After two weeks of watching Olympic commercials on "the networks of NBC Universal," as the employees of General Electric so grandly put...
After two weeks of watching Olympic commercials on “the networks of NBC Universal,” as the employees of General Electric so grandly put it, it is time — at long last — to present imaginary medals in a post-games advertising review.
Most of the thousands of spots that ran on networks like CNBC, NBC, MSNBC and USA expressed sentiments familiar to viewers of so-called big events on television. Patriotism is good. Striving for athletic achievement is noble. The world would be a better place if we all drank the same beverages, drove the same cars, shopped at the same stores and bought things with the same credit cards.
And too many commercials relied on predictable images to evoke China for Western consumers: dragons, pandas, ninjas, the Great Wall and homages to (or parodies of) “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Still, there were spots that stood out because they expressed familiar thoughts in a new fashion or they actually offered, as the Monty Python folks would say, something completely different.
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Make-believe gold medals go to commercials that were actually worth watching. Some dreadful commercials are receiving lead medals, for base (and debased) performance. Some spots that fell short or rang false are getting tin medals.
Here are some examples, in alphabetical order, of how advertisers fared:
It was nice to see again a delightful Super Bowl commercial about a Clydesdale training to make the Budweiser team. Gold. But spots that tried to rebrand Michelob as a craft beer from the “Michelob Brewing Co.” seemed strained. Tin.
“We will shatter records,” a commercial for AT&T proclaimed. “We will pull off miracles. We will make history.” To paraphrase the punch line of an old joke, what do you mean “we,” couch potato? In another spot, a gymnast is covered with butterflies, which disappear as she performs a brilliant routine. Alas, it was too evocative of the playoff game in Cleveland when the midges attacked the Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain. Tin.
More hits than misses as the Coca-Cola Co. celebrated “the Coke side of life” with commercials infused with eye-catching animation. In one, birds use soda straws to make a replica of the Beijing stadium known as the Bird’s Nest. In another, members of the Chinese and U.S. basketball teams pause amid their rivalry to refresh together. Gold.
The comedian Jimmy Kimmel — minus his sense of humor — berated viewers without DirecTV as losers because they do not watch enough football each fall. No wonder Sarah Silverman broke up with him. Lead.
Employees of Exxon Mobil fight malaria. And they help schoolchildren learn math and science. When did the company sell its oil and gas holdings and become a philanthropic organization? Tin.
A toga-clad hunk whose discus toss goes terribly awry led a memorable cast of characters in spots for GE. Others included a Chinese couple who, as they say in Hollywood, meet cute: He’s a klutz, and she’s an X-ray technician. Gold.
An imaginative commercial for the coming Chevrolet Volt, showing how a corner gas station changed through the decades, was worth watching every time it ran. And it ran a lot, as General Motors seeks to change its image as a purveyor of outdated gas-guzzlers. Gold.
A spot featuring dozens of sumo wrestlers who improbably transform into an airplane and take flight, demonstrating the light weight of the Lenovo ThinkPad, was charming. Gold. (But perhaps the commercial should have been saved for the next Olympics held in Japan.)
A commercial that attacked John McCain’s opponent, Barack Obama, misfired badly because it was out of place amid the myriad upbeat spots that came before and after. Worse yet, the first time the commercial appeared was during the feel-good Parade of Nations in the opening ceremony. A subsequent McCain commercial was also negative, but more subtly; it bashed President Bush by asserting that “we’re worse off than we were four years ago.” Lead.
Which were more peculiar, the commercials that compared workers at McDonald’s making sandwiches to athletes competing in Olympic sports or the commercials that presented athletes talking about McDonald’s sandwiches as if they were medals? It is hard to believe a fast feeder wants to liken eating its menu items to exercise. Lead.
What possessed film studios like Universal and Warner Bros. to run commercials during the Olympics for dark, violent movies with harsh names like “Body of Lies,” “Death Race,” “Righteous Kill” and “Traitor”? The spots were even more out of place than the McCain commercials. Lead.
Promotions for series like “America’s Got Talent,” “America’s Toughest Jobs” and “America’s Most American Americans” — just kidding on that last one — were more over the top than the NBC announcers who screamed their narrations of Michael Phelps’ races. And it seemed opportunistic that in the first commercial break after Phelps won his eighth gold medal, the network ran a spot peddling its own DVD set, “Michael Phelps: Greatest Olympic Champion … The Inside Story.” Tin.
A sedan and a sports car, side by side on a highway, fuse into a single vehicle to prove the 2009 Nissan Maxima is a “four-door sports car.” Shades of the vintage Certs spots that chirped, “It’s two, two, two mints in one!” Tin.
Some of the best Olympic commercials were for the struggling United Airlines unit of UAL. Exceptional animation made them lovely to watch, and lush versions of “Rhapsody in Blue” made them a pleasure to listen to. A spot featuring an orchestra of sea creatures was superb. Gold.
Uplifting tales of Olympians past and present, delivered in a plummy voice by the actor Morgan Freeman, were accompanied by gauzy images in formulaic spots for Visa International. They seemed to be clones of the puffy, bathetic profiles of athletes that NBC typically inflicts upon Olympic viewers, which may be the reason the network ran so few of those vignettes. For that, Visa deserves a medal. Gold.