Are ads on the Oscars better than the Super Bowl's?

“We have to show a commercial for shampoo or something now,” host Jimmy Kimmel said at one point during Sunday’s Academy Awards.

That line wasn’t written on a card tucked into a red envelope, but it is another thing the telecast got wrong.

Commercials about shampoo are the old Oscars, the one that has been described, perhaps a little condescendingly, as the “Super Bowl for women” in terms of its power and place as an advertising platform.

The ads that actually aired Sunday night — the good ones, at least — showcased technology, muscle cars, altruism efforts, the power of responsible journalism, a carmaker’s plea to all just get along and a chilling novel about authoritarianism.

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With tinges, or more, of the political, they were an interesting enough lot to raise the question of whether the broadcast of football’s championship should be the event to bear the weight of existing in comparison to: “The Super Bowl is the Academy Awards for men,” or some such.

“The Oscars commercials are so much smarter, more creative and at times in touch with the human spirit than the overrated junk Super Bowl ads,” tweeted ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon, an alumnus of and member of the Board of Advisers at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

I’m not ready to go that far. There’s plenty of creativity in the Super Bowl ads, although much of it is frittered away on trying to deliver a punchline. Honda’s Super Bowl ad, featuring celebrities talking via their high school yearbook photos, was as good as anything during the Oscars, and the 84 Lumber immigration ad was as bold.

And let’s not forget that amid much quality, the Oscar ads delivered standard-issue cellular service commercials, three big swings and misses by Wal-Mart and, for some reason, an introduction to the CEO of the AARP. Oh, and there's an ABC show coming up that tries to make Jack the Ripper alluring, in case you missed the approximately 74 teases for that broadcast, which looks bad enough to send the modern era's dedicated serial drama watchers scurrying back to the cinema.

The Academy Awards had its longest telecast in a decade, and American viewership was down this year, to about 33 million average viewers. That’s less than a third of what the Super Bowl drew in early February, while Oscar ad rates were reportedly about 40 percent of the football broadcast’s charge of $5 million per 30 seconds.

But, yeah, when a top-rated Super Bowl ad is about a housewife who gets so turned on by her schlubby husband doing housework that she imagines him as a cleaning product’s virile cartoon mascot, Wilbon and the others who’ve voiced similar sentiments aren’t that far off.

At a minimum, I’d say that the Oscar ads aim more for the head and heart, while the Super Bowl spots tend to go for the gut, and there seem to be fewer ads on the movie event, which makes them a little easier to handle.  

Point of contrast: Google aired ads during the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards, and one on the latter telecast was far superior, perhaps the best of the night. It tells, in brief but effectively, the real-life story of Saroo Brierley, subject of best picture candidate “Lion.”

Brierley fell asleep on a train as a child in India, lost his parents and was adopted by another family. “But 25 years later he was able to see the world from above,” the ad says, showing the Google Earth imagery that helped the young man locate his home and his mother. “To all those finding their way,” it concludes. “Search on.”

Google has put together a longer version of the Brierley story on its own website, but the TV-ad edition is pretty much perfect for the tie-in to the telecast, the power of the personal story and the demonstration of Google’s at times awesome power. (A second Oscars spot, for the Google Photos service, also shimmered.)

Luxury watchmaker Rolex was superb too, simply showing a supercut of the company’s watches in iconic movies through the years. When you can demonstrate Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway and many more wearing your product in films, on a night that celebrates that medium, you’ve scored a victory.

The New York Times chose the Oscars for its first TV spot in, reportedly, seven years, and because the Times is under blustery, politically motivated attack from the highest office in the land, the ad was interpreted as political.

What I saw, though, was a powerful statement about what good journalism tries to do. In black and white, of course, the words “The truth is” appear onscreen, a sentence first completed by “our nation is more divided than ever,” and then by a barrage of other statements: “... hard to find … the media is dishonest … alternative facts are lies … we need a full investigation of Russian ties … leaking classified information is the real scandal.”

