A number of the ads that ran last year could have raised objections all on their own — the crotch-biting dog, the farting horse, the amorous monkey who flirts with a guy's date, and the kilt-wearing man sent into ecstasy over a blast of super-cold air to his nether regions.
But with Janet Jackson's exposed bosom thrown into the mix, an event that later touched off a wave of protests over broadcast decency standards, the ads of last year left many viewers thinking that advertisers had just gone too far.
Because of that uproar, "the advertising is actually more at the forefront than ever," says Charlie Rutman, who buys TV time on behalf of advertisers as president of Carat USA. "I think what you're going to see is (ads that are) sanitized, and scrutinized. It's always put through a pretty high-powered microscope. I just think the ad critics' world has turned up the power of those lenses."
A preview of some of this year's ads reveals that many advertisers are returning to cozy themes and familiar icons. Lay's brings back '80s singer M.C. Hammer and his "Can't Touch This" single to pitch potato chips; Miss Piggy, Kermit and other Muppets appear in a spot for Pizza Hut; and the Pillsbury Doughboy, Count Chocula and Mr. Clean appear in a spot for MasterCard.
In a sign of just how high sensitivities are running this year, Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln division decided at the last minute to pull an ad for their new Mark LT truck after a group representing victims of sex abuse by priests complained that the spot made light of what happened to them.
The spot shows a priest swooning over the truck in his church's parking lot after finding the keys in his collection plate. It turns out they were apparently left there by a child, and the priest later adds two letters to a board advertising next week's sermon, on "lust," as he adds the letters "L" and "T" on either end.
"We wanted to make sure the focus stayed on the vehicle and not on any controversy that might exist," said Sara Tatchio, a spokeswoman for Lincoln Mercury. "We absolutely had no intention to offend anyone, and we were surprised by the reaction the one group had."
The ad would have marked the first time in 10 years that Lincoln had run an ad in the Super Bowl. Since Lincoln didn't have another ad ready to go in that spot, the time slot will instead be used to re-run another Ford ad that is also making its debut during the Super Bowl for a new convertible Mustang.
Some of this year's crop still aim for humor, but a few are slightly puzzling. Credit card issuer MBNA Corp. has the elegant pop singer Gladys Knight running the ball down a field in a rugby game, while consumer products maker Unilever unveils a curious action figure dubbed "Mama's Boy," who gets pushed around in a shopping cart by his mother, to plug its Degree brand of anti-perspirant.
The new sensitive-guy tone is perhaps best struck by a pre-game spot by MasterCard, in which a guy throws a fish he has just caught back in the water after seeing a tear well up in the fish's eye. The tag line: "Daring to show your feelings ... Priceless."
Anheuser-Busch Cos., whose ads for Budweiser and Bud Light produced several of the ads last year that raised eyebrows, including the inadvertent bikini wax treatment and the flatulent horse, is keeping wraps on its ads until game day.
But Bob Lachky, the head of beer advertising at Anheuser-Busch, says that while the ads will still strike a humorous tone, they won't cross the line. "You don't want to send out a message that would offend anybody," he said. "I think advertisers are being a little more centered."
With Super Bowl ads costing an average of $2.4 million this year for a 30-second spot — that's $80,000 a second — advertisers are loath to make slip-ups. But with some 90 million people expected to tune in to the game Sunday on the Fox network, the game remains one of the last surefire ways of reaching a truly mass audience in today's fragmented media marketplace.
The price tag is slightly above last year's level of $2.3 million, when the game aired on CBS. The Super Bowl rotates among the major TV networks as part of a deal worked out with the NFL.
The high price tag continues to draw comments from marketing pundits who say advertisers are wasting their money by buying Super Bowl ads, yet the competition among the advertisers remains a popular subject among viewers and industry insiders alike.
USA Today conducts an annual poll that ranks the ads by popularity among selected groups of viewers, and AOL and other organizations have launched polls of their own. For the creative minds of the advertising world, however, the Super Bowl retains an almost mythic kind of power.
"I feel like a child on Christmas morning," says Mark Tutssel, deputy worldwide chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide, division of a Publicis Groupe S.A. "I want to open all my presents (now), but I'm looking forward to watching all the ads on game day as a consumer."
By Seth Sutel