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5 best and worst TV ads during Summer Olympics
In case you haven't noticed, there have been a few advertisements running during NBC's coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics.
And because these Olympic weeks are all about competition, I changed my usual viewing patterns during some prime-time broadcasts last week to actually pay attention to the commercials — to All. Of. The. Commercials — and then rank the top and bottom five that I saw.
Before the lists, though, a few observations.
First, this ain't the Super Bowl, in terms of the amount of attention advertisers pay to their creative work. Yes, there are a good number of spots produced incorporating Olympic athletes; it's a wonder U.S. decathlete Ashton Eaton had time to train in between all the commercials he was making. But this isn't necessarily a showcase for the debut of new ads, and the spots made with Olympic tie-ins are, generally, an earnest and generic lot: competition, heart and Hershey's, that sort of thing.
Second, you are not imagining it. There really are more ads than normal running during NBC's prime-time telecasts, although it is perhaps not as extreme as you think. During the three hours Wednesday, I tallied an average of about 18 minutes an hour of commercial time. A 2014 Nielsen study found networks the previous year were running 14 minutes and 15 seconds of ads per hour.
And now that I've done my version of NBC-style, pre-event hemming and hawing — have I mentioned Michael Phelps' torn swim cap yet? Have I squeezed in an extra commercial break? — here are the 5 best and 5 worst ads I saw.
5. MC Hammer for 3M's Command wall hooks. Yes, this one is sort of dopey, deriving from the '80s pop rapper's catch phrase, "Hammer time." But that, and smart, subtle touches throughout, are what I like about it. A dad is setting up his college-age kid in his dorm room, and just before a nail gets pounded into a wall, MC Hammer pops out and says, "Stop hammer time." There's an odd little dance-off between dad and Hammer. And then we hear the tagline for this clever, removable product: "Command: Do no harm." It's like the Hippocratic oath for poster hanging.
4. United Polaris business class. United has a solid ad featuring the Olympic athletes it apparently flies to the games doing their sporty things in the vicinity of airplanes. But this one made my eyes go wide with wonder and envy. The format is unoriginal — P is for this quality, O is for that quality, then L, then A, etc. — but the text is pretty good: "A is for access to everything, including the aisle.... S? So long, jet lag." And the ad's depiction of the mini nesting spaces United has devised — for an airplane! — make me really, really want to get a corporate job somewhere so I can fly business class. Or just get one of those sleep chambers installed in my house.
3. GE's factory tour. This one features humor that actually makes the ad's point, about General Electric being an "industrial company that's also a digital company." The teen son of a touring family asks about a robot he spies. "That's not a robot," the tour guide replies. "That's my coworker, Earl. He builds jet engines — with his human hands." "What about that robot?" says the kid. "That's a vending machine, Ricky." Well-played, GE, and, you know, next time I'm ordering an industrial turbine, I'll be sure to think of you first.
2. Ashton Eaton and Brianne Thiesen-Eaton for Visa (and Best Buy). Best of the Olympic athlete spots, by a pretty wide measure. The American-Canadian decathlon-heptathlon couple compete to be "first" in a series of domestic scenes, from him being first to cry at a movie they're watching to her, at the end, being first to sign off on the conversation they're having using tablets they paid for with Visa. It's light, nimble and likable all the way through. When he cries, "First" as they brush their teeth, she responds, "That's not a good thing." This commercial is.
1. Google Photos as a digital storage solution. A problem we've all experienced, being unable to take a crucial photo because our phone is out of memory, gets deftly dramatized. Over and over, viewers see the "Storage Full" screen message pop up just as the skydive is happening, Sasquatch is spotted, etc. Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" plays in the background, and the visuals drive home that point that using Google Photos can free up space on your phone. It's a perfect, perfectly simple spot, and one that looks like it was as much fun to make as it is to watch.