It concludes by slowing the pace again, ending on “The truth is hard to find,” “hard to know” and “more important now than ever.” It’s a potent spot at just the right moment, and what a treat it is to see a media company rooted in print journalism that, after years of negativity about our business, is optimistic enough to invest in advertising its wares.

President Trump, predictably, took the bait, tweeting preemptively that “for the first time the failing @nytimes will take an ad (a bad one) to help save its failing reputation. Try reporting accurately & fairly!”

It is not known whether the Times formally thanked the president for drawing attention to its commercial, which was up on YouTube days in advance of the Oscars.

Audible, the audio content service from Amazon (which has also been under attack by Trump), made a political choice in the ad it chose to air. From a series of spots it has crafted celebrating the people who give voice to audiobooks, it showed actor Zachary Quinto reading George Orwell’s “1984.” That novel about a brutal authoritarian state has seen sales spike since the election of Trump and particularly since Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of the term “alternative facts.”

Not only is there a statement in the choice of the book, but there is an even more powerful one in the passage from it Quinto reads, a gut-punch to the xenophobic worldview: “If he were allowed contact with foreigners, he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he had been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.”

On a less pointed level, Revlon employed John Legend, Lady Gaga and Ellen DeGeneres in an ad for its Love Project, which aims to “grow more love in the world” and supports charities “that promote love, kindness, empathy and understanding.”

Similarly, but with more overt commercialism, Matt Damon touted water.org, an effort to bring clean water to those in need worldwide. Too bad the image showed so much of the Stella Artois beer logo, on the glasses people are supposed to buy to spur company contributions to the cause.

Cadillac and Hyatt both tried to get in on the divided people theme, as well, with divided results. The hotel chain showed images of people worldwide helping each other out while Andra Day sings “What the World Needs Now.” It ended on a travel-weary guy pulling up to a Hyatt and the on-screen legend “For a world of understanding. World of Hyatt.”

Cadillac, taking a page from Chrysler’s Super Bowl advertising playbook, backed images of American disunity and then unity behind a script that tried to stir the soul. “Maybe what we carry isn’t just people. It’s an idea — that while we’re not the same, we can be one, and all it takes is the willingness to dare.”

Both are beautifully made spots, a pleasure to watch unfold, and the pleas for understanding one another are mostly unassailable (although I disagree with Cadillac’s assertion that people helping each other out “doesn’t make the news”). But there’s a pretty big disconnect in those messages coming from luxury brands inaccessible to the vast majority of the world’s population. So: points for effort, points for execution, but then demerits for the crucial moment that ties the message to the company delivering it.

Samsung mixed its messages, as well. One spot essentially was a reaction to the company’s incendiary battery woes: It showed phones being “extensively tested, retested an then tested again.” In other words: No more surprise fires in your pants pockets.

Another Samsung ad, though, one that aired twice during the ABC broadcast, wasn’t quite so affirmative in its take on safety. In contrast to the big budget moviemaking of the Oscars, it celebrated the samizdat creativity demonstrated by people who make videos with their phones. Strong message, right? And pretty great visuals.

But the ad highlighted any number of risky behaviors on skateboards and the like and urged viewers, “Do what you can’t.” In the end, there were conflicting messages from Samsung: Our batteries won’t explode, but you might.

Verizon fell flat too, with its frequent ads featuring actor Thomas Middleditch. The phone company had Middleditch, in my reading, essentially doing his “Silicon Valley” character to tout the phone service, street barker style. The company shouldn’t taint a TV series we like with its commercial message, and the actor shouldn’t agree to sell out his character like that.

Wal-Mart tried to go big, employing real filmmakers to craft short films based on a six-item receipt, including paper towels and a baby monitor, from the sundries megachain. It's a version of a classic writing-class assignment, but none of the films worked particularly well. Seth Rogen’s was the least effective: Instead of trying to tie the items together into a narrative, it simply jumped from one product scenario to the next.

Credit to the Arkansas company for trying to be part of the Hollywood magic — and to all of the companies who are making the moments between statue dispensing more interesting than ever — but sometimes it’s okay if a commercial is just a commercial. I didn’t love Wal-Mart’s movie ads, but I appreciated the reminder that I’m running low on paper towels.

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com
Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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