Creative Thinking

thoughts on creativity, design and the nuts and bolts of marketing a small business from Tom Murray and the folks who make up the Montana Creative Collaborative: Good people doing great work from their favorite places to help the best businesses.

Feb 5

Super-Bowled: In Which We Ask “Was it REALLY Worth $3.8 Million?”

The following is a copywriter’s take on the 2012 Super Bowl parade of spendy ads. Not just any copywriter, John Forde, whose grasp of the principles of direct marketing is so ingrained he can make the fundamentals sound like fun. Forde’s weekly email, Copywriters Roundtable, is fun AND incredibly valuable. You can subscribe at, where you also can snag $78 worth of free gifts just for looking around and/or making yourself a better copywriter. - Have fun!

February 4, 2013

In Which We Ask “Was it
REALLY Worth $3.8 Million?”

"There is no victory at
bargain-basement prices…”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

I’m going to ask you to indulge me, not just once but twice, today.

First, because, if you know anything about me, you might know I’m a serious slouch as a sports fan. However, I DID live in Baltimore for about a dozen years, back in the ’80s and ’90s. So I have to take a second to say… Go Ravens! Well done on winning the Super Bowl.

Second because, as you might also know, I like to do what a lot of armchair ad execs and pundits like to do, post Super Bowl, which is review the commercials that aired during the game.

So that’s what we’ll do today. 

But wait… before you “Oh brother” me and point out that everybody and their Uncle Fritz has already, at this point, done exactly that… I’d like to point out that around here, as you should ALSO know, we like to do things a little differently. 

That is, when we review the ads we like to ask the question that most of those other sources you already see reviewing ads DON’T ask. 

Which question is that?

I’m sure you’ve already guessed… what we like to know is whether, at the staggering cost of roughly $3.8 million per ad spot…did the advertisers use the time, space, and opportunity to actually SELL anything?
“Yes, of course, you twit!” might be the answer you hear from a lot of mainstream media (TV) ad execs. 

"Absolutely not, you fool!" might be what my direct response world buddies might say. 

(Surly bunch, don’t you think?)

Truth is, at least according to me, some ads DO actually manage to sell things, or so it would seem, and others… well… just don’t. 

Even worse, they appear to be incredible wastes of money. In some cases, that’s because they do a great job of entertaining but little else. In other it’s because they just don’t know what they want to say and neither do we. 

Anyway, what I think you’ll find here today is that — unlike a lot of other “Best of 2013” Super Bowl ad lists, I’m not so forgiving of the ads that don’t sell. 

One more thing before we dig in: If this isn’t our ad medium anyway, why do this exercise at all?

Partly because it’s fun. As I said, even some of the ineffective ads are entertaining.

But also because where else are you going to get the chance to watch so many pitchmen try to put on their best show in such a short time?

The principles of persuasion, after all, are pretty much the same no matter where you look — in print, online, on TV, on matchbook covers and billboards — so you can learn a lot, both from bad ads and good.

And that, today, is what I hope to help you do. 

If you’re willing to play along, first you’re going to want access to all or at least most of the ads that aired.

This link has that:

I suggest you open a web browser and click through to the ads I refer to below, watching as we go. 

We’ll cover just a few, so you get the idea I want to illustrate. And consider, you’re sure to see many ads here that I trash… even though they top many of the “BEST AD” lists now circulating. And so it goes.

Ready? Here we go…

* Budweiser “Black Crown” (C+): You’ve got to credit these guys for crafting the message. They’re looking to sell a crafted high-end beer to a semi high-end city crowd, and they do that well. But this looks like a case where the product crafting could be a problem. We’ll see, but “Bud” as a high end? I can’t help feel like it feels like marketing “Black Label Twinkies.” 

* M&M “Love Ballad” (D): Ouch. Bad song and just a non-idea. And this for the product that practically plays a starring role in the invention of ‘unique sales proposition’ advertising, with the legendary slogan that made M&M’s a worldwide bestseller (“Melts in your mouth, not in your hands”). How about selling the chocolate instead of the crotchety cartoon character?

* Audi “Prom” (B-): This was a tough one to call. After all, the kid driving too fast on prom night isn’t exactly a message most parents could get their arms around. But considering the target market for this car, the memory of wild youth and standing up on one’s own isn’t such a bad idea.

