Short of the Great Depression, it would be hard to imagine an economic and cultural climate more hostile than today's in which to sell messages encouraging feel-good consumption.
And yet, during tonight's Super Bowl, dozens of advertisers are betting millions of dollars that they can still work their old mojo to keep Americans buying their goods.
Executives for NBC, the network that will carry the game, said Saturday that they had sold all the ad slots. But they also acknowledged that they have sold 30-second ads for as little as $2.4 million rather than the $3 million that has been widely cited as the base figure.
Even with NBC's sell-out of the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, the economy has already changed the face of Super Bowl advertising in ways that will be impossible to miss. As much as the Super Bowl TV experience is a "national party," in the words of Woody Kay, of the Arnold Worldwide advertising agency, none of the millions of partygoers will be likely to forget their troubles this year.
"The Super Bowl really has been a big national party since its beginning, but this year it's a party in the middle of really bad snowstorm," Kay says. "And that snowstorm is the recession. How it will affect the party is going to be one of the most fascinating things to watch. For example, which of the top guests won't arrive because of the bad weather?"
Absent this year will be the Big Three automakers - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - as well as the ubiquitous FedEx.
The symbolism of GM runs even deeper than its economic collapse, according to Abe Novick, a former executive at the global ad agency EuroRSG.
"The absence of GM is a real marker, a cultural sign of the times," Novick says, "particularly if you look at who is replacing GM and the other U.S. automakers this year."
The void left by the Big Three will be filled by Audi AG, Hyundai and Toyota - all foreign automakers. Novick thinks that shift in sponsorship will remind some viewers that some of the country's largest corporations have been taken over or displaced by foreign competitors.
For their part, the foreign automakers are responding to the uncertain times with different strategies.
Hyundai planned to promote an incentive program that would let buyers of new cars return the car if they lost their jobs within a year of purchase. Hyundai would cover $7,500 worth of depreciation.
"I don't how that is going to play - the reminder that people are losing their jobs," Kay said.
Audi's ads are going to project an image of a high-performance, luxury sports car. They will feature British actor Jason Statham, star of The Transporter films.
While Kay and Novick questioned the wisdom of showcasing luxury, Brian Steinberg, TV editor for the trade magazine Ad Age, defended it: "If that's your brand identity and you've successfully built it for years, you're not going to change it overnight."
As escapist as the game is intended to be, Steinberg also believes that real-world worries will remain with viewers like never before this year. Citing a study by market research firm Gallup & Robinson that shows viewers' recall of Super Bowl ads is 36 percent lower in bad economic times, Steinberg says the "bar will be higher this year" for a successful ad.
"People will be more distracted as they watch, and that will affect recall," he says. "But I believe there will still be new and different ads that will succeed, and people will still be talking about them for days. Super Bowl and the Super Bowl ads are just too much a cultural mainstay."
One set of different ads that Novick finds promising are those that fit what he terms "the Obama Brand." These are ads that, like the new president, Barack Obama, call to mind ideas of community involvement rather than consumption.
Included in this group will be ads by PepsiCo that will feature a musical mix of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" and a rap by hip-hop artist will.i.am. Its tag-line: "Every Generation Refreshes the World."
According to Novick, Kellogg's will use its iconic Tony the Tiger to send viewers to a Web site where they can nominate a children's playground or park for a facelift that the cereal maker will pay for.
Meanwhile, Pedigree dog food has one of the ads certain to cause morning-after buzz: one for its adopt-a-dog campaign. The ad asks viewers to imagine a world without dogs. One features a woman holding a leash calling to her pet only to have a rhino comes charging into the room.
Not that all of the 67 ads will be different - far from it. The No. 1 sponsor will be Anheuser-Busch, which will stay traditional and feature its famed Clydesdale horses in at least three of the spots. But such American iconography can only go so far when many members of the audience know your company was recently taken over by a Belgian firm.
"Another real-world reminder," Novick says. "Escape is not going to be so easy this year."
ads to look for
Icons: Coca-Cola will revisit the famous 1980 "Mean Joe" Greene ad that featured the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive lineman finding Coke refreshment on the way to the locker room. Current Steeler Troy Polamalu replaces Greene. And Bridgestone tires has Mr. And Mrs. Potato Head almost crashing into a herd of sheep on a drive through the country.
3-D : Grab your glasses. The movie Monsters vs. Aliens and SoBe Life Water boast extra-dimensional ads. The SoBe spot features its dancing lizard mascots and three NFL players, including the Ravens' Ray Lewis.
Sequels: The talking baby that caused such a stir in last year's ad when he spit up after making an online stock buy at E-Trade will be back. The company says the new spot acknowledges our economic woes. Good luck on selling this financial service after the past six months.
online Watch Ray Lewis' soBe life Water ad and other Superbowl commercials at baltimoresun.com/entertainment.