The Prince of Beverages: The monkeys were to howl for

By Greg W. Prince

It was reported a couple of days after the fact that Donovan McNabb was not feeling well during the Super Bowl. The Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback persevered despite illness and exhaustion. In other words, he got sick and tired during the game.

I can’t imagine he was the only one.

This is a pretty great country when you can sit back and complain how a gigantic diversion isn’t quite up to snuff, but it is a pretty great country. And the Super Bowl, in all its “Everything Salutes Itself” glory, didn’t quite make the cut for me this year.

Listen, I was a willing accomplice, as was most everybody I know and, I suspect, most of you. Fox reports more than 86 million Americans viewed its Super Bowl telecast, which started at about dawn and may still be going for all I know. More than 86 million Americans can’t be wrong.

Can they?

Just so you know, this isn’t a knock on football. Football’s a fine game when there’s no baseball readily available. This particular football game was a close if not spectacularly well-played contest between two excellent teams, one, the New England Patriots, a little more excellent than the other. I seem to recall Ed Koch, when he was mayor of New York, was one of those sports-eschewing types who made a big show of going to the movies and getting a good table in a Chinese restaurant while everybody else was home watching that silly football game. Trust me, I’m not one of those types.

I continue to be impressed and maybe a little disturbed that Super Sunday sucks in so many people who are allergic to football during the season. When my sports-illiterate sister called me the next day to offer her critique, I was reminded of the story of the tycoon who got out of the securities market in the 1920s when he heard shoeshine boys trading stock tips. There are just too many people in the audience for the whole extravaganza to make any sense.

The same goes for the commercials, beverage and otherwise. Seeing how Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch do their fair share of advertising during football season, it’s not unreasonable to expect to see them air commercials during the football championship. But for $2.4 million per 30-second pop, I’ve gotta wonder about cost-effectiveness.

Yes, yes, of course it’s about buzz and being seen and talked about the next day at that mythical water cooler. I lost track of how many commercials ran for Bud and Bud Light and Bud Select and Hey Bud and whatever other brands A-B unveiled while I was digging into my Ruffles (I’m all for any event that confers a sense of sacred obligation upon mindless snacking). I’m sure these budget decisions are puzzled out by the beverage companies and the air delivery companies and the financial services companies and the bathtub tile companies and that it’s all deemed worthwhile, but boy, was this viewer numb by halftime.

And that was before Paul McCartney put on his robust show of 30- to 40-year-old songs, but that’s neither here nor there.

Saying which commercials were best and which weren’t is a pointless exercise. I used to read the USA Today Ad Meter, Ad Age and a couple of papers religiously every Super Monday to see what the consensus was. But there is no consensus anymore. The spots that tickle one critic turn off the next. For $2.4 mil, you think you could buy yourself a four-star review, but you only make yourself a bigger target.

For what it’s worth, at the party across the hall, I could hear a woman howling with delight-I mean howling-at one of the spots featuring monkeys. She was also howlful when a kitty appeared later. Maybe FedEx was right that you need an animal to break through the clutter. But the woman across the hall was just one arbiter in a nation where everybody is a critic and everybody fancies himself or herself something of an insider.

So don’t ask me if P. Diddy hitching a ride in a Diet Pepsi truck was “light, crisp and refreshing” as the soft drink in question. I have no idea if a pilot abandoning his planeload of skydivers because the instructor tossed a six-pack of Bud Light overboard was sublime or subpar. Mostly, I have no idea if these or any of the commercials run by anybody do anything for sales that wouldn’t be accomplished with a few more drivers calling on a few more customers.

Isn’t sales the idea? No, really, I mean it. Before the game, when I was stocking up on nibbles and noshes (I felt it was my duty to have more to crunch in a day than I’d normally have in a month) at a local supermarket, I saw a gentleman with a cart full of Diet Pepsi two-liters. He hadn’t yet seen the P. Diddy commercial or the one with the amusing cameo by the “Queer Eye” guy, but he was already sold. I saw somebody else hauling a case of Saranac to the register. Saranac is brewed in Upstate New York and has no affiliation with the Super Bowl, but there was a sale in the making anyway.

Sorry if I’m not reaching any superdefinitive conclusions from the Super Bowl. I’m just too literal-minded about these things. At the dawn of the Super ad era, in 1984, I happened to be taking an advertising class in college. On that Super Monday, we discussed the commercials. I asked our professor why on earth Federal Express and Purolator or whoever its competitor was at the time were spending whatever they were spending to hype their shipping service when one would think decisions on which company to use would be made at a more focused level. “Johnson, I saw a funny commercial during the game-switch our carrier!” didn’t seem likely. Shouldn’t FedEx be sending more reps into the field?

I’m certain I was being too literal-minded, and I probably still am. It wasn’t about making a sale the day after the game. It was about share of mind and building a brand and all that stuff that you really count on for your money. I suppose it still is. Nevertheless, the effect of all those Super commercials trying so hard to be so Super is akin to what happens when you make a habit of swallowing a handful of ibuprofen every time you feel a headache coming on-little by little, you build up a resistance to its power.

Watching Super Bowl XXX with my Dad IX years ago, he judged the commercials a reflection of the times in which we were residing: “We certainly live in the Age of Whimsy.” Super Bowl advertising has only gotten more whimsical. I don’t know if it works any better.

Greg W. Prince ( has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.