Betty White plays football, babies talk about "milkaholics" and a house made of Bud Light cans falls slowly apart. It must be the Super Bowl _ or at least the advertising showcase that entertains amid the gridiron action.
The commercials from such advertisers as Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola got off to a funny start Sunday night on CBS.
Villanova marketing Professor Charles R. Taylor said the light-hearted tone is working this year because the ads still manage to tell people what the brands stand for. That marks a turn from last year, when some ads took a more somber tone amid the still-deepening recession.
Not every commercial was strictly humorous. Automaker Toyota aired several ads before and after the game to reassure worried owners after its recalls connected with accelerator problems.
A commercial by conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, perhaps the most-discussed ad leading up to the game, hinted at a serious subject, although it, too, had a punchline. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mother talk about her difficult pregnancy with him _ implying an antiabortion message, because she had been advised to have an abortion for medical reasons _ but ended with Tebow tackling his mom and saying the family must be "tough."
Taylor said he had been disappointed in at least the past five Super Bowls in terms of the effectiveness of ads in connecting with products, but this year he's pleased. Advertisers pay dearly for the airtime _ from $2.5 million to more than $3 million per 30 seconds _ and marketers say ads work best when they focus on the product, as well as entertaining.
He cited a commercial by tiremaker Bridgestone featuring men carrying a whale in the back of their truck, and another by Dove launching its new men's skin-care line. They were winners, he said, because they manage to entertain while telling people about the brands. The ad for Dove tells the story of boy growing into a man and the signal events in a man's life.
"So far from what I've seen I'm quite positively impressed, more than I thought I would be," he said.
A first Super Bowl ad by Google _ which rarely advertises on television _ told an affecting story of a budding relationship through a series of Google searches, beginning with "study abroad" and "how to impress a French woman" and ending with "churches in Paris" and "how to assemble a crib."
That was one of the few strong ads this year, said Laura Ries, president of marketing consulting firm Ries & Ries outside Atlanta.
She figured people would most likely end up talking about the game between the New Orleans Saints and the Indianpolis Colts _ which was close until the waning minutes _ rather than ads. Often, it's the other way around.
"It's very, very difficult to be entertaining in a place like the Super Bowl and have a connection to your brand," she said. "The home runs here are few and far between."
Other highlights include a series of ads by restaurant chain Denny's, which showed chickens nervous about all the eggs they'd have to lay when the company gives out free Grand Slam breakfasts again this year.
A top topic on Twitter was "green police" _ the name of an ad by carmaker Audi pushing its new diesel-fueled vehicle the TDI. Using word play on Cheap Trick's "Dream Police" _ "Green" police officers deal with people making questionable environmental decisions. A man is arrested for choosing a plastic bag at the grocery store, for example.
But not all ads were winners.
Taylor said an ad by Boost Mobile, Sprint's prepaid cellular phone service, didn't work because it depended too heavily on the 1985 Chicago Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle," a reference that could be too old for the brand's buyers.
An ad by Kia for its Sorento SUV will be remembered for its story of a whimsical joyride taken by children's toys _ but people won't likely remember the brand behind the ad, Ries said.
Celebrities weren't as plentiful in this year's Super Bowl. Notable sightings include Charles Barkley rapping for Taco Bell, Betty White and Abe Vigoda playing football for Mars' Snickers brand and Beyonce for low-price television brand Vizio.
A promotion for CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" was memorable because its punchline was spoken by Jay Leno, whose show will again be squaring off with Letterman in the fall.
Letterman, sitting on a couch with Oprah Winfrey, says "This is the worst Super Bowl party ever."
Leno replies that Letterman's "just saying that because I'm here."
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