In a Bud Light commercial, employees sat around a conference table while their exasperated boss wondered what they could do to make their budget.
"We could cut back on marketing," one person said.
"We could eliminate bonuses," said another, a line more timely than even Anheuser-Busch could have foreseen.
"How about if we stop buying Bud Light for every meeting?" one employee wondered, an act of betrayal that got him tossed out the boardroom window.
Even before the kickoff, Daryn from Texas testified on-screen about how she's trying to make ends meet: "If someone asks me how they can make money right now, I say do what I'm doing, sell Avon," she said in touting the cosmetics company.
The talking babies hawking E-Trade Financial Corp. commiserated: "This economy has been a little rough, man."
To be sure, most of the ads struck their usual comedic tone. There was a snow globe thrown to the crotch to sell Doritos, Danica Patrick taking her fifth shower of the day for Go Daddy Group Inc. and a hilarious Conan O'Brien piece about a cheesy commercial he thought was only going to be shown in Sweden.
The Grim Reaper also showed up for an H&R Block commercial, and screaming competitors showed how mad they were about carmaker Hyundai winning an award.
Even if it's not obvious at first, some of those commercials showed a hard edge seldom seen in Super Bowl ads, said Tim Calkins, an analyst at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Several took on competitors directly: an Audi ad depicted other luxury cars, a Teleflora ad mocking "flowers in a box" was directed at Internet flower delivery services and the H&R Block ad scared potential customers about less reliable tax preparers.
The economy "is forcing advertisers to really think about how they are going to drive sales," Calkins said. "What they're doing is really focusing on differentiation."
A 60-second ad for Cars.com used the comedic set-up of a whiz kid who performed heart surgery with a ball point pen yet still breaks out in a cold sweat when going to car dealers. The company's marketers said it was the economy that forced it to take an opposite approach — using gentler humor than it might have otherwise.
"There's not tons of excitement and enthusiasm in the marketplace," said Carolyn Crafts, vice president of marketing for Cars.com. "There's a lot of negative news. It's just incongruous to us to have broader humor when you see the marketplace now."
At the end of a "Godfather" takeoff, Denny's offered struggling viewers a bargain, inviting them in for a free Grand Slam breakfast.
Two of the funniest ads in the second half were for Web sites promising career advancement. Monster.com and Careerbuilder.com offered vivid displays of lousy jobs to escape from; you almost forget that there may not be better jobs to escape to.
At the end of the first half, the movie "Monsters vs. Aliens" and soft drink manufacturer SoBe combined for back-to-back ads demonstrating 3-D technology. Without the glasses, the effect was evident, yet harmed by a fuzzy screen.
Among the most-effective ads was Pepsi's combination of Bob Dylan and will.i.am to bridge generations on a version of Dylan's "Forever Young." Purists may sneer, but Dylan's done commercials before, and this was classy.
Less classy were the snack food advertisers, who couldn't seem to say much about their product. Instead, Cheetos went for the cheap laugh of getting pigeons to attack an annoying woman on a cell phone.
NBC's marketing department showed more creativity than its programmers have lately, with some clever ads for the network's Monday night lineup and a minimalist promotion with Jay Leno in a sports car about his upcoming move to 10 p.m. Yet its "LYAO" ad for the Thursday night comedies — the network's creative peak these days — was shockingly unfunny and tasteless.
Go Daddy won one of the night's biggest bets with its "enhancement" ad during the final two minutes. If it was a lousy game, millions of viewers would have been gone. But the Steelers and Cardinals provided a gripping finish in Pittsburgh's 27-23 win — and likely a big audience for the ad.