* GoDaddy “Perfect Match” (F): Good God, no. Much as Bar Rafaeli is dazzling and most decent people will cheer for an underdog nerd, this one was nasty with the slobbering, kissing sounds and, more importantly, failed to sell either product or idea. High school students with a cell phone camera could have come up with something better.

* GoDaddy “Big Idea” (B+): I’m jumping ahead in the list here, but to make a point. Because, see, this GoDaddy ad was much better than the other one. Not only is it funny because it’s true, and packs urgency into the message for the same reason, but front to back it elevates GoDaddy’s service to something that could change your life. Well done.

* Doritos “Goat 4 Sale” (D):  Funny, weird, and a good example of how the wrong image can overpower. Obviously, the screaming goat is there to make you pay attention. Unfortunately, what it also did — for me at least — was make me associate Doritos with goats. Is that really what they wanted to happen? 

* Doritos “Fashionista Daddy” (B-): I’m jumping ahead again, but again… compare. This commercial was disturbing, true. But at least most of it still drives home the idea that Doritos are irresistible. Heck, you might even crave one after the commercial ends… provided you’re not too freaked out by the dancing dads.

* Pepsi “Party” (C+): The unicorn, the milk trick, the bleating goat, the guy taped to the ceiling… isn’t this the kind of classic Super Bowl overreach we’ve come to expect? Sadly, yes. Again, it’s so much that the tiny blurb of actually selling, toward the end, risks getting lost in all the hoopla. This is what happens when a roomful of copywriters gets too excited by their own idea and forgets what they’re supposed to pitch.

* Best Buy “Asking Amy” (A): I didn’t see this one top any “Best of” lists online, but this one is a flat out win if you ask me (and I’m going to assume you did). Why? First off, Amy Poehler is as funny as ever. But the key is what she and the copywriters do with it. Notice, almost every joke STILL highlights a Best Buy benefit that a customer might love. Well done.

* Coca Cola “Security Cams” (D+): Sigh. Ain’t this the kind of ad that just restores your faith in humanity and ascends to the level of an art form? It will, I’m sure, win awards and change lives. Unfortunately, like the famous “Teach the World to Sing” Coke ad of the 1970s, it probably won’t sell a single can of cola. Now, if all these people were drinking Cokes while doing nice things, that might be something different. 

* Oreo “Whisper” (A-): A lot of ad pundits didn’t like this one. But frankly, I did. Why? Because it’s a great remake on a very successful ad campaign for Miller Lite that I’ll bet you remember (“Tastes great, Less filling!”). For the cookie, as it did for the beer, we’re entertained even while we’re sucked into taking sides over two benefits of one very simple product. And this time around, there’s a social component too. I see kids “whisper fighting” over Oreos in lunchrooms and after school, sometime in the near future.

* Cars.Com “Drama” and "Focus Group" (D+): In two commercials, the point was to show you how easy it is to use No drama. But to make that point, they present two commercials where the drama of the ad is so distracting, you forget what the heck they’re trying to sell. Imagine how much better this would be if they made a joke about how hyperbolically tame the experience could be.

Okay, let’s take a breather here for a sec. Because I want to point out a pattern you’ve surely noticed.

Now, we know that the Super Bowl advertisers almost always try harder to entertain. It’s part of the “thing” that goes with buying these particular ad placements. 

But do you see how the ones that ONLY entertain… or who entertain as a first priority… are so much weaker than the ads that actually promise you something?

I’d go even further: The ads that fail to sell feel so much like they’re missing a note you expect, that they end up falling short as entertainment too, because you’re left feeling like they missed something.

Okay, let’s get back to looking at a few more…

* Coke “Chase” (B): Now this one, compared to the earlier “Security Camera” ad is much better. No, it’s not as uplifting, but what it DOES do that the other doesn’t, is sell… and isn’t that the whole reason for ads in the first place? In this one, everybody is racing across a hot desert toward a beautiful, glowing bottle of dew-covered Coca Cola. No missing the message there. 

* Skechers “Cheetah” (A-): Hyperbolic, funny, and very Super-Bowl-esque… but it also does what it means to do, which is leave you feeling like fast runners will like these shoes, in a way that’s more interesting than just showing you hard-workin’ runners in good shoes (Nike already owns that mental image, pretty much).

