NEW YORK - Along with the usual punchlines, cartoonish violence and car chases, the real world of a depressed economy slipped into the showcase of Super Bowl commercials.
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 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."
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.
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."
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.