5. McDonald's McNugggets. Ray Kroc's little restaurant chain that could is pushing its deep-fried chicken-'n'-batter bites, hard, and the two ads it's running, a lot, are almost good. The one with the McNuggets doing a tumbling routine captures the scary excitability of gymnastics announcers, although I'm not sure parody was the intent. But all 10s for the foodstuff's floor routine? Not even Simone Biles tallies perfect scores. Then there's the other spot, the one featuring indie folksters Iron & Wine singing Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." That part's lovely. The ad, featuring an artful father-daughter scenario, is very well made. But then, like Domino's did in changing its pizza recipe a few years back, McD's owns up to having served up junk for all these decades. "New Chicken McNuggets," the voice-over says, "now with 100 percent white meat chicken and no artificial colors, flavors and, now, no artificial preservatives." So does that I mean I can get a refund for the bad old McNuggets I used to eat? Corporate confessions are a tricky thing, and this one makes past sins a little too obvious.
4. Retiring hipster couple with pig for Chase. So it's nice that the megabank — which is now not at all too big to fail, right, people who lived through the last economic crisis? — is acknowledging folks heading into their so-called golden years. And that modern retirement has many shades. But this ad tries way too hard to make the point: We meet the couple as he wears rose-colored pants and she is walking, on a leash, what I presume is a pot-bellied pig. "You live life your way," says the announcer. Their way includes health-code violations: They bring the pig indoors and perch it on her lap for the meeting with the banker. Um, no. No lap swine where I keep my cash, please. And if that banker wants to provide really useful retirement advice, he can tell them that the downtown condo they moved into after selling the house is going to seem mighty small once their eccentric, lifestyle-defining pet starts growing like a pig.
3. Delusion-based orange ads. My beef with these spots was probably exacerbated by them running back-to-back Wednesday night, a sort of festival of the (rightly) underheralded color. First we had flame-haired Jesse Tyler Ferguson, of "Modern Family," chopping carrots. An orange cartoon rabbit suddenly appears on his countertop — not for the carrots but to hector the actor about his retirement planning and to tout an outfit called Voya. As visions go, a life-coach bunny is probably one of the more benign ones; as an ad, though, it is, as the spot itself acknowledges, just "weird." Next came the beer Blue Moon, brewed with the flavor of oranges. To dramatize this, the spot shows a rainfall of oranges, then says, "There's inspiration all around. You just need to know how to see it." So Blue Moon's brewers, we are to understand, first imagined a fruit storm then decided that's what beer needed? When you're dealing with the combination of red and yellow, anything, apparently, is possible. Especially hallucinations.
2. Brad Paisley for Nationwide. Fade in on the country superstar pretending to write a verse to go with the familiar Nationwide ("is on your side") musical theme. He sings those new lyrics — with which he "assisted," according to Ad Age — and he plays guitar. "Made the most of your retirement plan / So better learn to drive that RV, man," is one of several belabored lines preceding the insurance company's classic, memorable jingle fragment. I understand that musicians sell their songs to ads now mostly without earning scorn, but this one feels worse than, say, an indie folk band using an existing tune to set the mood for fast-food sales. Paisley is bartering the very idea of himself as a songwriter, which seems more personal, more elemental, than just letting one of your songs be used. Fade out on the notion I had that Brad Paisley was one of the mainstream country performers with a little credibility.
1. Chevy focus groups. These ads seem to be the ones in heaviest rotation during the games, and they grow more insufferable with every repetition. In various set-ups, a focus-group facilitator type leads dim-bulb people ("not actors," the screen says, although aren't we all?) to the realization that Chevy vehicles are pretty good nowadays, according to various awards. But even though these folks were especially selected for TV ads, they still manage to reinforce everything bad I've come to believe about focus groups. "Thanks for blowing our minds," says a woman whose mind is way too easily blown. "Like, word, Chevy," says another, whose dialect must have been learned from a much older sibling. The ad turns on supposed suspense: The people are supposed to guess which car earned various honors. But once you've seen one of them, there is, of course, no longer any surprise. Of course, the answer is Chevy. Don't you people watch TV?