NEW YORK – What do cat-wrangling cowboys, gerbils fired out of a cannon, and a nerd named Herb have in common?
They were all stars of multimillion-dollar Super Bowl commercials -- and chances are you can't remember what they were advertising.
With more than 80 million Americans expected to tune in and 30-second slots selling for around $2 million dollars, there's a lot at stake for advertisers who take the Super Bowl plunge.
"It's the classic advertising dilemma -- marrying entertainment and your message effectively," said Jack Feuer, media editor at AdWeek.
Commercials have to draw viewers in, entertain them, then leave them with a favorable impression of the brand and eventually get them to reach for their wallets, Feuer explained.
"A few years ago, there were complaints about all the Web ads that were so gimmicky but didn't tell you anything about the sites or what they did," he said. "So that money wasn't well spent."
Despite the special effects, high-profile spokespeople and eccentric plots, many Super Bowl commercials fail to etch brand recognition into viewers' memories -- in other words, that ad was cute but what was it selling?
Michelle Hilton, of Novato, Calif., said she watches the polished Super Bowl commercials, but the ads she really remembers are often more lowbrow.
"Clever and funny commercials stick in my head, and much to my dismay, so do the really annoying ones," she said. "My brother and I talk about which ones are funny and quote them to each other."
Pepsi is one major brand that has sprung for multiple Super Bowl spots this year -- and the company is hoping to create a buzz with their innovative ads.
"We hope to generate a water cooler effect," said Bart Casabona, spokesperson for the soft drink company. "Our commercials use humor. The situations we put our characters in are ones people can associate with."
In one of the ads, the Osbourne kids unzip cans of Pepsi Twist and then suddenly turn into former pop stars Donny and Marie Osmond, shocking papa Ozzy.
"Funny situations in commercials tend to stand out and have better recall among consumers long after they've seen the ad," Feuer said. "If something moves you enough to laugh, to tell a friend about, chances are you'll remember it for a long time."
But just making viewers laugh isn't enough to get them to shell out their hard-earned money for these products.
"Humor can be very effective but it has to be married to a real honest-to-God message that says something about who you are, and makes people remember your name," Feuer added.
But a sense of humor and creativity only get some companies so much for their pricey check.
In 1986, Burger King debuted a commercial starring Herb -- touted as the only man in the country who hadn't dined at the fast food chain. The multimillion-dollar campaign was deemed a flop and Herb was never heard from again.
Electronic Data Systems, a global information tech services company got lots of laughs with their "Herding Cats" commercial during the 2000 Super Bowl. The 60-second spot was a nod to great American Westerns -- only with cowboys herding thousands of house cats across the Great Plains instead of cattle.
But while the commercial was inventive and garnered giggles into the following week, the company behind the magic seemed a mystery to many.
This year, several companies are spending big bucks and going for laughs, hoping to score that elusive buzz that brings their product into the forefront of customers' minds.
Quiznos Subs has a spot featuring the company's chief chef, Chef Jimmy, so engrossed in his job that he forgets to wear pants. H&R Block is also hoping humor gets viewers talking, with a commercial that stars singer Willie Nelson, notorious for his own tax troubles.
But some consumers, like Hilton, say the cheap and cheesy commercials can be just as memorable as the pricey ones.
"When the acting is really, really bad in a commercial that's funny too, like the Clapper and Chia Pet commercials," she said. "They are not intended to be funny, but they are."