Why are the 2018 World Cup ads so bad?

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 20: Detail View of the assistant Referee's adidas boots with World Cup Russia logo during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Portugal and Morocco at Luzhniki Stadium on June 20, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 20: Detail View of the assistant Referee's adidas boots with World Cup Russia logo during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Portugal and Morocco at Luzhniki Stadium on June 20, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images) /

Advertisers spooked by a lack of U.S. team at the World Cup seemed to have, uh, forgotten what makes sports ads appealing.

If you’ve been watching the World Cup in the United States through most legal means, you’ve likely been subject to World Cup-related ads. If you’ve been subject to World Cup-related ads, you’ve likely noticed two things: 1) they are mostly bad, or rather, none of them are notably good, and 2) they tend to say the same thing: Americans need a team to root for and, to a lesser degree, don’t know what they’re watching.

The most prevalent example is Volkswagen’s “Jump on the Wagen” campaign, in which nationals of various teams (Iceland, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Switzerland, and so on) offer their condolences and reasons to jump on the bandwagon of their respective countries. Previously, 23andMe ran a series of ads suggesting you could get your DNA tested to “root for your roots.” McDonald’s posits a fun new tradition of watching the World Cup over breakfast and never knowing or caring what or who you’re watching in a campaign that admittedly, gets much, much better as the plot evolves through the quarterfinals and finals spots.

There’s another ad that features home decor, including porcelain figurines of opera singers, providing additional commentary on whatever match is playing with a refrain along the lines of “everyone’s an expert.” There is a Verizon spot that airs at the end of every first half of every game featuring known spokesman and Silicon Valley star Thomas Middleditch announcing halftime with Landon Donovan, and either not knowing who Landon Donovan is or not knowing the U.S. didn’t qualify — neither interpretation is particularly funny at this point. Speaking of Donovan, there is also the controversial Wells Fargo #VamosMexico ad, which bothered people for a number of reasons ranging from  the player’s seeming disregard for the bitter Mexico-USMNT rivalry to the company’s investment in prisons at the border.

Elsewhere in World Cup advertising, Adidas offers up only a vaguely soccer-themed “creators” cameo smorgasbord that’s fun but has wildly little to do with the World Cup. (Particularly disappointing compared to the brand’s “House Match” and “The Wake Up Call” 2014 spots.)

On one level, the reason the World Cup ads suck this year is very simple: These just are not good ads. They’re not particularly well-written or storyboarded, they’re lazy and they don’t pay off the promise of good premises (a lack of U.S. team, a plethora of casual fans). The Volkswagen campaign isn’t a terrible idea (nor is it even bad in a salt-in-the-wound way), it just doesn’t actually make a good or fun case for why you should root for any given country. As a whole — at least through the group phase — the 2018 World Cup ads don’t evoke emotions, they don’t inspire, they don’t entertain. They don’t actually make you want to care about or watch the World Cup.

The more detailed theory as to why they’re bad is that when the U.S. failed to qualify for the tournament, U.S. advertisers scrambled to rework their campaigns. Which makes sense, but also suggests these brands and their agencies were operating under the assumptions that the main appeal of the World Cup for American viewers is rooting for the U.S. (which is true) and that the presence or lack thereof of the U.S. men’s team is relevant to the best of World Cup U.S. advertising (which is not).

The first statement is objective fact. Ratings in the United States for the 2018 World Cup are down 44 percent. It could be much worse: In 2014, four times as many viewers watched the U.S. matches compared to any other game up through the Round of 16, so really a drop of 75 percent would not have been unexpected. (The significantly worse time change doesn’t help matters for the casual fan either.) One could make the argument that investment in the U.S. begets investment in the tournament at large and would increase viewership in the other matches. But that’s not really the issue, the issue is that advertisers were creating spots first and foremost for a specific audience of USMNT fans during those high-volume U.S. matches, and now those matches (and their defined audiences) do not exist.

There’s no way to know what Volkswagen or Wells Fargo initially had planned, though it seems likely enough that Adidas and McDonald’s were always planning the campaigns they’re running.

In any case, the ads that have aired so far during the World Cup all seem to share a riff on self-awareness that says we don’t have a team and we also don’t really know what we’re watching, but that doesn’t matter because we’re all in. Which is fine, but they attempt to speak to a specific (casual) American soccer fan experience, that is far from clear or shared, when the best World Cup ads — the best sports ads — speak to a universal fan experience. The best World Cup ads, especially those from the conspicuously absent Nike, convey the emotion, fandom (patriotism) and thrill of watching your national team and your heroes succeed or fail or do cool tricks. They tell stories and set stakes. You, as a quadrennial soccer fan, don’t need to recognize the player because you, a sports fan and human, recognize the emotion.

McDonald’s does attempt to convey all this — the feeling of getting swept up in the investment of strangers, but undercuts it with that strange “does it matter” line. Budweiser does all right as well, following past formulas, but goes with a drone approach that adds an unnerving dystopian air to the festivities. Nike’s solitary offering, specific to Brazil, is great, but not likely to get any U.S. airplay. Beats by Dre, with their short “The Mixtape,” appears to be the only brand interested in meeting the level of their 2014 ad/film, “The Game Before the Game.”

The best so far — the most original, relevant and, significantly, fun — is probably #TimeOnYourHands, from Silicon Valley shopping app Wish, which leans into the big-teams-miss-the-tournament storyline, casting a USMNT favorite along the way. A Gigi Buffon-focused spot aired during the Russia-Uruguay match on Monday morning, though the featured players both in (Neymar, Paul Pogba) and out (Robin van Persie, Gareth Bale and Tim Howard) of Russia have been sharing their respective spots on social media since mid-June.

Unfortunately, what’s airing on Fox Sports is mostly a collection of World Cup ads that seem to be lacking in the most intriguing, appealing and entertaining elements of the World Cup itself: the athletes, their sport and their various sick skills.

UPDATE: The Lionel Messi-Marcelo Vieira-Toni Kroos-Carli Lloyd-Dele Alli-Giovani dos Santos Pepsi ad is also very good. Athletes: Check. Soccer: Check. Sick skills: Check. Strong music choice: Bonus check.

Anyways, here are a bunch of really fun ads from the 2014 World Cup.

And really, it could all be worse. At least the U.S. is not subject to this Maroon 5 CGI atrocity.

Next: 30 best players at the World Cup

For more from the World Cup, make sure to follow FanSided and stay tuned to our soccer hub for all the latest news and results.