Panicky poultry, a battered Betty White and a series of violent ads for Doritos provided plenty of laughs during Sunday night’s Super Bowl, even with the weak economy prompting several heavy-hitting advertisers to sit out the Big Game.
A Denny’s commercial, in which chickens scream in terror at the thought of the eggs needed to support the restaurant chain’s breakfast special, was among several ads that got high marks from ad executives and consumers surveyed by The Wall Street Journal.
“The chicken in the space suit is one of those classic Super Bowl moments,” said William Charnock, chief strategy officer at Interpublic Group‘s RGA.
The ad was created by Omnicom Group‘s Goodby Silverstein & Partners.
Several ads created by amateurs as part of a contest for PepsiCo‘s Frito-Lay snack unit managed to win over game watchers. One spot had a would-be samurai donning a suit made of Doritos and using a well-thrown chip as a weapon. “Love a guy who can put you down with a chip-to-the neck move,” said Andy Landorf, a creative director at Publicis Groupe‘s Kaplan Thaler Group.
Another Doritos ad featured a young boy slapping his mom’s creepy date. Doug Larsen, a 34-year-old from Golden Valley, Minn., said, “We really liked a couple of the Doritos ads, especially the one where the kid hits the guy.”
In usual Super Bowl fashion, the commercials featured a parade of celebrities, but the one that seemed to draw the most enthusiastic response was a Snickers spot which had Ms. White and fellow actor Abe Vigoda getting tackled during a football game.
“Great use of geriatric talent,” said Joseph Mazzaferro, a group creative director at Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners, a unit of MDC Partners. Omnicom’s BBDO created the spot for Snickers maker Mars.
The former Golden Girl outshined several other celebrity pitchmen, ad executives said, including Chevy Chase, who starred in an ad for home-rental site HomeAway.com.
Many of the ad executives surveyed gave a thumbs-down to a Taco Bell spot from Interpublic’s DraftFCB, in which former basketball star Charles Barkley touts a $5 meal at the chain. “Barkley looked so uncomfortable,” said Ann Lieberman, a free-lance copywriter.
One of the few commercials that didn’t use a gag but still hit the right note with viewers was a Coca-Cola spot about the financial meltdown of C. Montgomery Burns, the conniving billionaire from “The Simpsons” TV series. The ad was crafted by Wieden + Kennedy.
“I have soft spot in my heart for “The Simpsons,” so I liked the spot,” said Josh Latimer, a 40-year-old computer engineer from Truckee, Calif.
Super Bowl advertisers, who adopted a more pragmatic approach in 2009, seemed to return to humor, relying on a familiar Big Game ad tactic: comedic violence. Ad executives said the shift means marketers think recession-weary consumers want a reason to smile.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, which last year turned off the game’s audience by dwelling on Bud Light’s “drinkability,” seemed to rebound with a spot in which people form a human bridge to help a Bud truck make it nto town, and another Bud Light ad that had men talking in electronically distorted voices.
The bridge ad was “classic Bud, a spot that shows the can-do sprit of America,” said Mark DiMassimo, chief of New York ad firm DiGo.
At the same time, several marketers—including Denny’s, Levi Strauss’s Dockers, Yum Brands‘ Taco Bell and Sprint Nextel‘s Boost Mobile—promoted value or limited-time deals, suggesting they still believe it takes a lot of coaxing to get consumers to spend.
There were several surprising hits, including a Google commercial and a promo for CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman” that showed Mr. Letterman, Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey sitting on a sofa. “Hilarious. Having Jay Leno involved was great. It’s fun that he can poke fun of himself,” said Mr. Larsen of Minnesota.
Google’s spot, which was kept secret until the weekend, was an unexpected move. It marked the first time the search-giant had advertised in such a big way. Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt hinted on Saturday that something was coming when he tweeted: “Can’t wait to watch the Super Bowl tomorrow. Be sure to watch the ads in the 3rd quarter (someone said ‘Hell has indeed frozen over.’)”
“Could be my favorite,” DiGo’s Mr. DiMassimo said of the Google spot.
Overall, the ad battle didn’t live up to the hype preceding the game. Some industry executives blamed the absence of perennial fan favorites, such as PepsiCo’s Pepsi and FedEx, both of which took a pass this year, and also pointed to the unusually large number of first-time Super Bowl advertisers. They said companies new to the game typically don’t have the large production budgets to go all out, and are less apt to strike the right chord.
“Not a great year,” said Vanessa Kane, 38-year-old in San Francisco who works for an interior-decorating firm. “Too many male-hormone-driven ads and a lot of underwear, which was so not necessary,” she added.
If the ads don’t click with consumers, it will be bad news for advertisers who forked over between $2.5 million and $2.9 million to CBS for 30 seconds of time during the game.
One ad that didn’t live up to its advance billing was an advocacy spot from Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian group. The ad, starring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, ended with Mr. Tebow playfully tackling his mom as she told of how she nearly lost him during her pregnancy, but it skirted the issue of abortion.
“I think it was gentle and strategically cautious,” said Elizabeth H. Liu, a 26-year-old student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill., who was watching the game with 42 other students.
Mike Marra, a 29-year-old attorney in New York, said, “A 30-second spot in the middle of a football game is not going to change my mind one way or another.”
The best-performing rookie award went to TruTV, a Time Warner cable channel that ran an ad with a Groundhog Day theme showing a tiny Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers being pulled from Punxsutawney Phil’s burrow.
Online job site Monster Worldwide outperformed rival Careerbuilder.com, according to those surveyed. Monster’s ad, featuring a beaver who succeeds in becoming a concert violinist after using the Web site, was created by BBDO. It outdid an amateur spot made for Careerbuilder, the online job board owned by Microsoft, Gannett, Tribune and McClatchy, that featured naked office workers.
Monster’s critter was “the Susan Boyle of beavers,” said John Mittnacht, DiGo’s director of client services, alluding to the dark-horse sensation of “Britain’s Got Talent.”
A Hyundai Motor ad that included a Brett Favre retirement joke was deemed the winner among the automotive advertisers, while an animated Honda Motor ad starring a squirrel was widely panned. Dean Crutchfield, chief engagement officer at Method, a New York branding firm, called it “roadkill.”
Other spots that came in for criticism included one from Bridgestone that showed a man choosing his tires over his wife, and an ad for the U.S. Census Bureau starring actor Ed Begley Jr. as a film director.
Mr. Crutchfield predicted the ad will have Americans asking, “Did my tax dollars pay for that?”