when the game is entertaining -- i.e., 12 percent of the time. When the game is dull (occurring only in years with a 9 in the number) any spot, no matter how spectacular, will be hard-pressed to capture people's attention. Advertisers find it discouraging to have spent $2 million for production, media time and publicity only to see its audience change channels in the third quarter. So what you need is a Super Gimmick.
Take Bud Bowl. Now headed into its fourth year, this animated gridiron struggle between opposing teams of beer bottles is exceeded in its cost only by its silliness. But it needs to be there, as the fulcrum for Anheuser-Busch's annual winter promotion.
Alas, even a gimmick is not foolproof. Last year, you may recall, both Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi planned Super Bowl promotions of unprecedented scale. Diet Pepsi contrived an 800-number phone-in sweepstakes tied into its Ray Charles "You've Got the Right One, Baby" campaign, and Diet Coke used weeks of ads and promotional materials leading up to a "Crack the Code" game, featuring funny spots starring Leslie Nielsen. Then, with no consideration whatsoever for the marketing needs of our two largest soft-drink companies, the Pentagon sprinted down the aisle and flung a hammer into Saddam Hussein's telescreen: Desert Storm. Pepsico was forced to ditch its phone-in event, lest 50 million or so simultaneous calls tie up our nation's communications infrastructure.
This left Coca-Cola Co. sitting pretty. So what did it do? Scuttle its plans, lest Diet Pepsi win a PR advantage in what had dissembled into a War Effort sweepstakes. Leslie Nielsen's face never showed up; a funereal message glumly presented the Diet Coke "code." Kuwait was raped, the Super Bowl was Saddamized and -- in the confusion -- Reebok's secret weapon landed like an errant Scud.
That Reebok ad, by the way, was a call for sneaker wearers to abandon Reebok's competitor. "Pump up. Air out" was the message. Suddenly I remember what I thought as Dominique Wilkins and other jocks slung their Nikes aside. I thought, "Nice shoes."
Bob Garfield's pungent reviews of television commercials appear weekly in Advertising Age.