For most Americans, the Super Bowl means three things: football, beer and advertising. People aren’t huddling up to their screens just for the game anymore. Commercials aired during the Super Bowl XLI hit a record $2.6 million per 30 second spot, turning time-outs and quarter breaks into highly anticipated media victories.

The competition is fierce and companies know it. The ads feature every trick in the book, from sex-kitten consumerism to celebrity sightings. GoDaddy.com boasted this year’s best underdressed/wet girls, and famous faces included ranged from Sheryl Crow to Dwyane Wade to even the Times Square Naked Cowboy (not to mention Robert Goulet).

But there were some names that shouldn’t have been dropped. Carlos Mencia tried to play off his ethnic charm for Budweiser, but wound up looking like a jackass. And even though the overhyped Kevin Federline promo for Nationwide cleverly used the “Life comes at you fast” slogan to poke fun at Federline’s rapid decline, I can’t imagine it did much to boost his credibility – not that he ever had any.

Beyond the predictable formula for campaign success, there’s usually a thinly veiled attempt to tug at the nation’s emotional pull strings. Where last year’s tributes went largely to American troops, this year’s February Super Bowl commemorated Black History Month. Coca-Cola took a contemporary, minimalist approach to highlight major figures in African-American history, and Frito Lay recognized the time-held tradition of football fans with an announcer’s appreciative subtext that it’s “not just getting here, but what getting here represents.”

So which commercials went home with a blue ribbon? Anheuser-Busch shelled out cash for 10 spots but pulled through with only a few noteworthy ads (see the yard-party face-off and Jay-Z’s virtual playing field). Considering the company’s track record and the evening’s hefty price tag, the commercials came off unexpectedly flat. Coca-Cola and Frito Lay, on the other hand, showed some snappy originality.

Coca-Cola played it smart by appealing to a variety of audiences with several completely unique commercials. One of the ads ran like a violent GTA-style video game, until the alleged criminal helped himself to a Coke and began spreading his newfound joy to the neighborhood by putting out a fire, retrieving an old lady’s stolen purse and essentially rebuilding the entire city through various other admirable deeds (having clearly just discovered “the Coke side of life”).

Frito Lay’s two ads, under the Doritos brand name, were genuinely clever. A man runs bag after bag of Doritos through the check-out aisle while the cashier, indifferent at first, becomes gradually aroused. The final frame finds her with tousled hair, struggling to stand and requesting a cleanup on register six.

When it comes to Super Bowl ads, I expect epic commercials. And at $2.6-million a pop, why shouldn’t they be? This year, there were still some were notable disappointments.

Garmin’s commercial promoting GPS navigational systems was a disgrace to the evening’s typically forward-thinking TV spots. The ad centers on an ordinary businessman being attacked by a map that quickly expands to become a huge monster. The man’s GPS unit then morphs him into a giant, chrome-covered hero to combat the beast, all set to an obnoxious rock tune that you probably heard in a commercial for robo-action figures 10 years ago.

Snickers sent an odd message to manly sports fans by using the candy bar to induce a kiss between a mechanic and his male customer. Both quickly reaffirm their masculinity by ripping out handfuls of carpet-like chest hair. (Do I need to explain why this is a no-go?)

If you’re actually interested in watching the game, it’s almost impossible not to miss at least one commercial, if not a whole handful of them. Luckily the digital age is catching up, and the Internet has transformed into Super Bowl backup. CBS, AOL and YouTube.com posted every commercial online shortly after its airtime – if not before the actual debut. And since ad critiques dominate gossip circles immediately after the game anyway, each site provided its own unique rating system to determine Sunday night’s other winning team. Companies like Frito Lay and Chevrolet took advantage of the web early on by letting the public vote and pitch ideas.

The Colts might have taken home the Lombardi trophy – courtesy of Tiffany & Co., naturally – but the real prize earnings will come from you, the devoted consumer.

– Hartmann couldn’t tell you the final score if her life depended on it. Send her your favorite ads at carolinh@umich.edu.

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