Too much monkey business at the Super Bowl

The creator of Xerox's "Monks" spot says there's a big difference between creating an ad for the Super Bowl and for the client

The SUV is on its way home packed with cases of beer and bags of tortilla chips. Yes, it’s Super Bowl time. That once-in-a-year excuse for friends to gather round a 56-inch TV to root their teams on and get sloshed. And advertising people sit with baited breath to see this year’s crop of  "Super" commercials to talk about in the week ahead.

There was a time when it was hard to decide what was more exciting, the games or the spots. In fact, watching Super Bowl commercials replaced baseball as our national pastime. And not just for us ad folks. Media started vampiring the spots long before the players suited up. Every network has a special called something like "The greatest Super Bowl Ads ever." People love to watch these things. Imagine, commercials with no show to sit through. And commercials taking a station break to show commercials! 

Lois Korey, my former partner and co-founder of Korey Kay, who passed away way before her time, the year of Super Bowl  XXIV, used to say, "Everyone is in two businesses. Their business and the advertising business." We make it look too easy. How many parties have you been at where someone, usually a dentist, tells you he has a great idea for a TV spot? And insists on describing it to you, then waits, face frozen in a smile, for you to tell him it’s great?

What’s worse is that was just his warm-up. What follows is the even better idea he came up with for one of your clients. "Just out of the blue." … that he insists you tell them about. "Oh," you say, "they’re not allowed to accept unsolicited ideas." He thinks for a sec, then says, "Then tell them it’s your idea! They’ll love it. Might even get you a raise." "Excuse me" you say, "my wife is signaling." For some reason that always seems to work, even if you’re single.

I often stop and wonder why is it that people don’t go up to brain surgeons at a party and say, "I have a great idea for a lobotomy." I guess it’s because people haven’t spent most of their lives in front of a TV watching brain operations.The past several years, all the sideline critics have decided that most of the Super Bowl spots suck. "Really stupid." "What was the point?" "Great commercial, but I don’t remember the product." Somewhere along the line, art directors and writers forgot that their job was to sell something. 

I can’t put my finger on when the lunacy began. At times, I think it was in 2000, when Goodby ran the first of the E*Trade Monkey spots. It was brilliant. Self-effacing. It related to the Super Bowl, and to the company. Can you imagine that! 

There was some unfortunate fallout, though. Many ad people missed the point. "Let’s do a spot with monkeys. Monkeys make funny commercials." "Yeah, that Super Bowl Monkey spot was really funny. Let’s do spots with monkeys!" 

Three tragic flaws: 

1. Monkeys don’t make great commercials. Smart people do. 

2. Funny does not mean good. That misguided idea was the springboard for many mindless commercials that have nothing to do with the product. That isn’t funny. 

When I’m asked to speak about humor in advertising, I say humor is a powerful tool. But like a hammer, it can build a house or break a window. It all depends on whose hand it’s in. The advice I give is, start with the benefit of the product. The humor has to be inspired by that. You should use humor to make a point, not a joke. A lot of people creating ads today don’t get it.

I was once interviewed for an advertising segment on a morning show talking about beer commercials. They all seemed pretty much the same. Sophomoric humor assuming beer drinkers that went to college never got beyond their sophomore year. The interviewer asked me what I thought was behind that. I said every product has a story to tell. And often it takes a lot of brain pain to discover it. If you don’t take the time, have the insight or intelligence to find that story, you cop out with a joke. I see it as a form of affinity adverting. Like my joke, you’ll like my beer. Trouble is, there’s no differentiation. They were all telling the same joke.

3. What’s changed over time is the birth of "The Super Bowl Spot." A commercial created for the Super Bowl and not for the client. My advice to anyone fortunate enough to be working on a spot for the Super Bowl, don’t go for "a Super Bowl spot." Instead, concentrate on doing an amazing commercial that sells the product in an imaginative, original, persuasive and memorable way that could just as easily be running on "Days of Our Lives."

Odds are you’ll score.

Allen Kay, the former CEO of NYC Agency Korey Kay & Partners, created the classic Xerox "Monks" commercial that premiered in Super Bowl X.  


Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free