03 February 2012

Flops: When Super Bowl Ads go Wrong

APPLE 'Lemmings' (1985)

Lucky for Apple- and Chiat Day Advertising, history records its legendary Super Bowl commercial 1984 as the black monolith around which he apes hollered and danced.  It was the birthing moment for the Super Bowl Ad phenomenon we know today.

Yet a year later, Apple was responsible for one of the greatest disasters in Super Bowl Ad history.  Or in advertising, period.  It's called "Lemmings."

Lemmings was directed by Tony Scott, whose Top Gun would tear up the box office a year later.  (His brother Ridley (Blade Runner / Alien / Gladiator) had directed 1984).

Apple had a bad feeling about the ad- enough so to pull the Super Bowl time it had purchased.  But when publicity swirled that they were bailing on their big followup-  and with lobbying from Chiat, who reminded them they had similar misgivings about 1984- they bought back their time and ran the ad.
Why did it fail?

This is a good time to remember that all great creative involves risk:  and all great creators fail.  Creativity is the art of imagining what isn’t, and greatness is so hard to spot during the process.  Many of the 20th century’s greatest marketing minds were involved in Lemmings.  If they didn’t’ foresee its failure, odds are pretty good that neither you nor I would have either.

The hindsight view is this:  1984 inspired viewers with a vision of a bold new creative thinking; Lemmings insulted viewers, accusing them of being suicidal drones. 

BURGER KING 'Herb' (1986)

Burger King’s “Herb” campaign was predicated on a fictitious character- the one person who’s never tried a Burger King Whopper.  Consumers were given incentives to utter the magic words “I’m not Herb” when ordering.  They campaign hinged on their buying in. 

They didn’t.

Just as a freight train might require 8 kilometers to come to a stop,  Burger King was powerless to halt its Herb campaign by the time its Super Bowl ad aired.  It was supposed to be the big moment when BK revealed Herb's identity.  By that time, bathed in flopsweat, there was nowhere for Burger King to hide.

NUVEEN INVESTMENTS 'Christopher Reeve Walks' (2000)

On paper this spot should have worked.  It had flawless direction.  Gorgeous cinematography & art direction.  No voice-over (always to be admired, when it's possible).

The problem?  Nuveen had no cure for spinal cord injuries.  Word was their switchboard was swamped in days following by people wondering what breakthrough they were referring to.

But the ad wasn't about any specific breakthrough.  It was an investment company casting its gaze skyward, musing:  'wouldn't it be nice if...', and tying its brand to that sort of thinking.

Nuveen had inadvertently offered hope, when they had none to give.  It cost them nothing to imagine;  it cost them a great deal to imagine it before an audience of 80 million.


Companies live and breathe their brands.  Sometimes they project:  mistakenly assuming their product is as interesting to the consumer as it is to them.

'Lipstick on a pig' is such a mean-spirited phrase. But honestly, it's only a razor. 

NOXEMA  (1978)

Again with the bad shaving products ad.  It's easy to be distracted by the vintage Joe Namath / Farah Fawcett casting to forget how truly awful this ad is.

For more 2012 Super Bowl ads, click here.