Along with the usual punchlines, cartoonishviolence and car chases, the real world of a depressed economyslipped into the showcase of Super Bowl commercials.
In a Bud Light commercial, employees sat around a conferencetable while their exasperated boss wondered what they could do tomake their budget.
"We could cut back on marketing," one person said.
"We could eliminate bonuses," said another, a line more timelythan even Anheuser-Busch could have foreseen.
"How about if we stop buying Bud Light for every meeting?" oneemployee wondered, an act of betrayal that got him tossed out theboardroom window.
Even before the kickoff, Daryn from Texas testified on-screenabout how she's trying to make ends meet: "If someone asks me howthey can make money right now, I say do what I'm doing, sellAvon," she said in touting the cosmetics company.
The taking babies hawking E-Trade Financial Corp. commiserated:"This economy has been a little rough, man."
To be sure, most of the ads struck their usual comedic tone: asnow globe thrown to the crotch to sell Doritos, Danica Patricktaking her fifth shower of the day for Go Daddy Group Inc. and ahilarious Conan O'Brien piece about a cheesy commercial he thoughtwas only going to be shown in Sweden.
The Grim Reaper also showed up for an H&R Block commercial andscreaming competitors showed how mad they were about carmaker
Hyundai winning an award.
Even if it's not obvious at first, some of those commercialsshowed a hard edge seldom seen in Super Bowl ads, said Tim Calkins,an analyst at the Kellogg School of Management at NorthwesternUniversity. Several took on competitors directly: an Audi addepicted other luxury cars, a Teleflora ad mocking "flowers in abox" was directed at Internet flower delivery services and the H&RBlock ad scared potential customers about less reliable taxpreparers.
The economy "is forcing advertisers to really think about howthey are going to drive sales," Calkins said. "What they're doingis really focusing on differentiation."
A 60-second ad for Cars.com used the comedic set-up of a whizkid who performed heart surgery with a ball point pen yet stillbreaks out in a cold sweat when going to car dealers. The company'smarketers said it was the economy that forced it to take anopposite approach -- using gentler humor than it might haveotherwise.
"There's not tons of excitement and enthusiasm in themarketplace," said Carolyn Crafts, vice president of marketing forCars.com. "There's a lot of negative news. It's just incongruousto us to have broader humor when you see the marketplace now."
At the end of the first half, the movie "Monsters vs. Aliens"and soft drink manufacturer SoBe combined for back-to-back adsdemonstrating 3-D technology. Without the glasses, the effect wasevident, yet harmed by a fuzzy screen.
Among the most-effective ads was Pepsi's combination of BobDylan and will.i.am to bridge generations on a version of Dylan's"Forever Young." Purists may sneer, but Dylan's done commercialsbefore, and this was classy.
Less classy were the snack food advertisers, who couldn't seemto say much about their product. Instead, Cheetos went for thecheap laugh of getting pigeons to attack an annoying woman on acell phone.