* Century 21 “Wedding” (B):  This is not at all an amazing ad. But I mention it to you because, imagine what it’s like these days trying to sell folks on real estate. With the recovery still just getting started, just showing nice houses wouldn’t do the trick. And certainly, it wouldn’t be enough in the sea of other Super Bowl ads. This one still manages to get you a message about Century 21 service, while couching it in a funny but relevant story. 

* Dodge Ram “Plowing” (B): and Jeep “Whole Again” (C-): Speaking of story ads, let me do these two together: The Dodge Ram ad featuring the American farmer and the Jeep ad about soldiers coming home. Both were written to tuck on the same handful of heartstrings, pretty much. And lots of “Best of” lists adored both. I didn’t, and not because I’m a cold, heartless bastard (that’s beside the point). Both had fine sentiments, but what fails for me is that (a) I felt pandered to, (b) neither ad had much to do with the product (though the farmer ad does much better on that than the soldier ad). 

* One more… Budweiser “Brotherhood” (C-): “I dare you to get through this without crying,” said plenty of online reviewers. I dared. And yes, I thought it was a great little story about a man and his horse. However, other than the breakfast Bud this guy was drinking with his morning paper, I didn’t see any reason to come away this feeling thirsty. Instead, I came away feeling like I should buy a horse. 

Okay, you get the point by now. 

Forgive me if I didn’t cover a commercial you liked or didn’t like one the way you’d hoped. 

The bottom line, if you ask me, is this: It’s not easy to get busy people to buy anything, even stuff they want. Often, it’s not cheap to try, either. So why waste your chance, when you have it?

These days, maybe more than ever, we know that flat out promises and U.S.P.-driven pitches aren’t enough. The battle for your attention is simply too crowded anymore for just that. 

Ads, yes, do now seem to need some kind of added value all their own… whether that be a good story, a great analogy, rare information, or even humor. 

But if that’s all they have, then we — the copywriters — have missed the point. That is, in the end, no natural laws have been re-written: advertising still IS for selling. 

Isn’t it?


There’s just not enough space in this e-letter to cover ALL the ads aired during the Super Bowl (and boy, where there a lot of them). 

However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t watch — and form an opinion about — all the ads.  Sad to say, there weren’t many among the remainders that stood out as great pitches, at least in my opinion.

There were, however, a few that seemed to come close but not quite hit the mark. Among them… 

Milk’s “The Rock” - Good message, but the whole action scene theme was just too busy.

Subway “15 Years” - Good for Jared, but what’s with the weird choice in spokespeople celebs?

Lincoln “Phoenix” - Nice car, but wow… that ad had every car-copy cliché in the book!

Mio Fit “Change” - Tracy Morgan is a funny guy but the “change” analogy was misapplied.

SodaStream “Effect” - So, they blew up hundreds of bottles to show how they’re conservationists?

Mercedes “Soul” - Clever, elaborate, and — Kate Upton — but boy is that an ugly car for $30K.

Samsung “Big Thing” - I love these guys. I wanted to love the ad. But in all this, where’s the phone?

Bud Light’s “Stevie Wonder” ads - Poor Stevie. He’s miscast here… and the beer wasn’t cast at all.

Volkswagen “Get Happy” - Forget controversy, this ad was just dumb. All annoying guy and not much car.

Taco Bell “Viva Young” - Popular with many, hated by me. What’s the message: Eat tacos, get old?

Blackberry “Can’t Do” - Somebody should have spent more time with the phone than with the effects department.

FebruaANY “Hard to Say” - Yes, it is hard to say. And why were we saying it again?

Axe “Apollo” - So, he punches sharks. So, she’s hot and likes astronauts. So what?

Wonderful Pistachio “Psy” - This must be what be what precedes “one-hit-wonder-hood.”

Lincoln “Steered Script” - The worst example of committee-written copy in history, hands down.

Beck’s Sapphire “Fish” - Um, here’s what I came away with: Beck’s new beer, now made with fish.

Kia “Space Babies” - Puppies and babies too cliché? Try putting them in outer space! Very lame.

Phew… that’s enough for me. You too, no doubt. Unless… see today’s “Missing Link” for more.

THE MISSING LINK: Every Super Bowl Commercial Ever!

If you’re a serious Super Bowl ad junkie, you’re in luck, because you’ll find most of them parked here:


Oct 30


creative vs non creative copywriting

Sep 7

Aug 31
“Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win the battle.” Ralph Waldo Emerson