What does it say when the television ads have as much fighting spirit as the Super Bowl teams?
A wife screaming bloody murder in her referee husband's ear. A small, ugly dog with an especially painful bite. A pair of grandparents wrestling over a bag of Lay's potato chips. The theme of the evening seemed to be "assault."
OK, maybe America is in a fighting mood right now. It's an election year, and we've already gotten used to grown men whacking each other on TV. It's the dead of winter, not a time for feeling generous of spirit. And this was, after all, a football game.
So long before there was a score on the board, there was Miss Piggy vs. Jessica Simpson, Drew Barrymore pummeling Adam Sandler with a number of things shaped like sticks. Mike Ditka, Mr. Pugnacious, took his starring role in a Levitra ad -- that's for erectile dysfunction, Chicago -- as an opportunity to take a hit at baseball. Even H&R Block's contribution, in which a Willie Nelson advice doll helps people make bad financial decisions, features New England's favorite battering ram, Don Zimmer, who asks: "Willie, should I give this kid a shellacking?"
A moment of much-needed calm didn't come until late in the second quarter, from the unlikeliest of sources, Muhammad Ali. He sat still in a chair across from the freckled, blond Linux kid and advised him to "Shake things up. Shake up the world."
Not a typical call to lay down arms, but somehow it managed to work, on a night that otherwise made you want to watch TV with pads on. And at least this ad did what so many others failed to do, managing to pack a surprise and feel the tiniest bit memorable. Otherwise, it's hard to guess which ads will come up in the water cooler chat today. Especially since there were no spots for headache medicine.
Instead, for all the millions spent on Super Bowl ads, which rang in at $2.25 million for each 30-second spot, what was meant to be quirky more often wound up confusing. Enlisted to market AOL, the guys from "American Chopper" -- featuring the grumpy dad who doesn't mind pushing his son on TV -- hooked up a chopper and a scooter, inexplicably, to some sort of AOL technology. The message was supposed to be, "This stuff works fast." But the question that sprung more quickly to mind was: Can a chopper get spam?
And Federal Express's ad, in which an alien posing as a human named "Jenkins" kept repeating the mantra, "Why don't we use FedEx," makes you wonder what company really wants a snarling green alien as a spokesman.
At least they left you pondering something. Otherwise, the ad fare tended to be the same old ho-hum assortment of beach volleyball players (this time, in the snow) and trained animals doing various tricks.
There was the monkey in the Dodge ad who hung on the back of the suburbanite who sought "a family car that's cool." The bears who raid a cabin, find the cooler empty, and impersonate the human owners in order to buy some Pepsi. (Do you really need an ID to buy a six-pack of soda?)
And then there was Budweiser's shameless "Babe" rip-off, in which a donkey strives to be a Clydesdale, and wins respect by letting out a long, ugly bellow.
There were the obligatory nods to nether-regions humor, from the aforementioned mutt who bit for Bud Light to a Charmin ad, which showed a football player caressing a piece of toilet paper that stuck out from another player's pants. The only one that managed to be moderately funny featured Cedric the Entertainer, who, in another Bud Light ad, unwittingly got a bikini wax and then asks, coquettishly: "Is there a breeze in here?"
Chevrolet, which also weighed in with multiple offerings, made good use of technology with a shot of basketball players looking oddly shrunken as they settled into a microscopic-looking Chevy Aveo, "the Mighty Mouse of cars." Chevy also managed to strike actual humor with an ad that showed a group of kids with soap stuck in their mouths. Why? They couldn't help from swearing when they saw a new Chevy with a funky retractable top.
And yet, even that felt a wee bit on the mean-spirited side. Kids are supposed to be happy during the Super Bowl, not miserably eating soap. We're all supposed to be somewhat happy, right? It is, after all, a game?
Maybe a truce would have helped. Just listen to the woman in the Budweiser ad who shouted mercilessly in her husband's ear, preparing him to handle his job as a football referee. It was one long stream of anger and orders, and then she came out with this: "Would it hurt for you to say that you love me once in a while?"
Hard to say. But on balance, this one hurt a little too much.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.