WHILE THERE'S DEBATE EVERY YEAR over who had the best Super Bowl commercial, at least this year there was universal agreement on the worst: the spot for Just For Feet running shoes in which an African man, running barefoot, is hunted down by some white guys in a Jeep, drugged, and forcibly shod.

Some called it racist. But that would be giving it credit for making any sense at all—mainly, it was just baffling. Which makes you wonder: how did a bungle this big ever get past a client, anyway?

According to the online magazine Salon (May 28, 1999), when Just For Feet’s CEO saw the boards for his first-ever TV spot, he was just as baffled and appalled as 100 million viewers would later be. But the agency held their breath until they turned blue, insisting that the ad was brilliantly offbeat and would put his company on the map. Finally he gave in. Now he’s suing his new ex-agency in return, saying that forcing this creative on him constituted professional malpractice.

Now, I know what you’re thinking—where can I get a total pushover client like that? But there’s a bigger issue here—ad agency malpractice. If there is such a thing, this wasn’t it.

Basically, Just For Feet was the hick who walks into the ritziest casino in Vegas and is amazed to find himself cleaned out two minutes later. The Super Bowl is, well, the Super Bowl of advertising: the best and the brightest at their farthest out. And as Leo Burnett never exactly said, if you try to reach for those kind of stars, occasionally you’re going to blow up on the launch pad in the biggest ball of flames anybody ever saw.

Malpractice wouldn’t have been trying, and abjectly failing, to out-Pepsi Pepsi. Malpractice would have been not trying—telling Just For Feet they could do something safe in this arena. Getting an overexposed celebrity with a high Q rating like John Madden, maybe combining him with a flying happy face like Wal-Mart’s and then doing one of those Matrix-type freeze-and-track-in-a-circle-things that are so hot now. Nobody would have objected to that. Nobody would have remembered it at all five seconds after it aired.

And nobody would have gotten sued, either.


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Fig. 1. A typical Super Bowl commercial being delivered to the client.