Superbowl ads by, E*Trade, and more have suddenly made commercial breaks worthwhile


Believe it or not, the computer industry has come up with something even funnier than Bill Gates’ hair. Yes, we speak of Internet commercials.

Though TV ads for websites barely existed a year ago, nowadays they’ve descended onto the airwaves like prepubescent girls on Ricky Martin. Fortunately, they’re some of the sharpest pitches out there.

High tech’s watershed Madison Avenue moment occurred during January’s Super Bowl. Surprisingly, the most amusing ad came not from traditional powerhouses like Budweiser or AmEx but from an obscure company called Remember that black-and-white gem of kids sharing their goals for a downsized era? ”I want to be forced into early retirement.” ”I want to have a brown nose.”

Since then, we’ve seen a cubicle full of other treats. IMHO (as they say online), here are the top five:

E*TRADE: A jowly exec — bored with a minion begging for a raise — engages in a hilarious, Seinfeld-worthy monologue on Jujubes. ”The reds and the oranges…are the kings and queens of all Jujubes.” Tasty as Junior Mints.

YAHOO.COM: A clever culture clash: Tattoo-bedecked punk-rock dude harbors a secret passion for quilting. Thanks to his computer, he finds his hobby mates: a circle of Donna Reed-like women. Finally, a place to safely share needles.

DISCOVER BROKERAGE: A kid’s parents scold him for staying out too late and bar him from online investing for a week. Dad snaps: ”Now get that helicopter of yours off the lawn!”

EXCITE.COM: A shlub struggles to install an air conditioner only to watch it slide out the window and smash onto the street. Excite is so simple, the tag line explains, even this guy could figure it out. Cool, understated physical humor.

AMERITRADE: A middle-aged boss learns how to buy stocks online from a slacker who sounds disturbingly like MTV’s Jesse Camp (”Rock on!” and ”Let’s light this candle!”). Worth it alone for the latter’s goofy celebratory dance.

Why is high tech so high-larious? Partly, it’s the target audience, who aren’t your average beer-drinking mouth breathers. They ”tend to be a little bit younger, a little better educated,” says John Yost, whose company, Black Rocket, produced the Discover and Yahoo! ads. ”This leads to an opportunity to make sharper, more intelligent humor. We avoided the slapstick.”

Another factor: The products themselves are so dull (just the suffix .com makes the eyes glaze over) that nervous advertisers go for the gag — often at the expense of providing actual information.

Which leads to a quibble. A lot of these spots leave me as confused as I am amused.’s ad may be a mini-masterpiece; trouble is, I’m still not sure what the heck the website does. Likewise, Nortel Networks has a vexingly vague ad where an exec dryly recites lines from the Beatles’ ”Come Together.”

Mystifying, however, is better than misleading. Earlier this month, the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission complained that some online brokerage ads resembled those promise-the-moon commercials for lotteries. He highlighted a spot (that had ended its run in March) from Discover Brokerage about a tow-truck driver who bought his own island country.

So, obviously, online advertisements still have some bugs to work out. But they sure beat surfing the Internet.