ATLANTA — I still remember my first ad. I was 6 years old, and my sister and I were selling lemonade on the curb in front of our house. In order to attract people driving by — not that there were many driving by — we needed a sign. So we got a piece of cardboard, a red Magic Marker and wrote the words, “Lemonade, 5 cents.”

Never mind that our letters were too big and that by the time we reached the
“d,” we were out of space. All in all, it was a good ad. Simple. Effective. Inexpensive. Reached the people.

Which brings me to tonight’s Super Bowl XXXIV ads, which are not simple, or effective, or inexpensive, and which reach only beer drinkers who get thirsty when they see a talking frog.

The rate for a 30-second Super Bowl ad is $2 million. That’s almost $7,000 per second. As my sister might have said, “That’s a lot of lemonade.”

But then, she was smarter than Madison Avenue. Year after year, the ad rates for the Super Bowl go up. Year after year, there are suckers who pay them. Year after year, a bunch of auteur directors who couldn’t get a film deal decide they’re going to make art out of 30 seconds’ worth of hype.

And year after year, a week after the game, you can’t remember a single product.

Michael, Bugs and bears, oh, my!

Here’s a little test. See if you remember these ads:

1) A man flies with geese.

2) Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny battle aliens.

3) A chimp goes to the beach.

4) Grizzly bears in a chorus line.

Now, chances are, some of these sound vaguely familiar. Maybe you can picture them in your mind.

But what products were they hawking?

Not a clue.

And isn’t that the point of an ad? To make you buy a product? Since when did the reaction after seeing a commercial go from “I want one” to “That was cute. What does it mean?”

Back at our lemonade stand, we sold lemonade. So our sign read “lemonade.” Pretty simple, right? But in the Super Bowl broadcast, the world’s most expensive commercial arena, hardly any attention seems paid to actually selling the goods.

Instead, it’s about ego and status.

This is the hubris of the Super Bowl:

The company executives are so eager for the Super Bowl spotlight, they’ll pay almost anything to get in on it.

The creative directors are so eager to show off their vision, they budget hugely overdone productions in hopes of winning a Clio award.

The directors are so eager to show off their talent, they make films, not ads, and ignore the product.

And in the end, the viewer goes to the bathroom and misses the commercial completely.

Hey, how about lemonade.com?

Only in America would people pay $2 million for 30 seconds of air time in a football game. And only in America would those ads generate buzz, as if they were really something important.

USA Today, which covers TV the way newspapers used to cover politics, has run so many stories on Super Bowl ads, it ought to get at least 15 seconds of free air time. Friday’s edition contained a full-page “Readers Guide” to the ads and a Web site to preview the ads and vote for favorites.

Vote for your favorite commercial?

This is news?

From USA Today, we learn that Super Bowl XXXIV will feature Judy Garland footage in a FedEx ad and a Gen X biker chasing a cheetah for Mountain Dew.

Will Judy Garland make you use FedEx? Will a cheetah make you drink Mountain Dew? I doubt it. But that’s advertising today. Image. Image. Image. If you think a certain way about a product, the ad people say, you’ll be more inclined to buy it.

Assuming you remember it.

It’s fitting that most ads in this year’s Super Bowl are from Internet start-ups. These are companies that haven’t made a penny of profit, yet have tons of money from hungry investors and therefore don’t mind spending it like sultans. Greed chasing greed. Perfect for the Super Bowl.

Personally, I’ll take our lemonade sign. It may have been cheap, and it may even have been flimsy. But nobody ever pulled up, rolled down the window and said, “What exactly are you selling?”

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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