The '90s have not just ended; they have been repealed. If the NASDAQ crash and the installation of a Bush in the White House weren't evidence enough, Super Bowl XXXV clinched the deal. There was the physical setting, of course. Ten years ago, the game was also held in Tampa, in the midst of the Gulf War calendar notwithstanding, the last gasp of the '80s with a Bush in the White House, a sense of national foreboding and Whitney Houston ushering in a brief era of over-the-top, "Wind Beneath My Wings" pop-cultural patriotism. This year same place, same foreboding (economic, at least), and 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys and Norman Schwarzkopf headlining the over-the-top party at Ground Zero of late last year's legal Civil War.
But more than the game itself, it was the commercials, which now have greater cultural and actual importance than the game, that showed what a difference a year makes. Two thousand, you'll remember, was the year of the dot-com ads, an onslaught of expensive public entertainments from soon-to-be-dead-or-dying upstarts, which in retrospect was the Ozymandian monument to that economic era's hubris.
Sorry, you must have been left out
Nothing better represented the tremendous swell and optimism of dot-com wealth and the exclusion of most of the nation from it than that Sunday. Millions of working Americans sat in front of the single most common-denominator mass media event on TV, gazing stupefied at pricey, inscrutable ads for pricey, inscrutable techie products and services. Collectively, these ads announced that the industrial age, dependent on a broad-based consumeriat buying cars and six-packs, was over and the winner-take-all tech age, dependent on cherry-picking elites in charge of their company's IT budgets, had begun. For years, you watched ads for beer and trucks, things you encountered every day. Now, if you had to ask what in hell it was that EDS did, or made, or whatever they likened it to "herding cats" clearly no one cared if you knew or not. Just look at the pretty kitties or go take a bathroom break, you chimp.
This year, the dot-coms were all but buried, like Jimmy Hoffa in the end zone. EDS was back, with a lame "running squirrels" variation on the "herding cats" theme, as were E*Trade and HotJobs. But this time the smell of history's ash heap was on them, not the audience. As befits an economy in a slowdown, this year's ads were dominated by snack foods (Pepsi, Doritos) and that good old recession-era analgesic, beer (seven commercials from Anheuser-Busch alone).
No more dot-com largesse
And yet we'll miss those dot-coms, judging by the unmemorable crop of Super Bowl spots we saw this year. Whereas the dot-commers were like profligate renaissance princes, squandering money on vainglorious artworks, the more traditional advertisers this year gave us a lot of same-old same-old. Budweiser got off to a promising start, with a hilarious new "Wassup?" featuring white preppies ("What are *you* doing!" "That is *correct*!"). But it followed up with a second "Wassup!" that featured two cornball mainstays (a cute dog and cute aliens) that show the campaign has now lived too long.
Even the best traditional-staples ads had a too-familiar feeling. Bob Dole was funny, as usual, doing a parody of his Viagra ads for Pepsi. But there wasn't quite the same frisson as in his Super Bowl ad debut after his failed presidential campaign. There, he was making light of his stature as a elected statesman; here, he was making light of his stature as an erection salesman. It was a laugh and unlike a lot of flashier ads, drew your attention to the product but it wasn't quite the same bold step. (Pepsi's best spot, with a bunch of machines taking revenge on Garry Kasparov after he beats a chess-playing computer, was clever but had the unfortunate side effect of portraying its soda vendors as a HAL 9000like malevolent force. As my pal Dolores put it at the Super Bowl/"Survivor" party I went to, the ad's basic message was: "Don't f--- with the Pepsi machine.")
Been there, seen that
There was a rerun feeling to several other ads Sunday night more animal humor, more "priceless" Master Card spots, more "Friends" wannabes driving VWs. But most insulting were the advertisers, like Dr. Pepper, who didn't even deign to create new spots, a chintzy gesture that craps all over America's greatest commercial holiday. Any business that can't cough up 30 seconds of original entertainment for you on Super Sunday does not deserve your consumer dollar. Come on, guys, that's like giving away your old sweaters as Christmas presents.
Indeed, many of the most creative and entertaining ads were from the remaining dot-coms. But it was a far different tone from the sky's-the-limit ads of 1999 and 2000. Far and away the best ad of the night was a gut-busting E*Trade spot in which a monkey (familiar from E*Trade's "We just wasted $2 million" spot of last year) walks through a landscape filled with the wreckage of ill-conceived dot-com companies ("PimentoLoaf.com") and finally comes across what looks like the corpse of the Pets.com sock puppet.
The monkey's eyes fill with tears à la the Native American in the old anti-pollution commercials and that sums up the chastened tone of this year's dot-com ads. Two years straight, Monster.com delivered sparkling ads that implied you could go anywhere, do anything, if you just gave up the stultifying job you settled for and browsed its site. This year, it showed a software engineer getting his new business cards and inhaling their smell lustfully and thankfully. Message: You're scared as hell of being unemployed, and we can save your bacon. Even HotJobs.com abandoned its snotty, outrageous ads of past years to do a wistful, artful and quite pretty wordless spot following a steel marble escaping through a city street to join a kids' game.
So long, dot-com arrogance
But some other spots showed us precisely why we all grew to hate the techie invasion these past several years. Cingular created pretentious and unamusing ads that gave us little idea what the company does, except that it's "wireless," and most offensively (though in an all-too-common way) latched onto the life story of a disabled artist to show that it too cared about self-expression, or something. Did it make me want to do business with them? It made me want to call a broker and short the stock. Likewise, Andersen Consulting marked its name change to "Accenture" celebrating its newfound freedom from a dreary name that actually told people what it did with preposterous ads that, among other things, promised the newly monikered consulting behemoth would someday save our lives through "virtual surgery."
And the well-earned resentment of all things dot-commified spilled over into numerous other ads. Southwest Airlines showed a self-absorbed kid on a cell phone pulling up in a convertible with "2RICH4U" license plates, scaring away the pigeons an old man was feeding. The old man threw his bread crumbs into the car and got the pigeons to give the upholstery an, er, paint job. A heavy-handed Michelob Light ad had a snooty yuppie come into a bar asking for "imported beer," only to be fooled into drinking Michelob Light and pretentiously praising it. (We're probably supposed to assume he bought his Internet stocks just as discriminatingly.) Last year, E*Trade showed us a enriched customer being rushed to the hospital with "money coming out the wazoo." This year, Bud Light showed an office drone throwing a pencil into his boss's ass. (Maybe Accenture could virtually remove it.) This is not a sign of overwhelming consumer confidence.
It was fitting that the most prominent dot-com placement of the evening was the Budweiser.com blimp that floated above the action as Silicon Alley that is, New York got its butt whipped. It may be questionable why a beer would need a web site. But judging by this year's Super Bowl, it's quite obvious why a dot-commer could use a beer.