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Big game spot-on with laughs

Ad creatives gear up comedic commercials for upcoming Super Bowl

It’s a funny thing about the Super Bowl. There can be high drama on the field, titillation during halftime, pomp and pageantry throughout, but it’s the laughs during the commercials that stick with the aud.

The Big Bowl is the premier advertising showcase of the year, with agencies strutting their stuff largely through humorous spots.

With the Super Bowl XL (Feb. 5) approaching, and about half of ad buys for the game secure, ad creatives are just starting to develop their comedic concepts.

Last year, it was helmer Bryan Buckley and creative shop the Ad Store that stole the show, with a bawdy spot for that featured a buxom bombshell testifying in front of a stodgy congressional subcommittee.

Top comedy talent gets in on the pitch, too, with Cedric the Entertainer’s clever Bud Light spots — a creation of DDB Chicago — also catching buzz during recent Super Bowls.

Hollywood notices. Commercial helmers have transitioned to movies and TV on the strength of their game-day efforts.

Rawson Marshall Thurber had one such notable emergence. His short, “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker” — which features a large man in football attire brutally policing the white-collar cubicles of a typical widget company — was adapted into a Reebok spot and shown during Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003. That led to a feature helming gig on Fox’s “DodgeBall.”

A decade prior, a Joe Pytka-directed Nike spot that blended Michael Jordan into the Loony Tunes world of Bugs Bunny led to Warner’s “Space Jam,” which Pytka also helmed.

“A lot of people see advertising in general as a stepping stone to Hollywood,” notes Eric Hirshberg, who’s musical “Ballroom Blitz” Super Bowl spot for Mitsubishi last year led him to direct a Bon Jovi video. That commercial “got the attention of a lot of people in the music business,” he notes.

Of course, Madison Avenue’s prime directive is that the product should be the thing that’s most prominently showcased. But the rules tend to go out the window on Super Bowl Sunday.

“The Super Bowl is sort of an exception to the advertising rule in terms of its emphasis on entertainment,” notes Lee Garfinkel, chairman and chief creative officer of DDB New York, creator of no less than a dozen memorable Bowl spots including a notable Subaru ad featuring actress Ruth Gordon in 1984. “If you can make everybody laugh (during the Super Bowl) setting, that’s a great focus group,” notes Spike DDB creative director Desmond Hall, who has a Pepsi Super Bowl spot on his resume, and wrote the 2000 HBO comedy “A Day in Black and White.” “That’s why Hollywood wants that kind of talent. The question is, does that talent have the staying power to write for 30 minutes and do character development?”

Indeed, between the short-form art of the 30-second spot and the longform craft of 30-minute sitcoms and 90-minute features, mutually exclusive skill sets do exist.

“The 30- and 60-second period is a very condensed, intense, reductionist nugget of a film,” adds David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America, nick-named “the Super Bowl shop” because of its traditional game-day prowess. “People who can tell a funny story or a joke in a shorter form can have success. Not conversely, even Scorsese and many others have not been able to do that in commercials.”

Still, just getting an ad in during the big game says something about the creative talent.

“Super Bowl commercials are as competitive as probably anything in terms of where your work will wind up being seen,” adds Vic Levin, an award-winning copywriter who wrote the DreamWorks feature “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton” and was lead writer and showrunner on NBC sitcom “Mad About You.” “You have to write a great spot, sell it and a million trillion things beyond your control have to happen right for it to wind up on the game.”

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