Even the guy who wrote the scripts admits these ads are bad. Britney bad. Miami Dolphins bad — roundly booed by viewers and gleefully bashed by critics as “cheesy” and “low-rent.”
Actually, upon further review, that’s too kind. Debuting on America’s ultimate Game Day, competing against a blitz of the catchiest, campiest, coolest TV spots you’ll see this year, these ads aren’t just bad, they’re Super Bad.
But that’s just how Vin Gupta drew them up in his marketing play book. Because if there’s one thing the chairman of Salesgenie.com has learned about Super Bowl Sunday: Clever may get laughs, but boring sells.
“When everybody else is fancy, we are just plain vanilla,” Gupta said with a grin.
“It’s like an old joke about Mahatma Gandhi. He always wore homemade clothes. That’s what got him the attention,” Gupta said. “One day he went to see the viceroy and the press asked him, “That’s all you’re wearing?” And Gandhi said, ‘The viceroy is wearing enough clothes for all of us.’ ”
So as Budweiser and Pepsi again trot out their Super Sunday best with fresh commercials designed to induce giggles or goose bumps, Salesgenie slaps on its everyday duds and offers a modest message to frontline business folks — try our service and boost your sales. No punch line. No thrills. Up against Madison Avenue’s finest, Salesgenie’s spots have been critiqued as 30-seconds of pure snooze time.
But here’s the trick: Gupta has created a PR campaign to celebrate the fact that he penned and produced “the worst” Super Bowl ad in 2007. He isn’t just clutching the trophy. He’s flashing it around like a spot light on a used car lot.
One year ago, Gupta’s self-scripted commercial about a fast-track salesman earned national dishonors from several media outlets (including USA Today) as the lamest ad of the day. “A total fish out of water,” wrote one blogger. “Monumentally brainless,” wrote another. For Super Bowl XLII, Salesgenie is back with three more spots, all animated, all written by Gupta, all bathed in blandness. One features a flustered salesman named Ramesh. Another is about Panda whose furniture store is teetering out of business. Salesgenie.com saves them both.
In a news release, Salesgenie said it will unveil the spots this Sunday “in the hopes of capturing America’s collective ‘thumbs-down crown’ for the second consecutive year.”
“Wow, I’ve never met a client who wants to be the worst,” said Jerry Della Femina, a well-known advertising executive (Isuzu, Meow Mix) not affiliated with Salesgenie. “If they can get the newpapers to do worst-ad stories and they constantly win that title, they’ll have something going for them. It’s a way to get noticed. The very fact that we’re talking about it shows it has worked.”
Still, Salesgenie’s ads are not close to being considered the worst of all-time. The list of Super Sunday stinkers is long and colorful, mostly filled with shaky jokes that went horribly wrong. Who can forget Holiday Inn’s “class reunion” in 1997 in which the camera gawks at a hot babe who used to be a dude? A dud on the scale of good taste. Or, Bud Light’s gassy, sleigh-pulling horse from 2004? The flatulence fell flat. Or, the 1997 image of Fred Astaire, 10 years after he went to that big dance floor in the sky, cutting the rug with a Dirt Devil? Creepy, although we got an unintended display of the vacuum’s ability to suck.
The most epically awful Super Bowl commercial — maybe the most horrid TV spot ever — was the 1999 Just For Feet ad that featured white men in a military vehicle tracking the footprints of a barefoot Kenyan runner. They find him, drug him and slap athletic shoes on his soles. When the runner awakes, he can’t shake off the shoes and dashes away. The New York Times called the ad “appallingly insensitive.” Just For Feet sued the commercial’s creator for $10 million then filed for bankruptcy and eventually sold off its stores. Now, that’s a Super Bowl blowout.
Salesgenie, an online, subscription service that provides sales leads, points to some pretty numbers that, it says, were spawned by its average-Joe ad. According to Gupta, more than 30,000 people visited the company’s website the evening of last year’s Super Bowl. That generated as many product trials as the company usually earns in a month. In addition, Salesgenie.com’s website market share spiked by more than 500 percent after its 2007 commercial debuted.
Last year, Salesgenie spent $3.7 million to air its Super Bowl commercial. This week, it will invest about $5 million, Gupta said. The company’s annual advertising budget is $17 million and Gupta figures he saves $10 million a year by doing the work in house.
“What the (media) critics are looking for is something that’s really funny or really artistic. Our ad is just not that,” Gupta said. “But we’re not running any kind of popularity contest. We’re going for just plain response.”
So, in the spirit of entertainment and the quest to come off as smart and hip, are some Super Bowl sponsors overthinking the fundamental task of a TV spot — to sell?
No, responded Eric Hirshberg, president and chief creative officer of the advertising firm Deutsch LA. Because the really good commercials, the classics, the Budweiser frogs and the EDS cat herders are doing something more profound than merely pitching a product.
Those sponsors are crawling into the national consciousness and finding a cozy nook inside the heads of some of the 100 million TV viewers, Hirshberg said. They are instantly memorable.
“I’ve got no problem with standing out. But standing out is the least you should do,” Hirshberg said of the Salesgenie spots. “Yes, there is a need to differentiate (from other sponsors) on the Super Bowl. But you also have to be well liked, well remembered and engaging. Standing out? That’s just the cost of entry.”
That cost has risen again. The price to air a 30-second spot during the Fox broadcast this Sunday is $2.7 million. But for your money, you buy not just a massive audience but one that’s paying close attention to the commercials — because of the high expectation for laughs and chills.
“You know, there is an art to creating an ad that’s so bad it’s good,” Hirshberg said. “Like the Mentos commercials. They’re so bad and so off, you can’t take your eyes off them, like a train wreck. That is a strategy. But there is a difference between being so bad that it’s good, and just being bad.
“When I watch (the 2007 Salesgenie spot), it reminds me of when Pee-Wee Herman crashed his bike (in the film ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’), and he got up, dusted himself off and said, ‘I meant to do that.’ What they are doing is actually is an artful piece of spin.”
But he won’t convince Gupta. At this point in the football season, he believes that vanilla is the flavor of the month.