Pop Culture

Best and worst commercials of the year

Only one commercial can top the sheer hatred our readers have for the winner of this year's . Yes, only creepy, toenail-snapping is more hated than the horrendous repetition that is this year's winning loser, the HeadOn headache remedy commercial.

In case you haven't seen it (you can find it on YouTube, but really, why would you want to?), the commercial is as insanely simple as it is annoying. A female voice repeats "HeadOn: Apply directly to the forehead!" three times as a blissed-out smug woman rolls what appears to be a Bonne Bell LipSmacker on her head.

What in the name of a glue stick in disguise is going on there? First off, does anyone believe that this works any better than, say, rubbing your head with your hand? Who decided that a commercial where only the product name and tagline are repeated over and over was good advertising? What kind of drugs is the model in the ad actually on? And does anyone know anyone who has ever, ever used this product, or seen it for sale anywhere outside these ads?

An produces some interesting factoids. Writer Seth Stevenson gives the commercial an A+, mostly, it seems, for sheer gumption. The commercials never say what the product is for. (It supposedly "creates a cooling sensation," according to what people told Stevenson. Which you could do for free with cold water, or ice, or a bag of frozen peas.)

The commercial's brassiness apparently came after focus groups remembered the nauseatingly repetitious version of the ad more than other, presumably more creative, takes on the topic.  Says Stevenson "The repetition method serves no purpose for a well-established brand ("Coca-Cola: Pour it down your esophagus. Coca-Cola: Pour it down your esophagus"), but for a new product fighting to get noticed, it makes a lot of sense."

The ads may have earned HeadOn some notice, and our worst-commercial dishonor for 2006, but I can't abide the thought that those obnoxious ads are making the company rich. So for all of you out there who voted for HeadOn as the worst ad, thank you, and now let's all participate in a mass hypnosis. Repeat after me "HeadOn. Never heard of it. HeadOn. Never heard of it. HeadOn. Never heard of it."

The Headache Remedy That Shall No Longer Be Named all but ran away with the worst-ad category, but at press time, second place was a very close race between "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks hawking Fords, and Geico's ads in which such "celebrities" as Charo translate what an average Joe Geico customer is saying.

Hicks was a but not for his loopy dancing, which is embarrassingly showcased in the ad. And as one reader complained: "the way he 'sings' the word 'possibility' sounds like 'possibilideeee'." Ford is an omnipresent sponsor of "American Idol," and as bad as the ad is, it may not even be as cheesy as some of the costume dramas the car company forces the "Idol" contestants to participate in each year on the show. And for every viewer who rolls his or her eyes at the ad, it seems that there's an 11-year-old girl shrieking "OMG! Taylor ROX! SOUL PATROLLLLLLLLL!"

The Geico ads make the company's own customers come off as bland nobodies who can't be trusted to express themselves, and the "celebrities" (Little Richard, Charo, Burt Bacharach) would not be out of place on a show called "Why Are They Famous, Again?" Geico definitely has an ad agency that's willing to swing for the fences, however, gotta give them credit there. From the accented gecko ("pie and chips!") to the offended cavemen ("I'll have the roast duck with the mango salsa"), they're always out there trying something new. At least they're not yelling "GEICO INSURANCE! Apply directly to your pocketbook! GEICO INS--"

Your this year isn't just one ad, but a series of them, featuring talking dairy cows and produced by the California Milk Advisory Board for Real California Cheese. (The product got lost in the translation for some of you though, who never realized the ads were for cheese and thought it was hyping either milk or beef -- different kind of cow, that last one. Different kind of ending for the cow, too.)

These ads were pretty much made for this contest. They feature cute animals and jokes that are actually funny and smart. There's a "Braveheart" parody in which an army of sheep plot an attack on their bovine neighbors, only to be stopped short by a herding dog. There's an ad that hearkens back to childhood memories of gender battles and cooties, in which a cow teases a bull by forcing him to say nice things about cows ("And do you think they're pretty?") before she'll return his football. The constant changeup of ads means we're not constantly barraged with the same ad over and over and over again ("CALIFORNIA CHEESE! Apply directly to your--").

Not everyone loves the ads: Earlier this summer I shared an email from a reader angry over how the commercial depicts the life of cows raised in the dairy industry. Reader Mary wrote, in part "Get educated, people: factory farmed cows are brutally treated and kept in deplorable conditions. They're not playing ball or grazing in the grass.”

Perhaps that's part of why the ads are so popular. They show a better world, in which cows not only talk to and tease each other, but in which they stride freely in sunny pastures, eager to hand over their milk. I don't think viewers really believe that, but it's a beautiful fantasy.

At press time, one of the commercials that was coming in second in the best-ad voting is an adorable little one for PetSmart. It features a perky dachshund and his stuffed-animal pal, Bobo. Bobo, like many a beloved toy, becomes old and stanky, so the dog's owner pitches it and trots the little pup straight to PetSmart, where he picks out a new Bobo and happiness reigns anew. If only human children would so easily replace a beloved old toy with a fresh one.

The ad is so memorable mainly because of the scenes of the tiny dog really rocking out with his toy friend, and for one goofy scene in which he won't let go of it long enough for the cashier to scan it, so it's scanned while he clutches it in his mouth.

Tied with the dachshund ad for second place in the best-commercial roundup was a FedEx ad that first aired during the Super Bowl. A caveman tries sending a package (well, a bone) by pterodactyl, but his bird is chomped by a dinosaur. Hapless caveman is berated for not using FedEx, and his protest that it wasn't invented yet falls on typical boss-like ears ("Not my problem," the subtitles translate his boss as saying.) When the caveman stomps out of the cave and kicks a tiny dinosaur in his anger, that bit of animal abuse isn't left to stand unchallenged. To borrow a phrase from a different company's caveman ad, a giant dinosaur foot stomps him into mango salsa.

Even when viewed amongst the impressive ads that companies roll out during the Super Bowl, the FedEx ad rose above the rest. It's witty, it's funny, and it (sort of) makes a point about the product. Use FedEx unless you want your message to be eaten by a dinosaur! use FedEx if you have an unreasonable boss who thinks the vagaries of modern business are all your fault! Use FedEx unless you want to wind up as toe jam on a T-Rex's foot! ("FED EX! Apply directly to your--", er, never mind.)

I've had a great time discussing commercials with you, and we'll do it again next summer, after I have the year's worst ad surgically removed from my own head. For now, Test Pattern soon will return to other TV and pop-culture related topics, and I hope you'll read along with me there, too.

For now though, anybody got anything for a headache?

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor.

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