Once again, for fans of basketball, spring is a seriously double-edged sword: On one side, between March Madness and the NBA Playoffs, we have an absolute feast of high-level hoops to keep us entertained; on the other edge, the glut of interminable ads that we have to watch over, and over, and over, during every commercial break.
What this means is, by mid-to-late June, after the new NBA champion has been crowned, we've been forced to watch the same ads, from the same companies, until driven to madness. It's the price we pay, I suppose, but by this time in the year, many of us have reached near our breaking point.
As a means of putting voice to suffering, then, for the second year in a row, I've compiled a list of some of the major sponsors of this year's basketball tourneys, and the ads they've been putting us through, by order of aggrievement, from least objectionable to most horrifically irritating.
Grades are 1-5 for what I call the "Irritation Index," with 1 being harmless, and 5 being face-meltingly excruciating; and standard letter grades for the overall experience. Let the games begin!
The Ad Campaign(s): More from Flo and her wacky friends, as they continue to soft-sell their insurance bundle products. In one spot, the crew happen down the "wrong" exit lane at a rest stop and come across all the RVs and buses that have parked in that lot. In another, they go to very elaborate lengths to celebrate a driver's savings, after revealing to her they've been incognito watching her for some time, emerging from under their various disguises. In yet another, Motaur, another Progressive agent crew member, spends a fun afternoon with a client after they get through their insurance business much more quickly than anticipated.
Funny or Death: Funny enough, for sure. At this point, the "series" has expanded its repertoire of characters, such that Flo is often secondary to the focus on other agents, such as Jamie, the nebbish-yet-surprising member; Mara, the hilariously downbeat one; or the aforementioned Motaur, who takes his first spotlight ad and runs with it. This helps keep the campaign feeling fresh, as does the writing for the spots, which remains dutifully clever.
Irritation Index: 1
The Ad Campaign(s): More silliness with the Geico gecko -- whose accent crosses the boundaries between Brit and Aussie in peculiar ways -- though the two ads most frequently running during the NBA playoffs are both older. In one, our intrepid gecko tastes a bit of sauce from an order of Buffalo wings (presumably, in Buffalo), and tries to get his sales pitch out while gradually succumbing to the scorching result. In the other, he runs afoul of a pair of yard sale veterans when he refuses to sell them one of his (adorably) small recliners.
Funny or Death: Mildly funny? Sort've amusing? They are short and painless, and both offer key moments ("That's too hot, mate," he mutters after the hot sauce has staggered him; "Is this a yard sale?" the couple ask him sarcastically) that keep you going to the end, and bear repeated viewings pretty well. Well crafted. Might be time to refresh the spots for next year, however.
Irritation Index: 1
The Ad Campaign(s): "The Greatest Pick Up Game of All Time." A series of ads that purport to depict what happens on a basketball court when everyone from all over the world spontaneously comes to compete in a pickup game, with a crowd in the stands whooping it up every time another All-Star (Joel Embiid, say, or Giannis Antentekoumpo) suddenly shows up, as if they have nothing better to do. Loosely modeled on a game you could conceivably see at Harlem's historic Rucker Park (where everyone from Kevin Durant to Kobe Bryant has indeed shown up to hoop).
Funny or Death: "I am next," Neither, quite, but leaning at least a bit more in the black. There are more subtle things to appreciate, at least in the ad featuring an enormous Russian man who wants to play the winners, including his full-body motion towards the MC's megaphone, and their shared elbow bump when they figure out what each other wants.
Irritation Index: 2. Considering how insanely overplayed they have been, that's not too bad.
The Ad Campaign(s): Thankfully, at least during the NBA playoffs, there really only has been one, "Great Estimations," in which Lily (Milana Vayntrub) now pretends to be one of those ubiquitous assessors on an "Antiques Roadshow"-type show.
Funny or Death: Not funny, really, but Lily does get to do something beyond "inanely perky" at least. Her intonation of the word "Auction" ("AWK-shun") is well-played by the longtime pitch woman. Other than the musical introduction, which will eventually bore a pair of holes in your cerebral cortex if you're not careful, it's a reasonably painless experience.
Irritation Index: 2.5, which is a giant step up for this campaign, it must be said.
The Ad Campaign(s): Pretty much the same crew of Wendy's workers as before, pitching their wares, with or without Reggie Miller. There's nothing resembling personality among the crew, exactly -- save for one ad that featured the lone female worker getting a bit too into celebrating hamburgers -- but, like an order of fries, they go down quickly enough.
Funny or Death: Decidedly not funny, but not-not funny, if you know what I mean. They don't do anything aggressive enough to be genuinely comedic, but they also don't assume they're hilarious (see Capital One, below), which makes them (barely) watchable. It does certainly seem as if this particular Wendy's crew has been together a long time at this point. Does that actually happen at fast food joints?
