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Tech Industry

2HRS2GO: E*Trade wins ad Super Bowl

    COMMENTARY -- Kerry Collins and Ray Lewis have nothing on E*Trade (Nasdaq: EGRP) when it comes to image rehabilitation.

    Being an avid football fan, I'm one of the few people who actually watched the Super Bowl for the game itself. However, I admit to sharing the motivation of most Super Bowl viewers. I also wanted to see the ads.

    Critics and pundits -- including me -- rightfully lamented last year's profusion of dot-com and tech-related advertisers. There were a few amusing moments such as the "Cat Herders" ad from Electronic Data Systems (NYSE: EDS), but nothing stood out as a great piece.

    The Internet firms mostly disappeared this year, providing further proof that just two clubs deserve the title "Super Bowl Dynasty": Budweiser and Pepsi.

    Only three dot-coms returned this year, and Monster.com and HotJobs.com (Nasdaq: HOTJ) should have saved their money. Fortunately, E*Trade saved our industry's reputation for memorable ads.

    The online brokerage offered some sage and funny tidbits. Its monkey advertisement encapsulated all the blather about Internet bubble's collapse.

    If you missed the spot: E*Trade puts a chimpanzee on a horse that rides through a dot-com graveyard, replete with amusing fictional busts such as "TieClasp.com" and "PimentoLoaf.com"; a wrecking ball smashes a building and Pets.com's infamous sock puppet lands at the simian's feet; a tear rolls down the chimp's cheek; "Invest Wisely"; E*Trade logo; fade to black.

    It was one of the few moments when everyone at our Super Bowl party laughed out loud. The message was particularly humorous coming from E*Trade.

    Remember the old E*Trade? The proponent of "Money Up the Wazoo" imagery that promoted the idea of getting rich quickly through online investing? The company with lower commissions for frequent traders? TRADE 75+ TIMES PER QUARTER, screams the Power E*Trade website.

    Now E*Trade stands as the voice of investing reason.

    To its credit, E*Trade over the last several quarters has issued messages urging prudence. And why blame E*Trade for previously feeding the Get Rich quick mentality of late 1990s Wall Street? After all, playing to that crowd early in the game catapulted E*Trade to the forefront of online brokers.

    At least E*Trade -- by bringing back the monkey from last year's "We Wasted $2 Million" ad -- slyly admitted its culpability and participation in Internet stock hype, and did so without a pathetic act of self-flagellation.

    Given the likelihood of short memories, don't expect people to remember E*Trade's irrationally exuberant PR from the past. They will associate E*Trade and "Invest Wisely".

    And that's a miraculous makeover.

    Other ads fall short.

    I've never understood why technology-related companies buy into the Super Bowl propaganda spewed by marketing agencies. Hit a broad audience, propagate a brand, whatever.

    Just remember that for all the praise heaped on the 1984 ad from Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), that campaign was a failure from a practical standpoint. Macintosh sales did not meet the company's high expectations and Steve Jobs spent more than a decade exiled from his company.

    Tech buyers aren't so easily swayed. They may remember your brand, but a recognized name doesn't mean they'll use your product or technology service (Intel and Microsoft excepted).

    Yet Electronic Data Systems (NYSE: EDS), Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless and the Company Formerly Known as Andersen Consulting expected some kind of measurable return from yesterday's TV broadcast.

    I can't argue with EDS, because they're a returning customer. However, it is time for a new advertising theme: these We-Can-Handle-Any-Job-No-Matter-How-Unconventional spots are getting old.

    As for the others, I can only assume Accenture and Cingular were trying to get their names out. Not many know the brands, and even fewer realize Cingular is a melding of wireless systems from BellSouth (NYSE: BLS) and SBC Communications (NYSE: SBC), or that Accenture used to be Andersen Consulting.

    Still, I wonder what the wireless services are telling us. Cingular apparently wants you to express yourself freely. Verizon says it can help us communicate in any kind of situation, even without sound.

    I suspect the majority of prospective wireless customers would rather hear a more useful message. Cell phones haven't been gee-whiz technologies for 10 years; they're a practical reality for many people. Express myself? Forget it -- tell me you're cheaper and offer a wider network than the other guys.

    Because image isn't everything, not even during the Super Bowl. 22GO>