Irritation Index: 2.5. Just because they opt for fast -- most of them are of the 10-15 second variety -- doesn't mean they don't quickly wear out their welcome. At least this year, none of their ads have singing in them.
The Ad Campaign(s): Continuing the exploits of Jake from State Farm, as he interacts with many of his usual suspects (including Chris Paul, Boban Marjanovic, and newcomer Arike Ogunbowale). This year's iteration involves one of these athletes querying Jake about possible alternate realities in their lives, such as Paul becoming a competitive race-walker, or wearing giant shorts. Yawn.
Funny or Death: Death, still, though slightly less irritating than last year's efforts, which featured more of Jake himself, an empty vessel of a pitchman. They seem to have figured out that there isn't enough with that "character" to push things forward, so he's been significantly downsized, leaving the heavy lifting to the cast of athletes trying to be funny. They aren't, but it's still a step up.
Irritation Index: 3.5. Chris Paul, now many years away from his athletic peak, remains an odd choice for lead pitchman, given his well-deserved reputation for being a supremely persnickety and irksome player to compete against.
The Ad Campaign(s): "You Rule!" Wherein they retool one of their old jingles from the '70s ("Have It Your Way") with a new jack beat, and a new caption, in order to lean into their "rich history"? There's not much to them other than the new jingle and the accompanying pictures of food items, and happy customers prepared to consume them.
Funny or Death: Neutral. They aren't going for funny, just a nostalgia vibe from an era when we could eat a couple of Whoppers, and a bucket of fries with a huge Coke, and feel as if we hadn't just shortened our life by several weeks.
Irritation Index: 4.5. Then why so high on the irritation index? Because that damn jingle is now a supreme earworm! Seriously, it's actually like an ear sandworm from "Dune." It's the one ad I have to rush to mute before my brain catches on to it, else I have it spooling through my head the rest of the day and night. It's lethal.
The Ad Campaign(s): Former Saturday Night Live standout Cecily Strong interacts with a series of quasi-celebrities. In the most recent iteration, she hangs about with fellow SNL alumnus Seth Meyers, as he prattles on about how awesome his new Verizon service is.
Funny or Death: Horrifically unfunny to begin with, and, as with the March Madness Einstein commercials, overplayed to the point of teeth-grinding fury. Corporations, you can either have truly engaging ads run a lot, or really stultifying ads running rarely. Do not make the mistake of having gruesomely banal ads running nonstop, for pity's sake.
Irritation Index: 4, and climbing.
Grade: D-, a barely passing grade, only because I (barely) still retain love for Strong.
The Ad Campaign(s): The giant banking conglomerate saw fit to continue its mirthless campaign, featuring Charles Barkley (who passed the shame corridor a long time ago), and a debased Spike Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson, along with perennial special guest, colorless, odorless Jim Nance, and, this year, Jennifer Garner, to mirthlessly fake laugh their way to the Final Four. In keeping with previous years, the ad series features witless jokes -- this year, almost entirely dependent on variations of "Chuck," as Barkley dances in a chorus line, and drives a 16-wheeler. Alternately, they also trot out a grinning pitchman with gigantic hands, who seems on the verge of hysteric chuckling, while informing us switching to their bank is the "easiest decision in the history of decisions" just like ____. The painfully labored set-up reveals scenes of moronic "humor" (generally, former professional athletes being "chosen" in a pick-up game with a bunch of kids and/or scrubs, over other kids and/or scrubs) that I can't imagine anyone finds even remotely witty.
Funny or Death: Painfully, awkwardly unfunny, to the point of wincing at having to watch this crew, in their NCAA spots -- including two heralded actors, and a much-lauded filmmaker -- clumsily lurch from one tired joke after another (unless the idea of "Chuckettes" strikes you as the height of comedy).
Irritation Index: 5. It's entirely possible this crew has genuine affection for one another -- Lee, Barkley and Jackson have been making these miserable ads for years -- but, if so, precious little of that goodwill is evident in these moronic ads. At this point, with Barkley seemingly willing to shill for anyone (see, also, his dismal "Subway" ads), and do anything, it just feels depressing.
BetMGM, DraftKings, Caesars, et al.
The Ad Campaign(s): Endless, witless ads targeted at getting you hooked on online gambling, and betting on all these games you are otherwise already watching. I know, let's turn the nation of sports fans into fleshy ATM machines for the giant casinos who have embraced the new world gambling order with both slimy arms and both cloven-hoofed legs. Got a gambling problem? 1-800-Gambler isn't going to save you. Be prepared for a wave of foreclosures, blown college funds, and desperately broke parents turning to selling their plasma for their kids' educations.
Funny or Death: Death. Death by the sting of a thousand thousand executioner wasps, on a day of nearly 100% humidity, with an army of 3-and-4-year-olds hopped up on rainbow-flavored Skittles shrieking around you, and flinging diapers full of ripened hákarl at your face.
Irritation Index: 5.