Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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Our reboot-frenzied age of IP, the one that stretched 13 episodes out of Green Eggs And Ham and turned Fantasy Island into a slasher, spawned from a single truth: If you’re going to gamble, it may as well be on a sure thing.

Being bad, after all, has never corked the simple pleasures of recognition, the warm fuzzies that come with being in on the joke. Celebrity and nostalgia have always been part and parcel of the Super Bowl ad machine—remember when Bud Light raised Spuds MacKenzie from the dead?—but there was an amusing lack of logic to many of this year’s spots, a transparent and proud cynicism that placed cogent premises and brand clarity behind recognition and celebrity. Why, you probably asked. Why are these people coming together to promote this product while referencing this movie?

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Perhaps Maisie Williams singing Frozen’s “Let It Go” while driving an Audi in a traffic jam—there’s some Madlibs for you—was a subtle dig at Game Of Thrones fans still fuming over the ending? There’s no indication, of course, that that’s the subtext, but, hey, it makes as much sense as the spot’s surface logic.

And then there’s Bryan Cranston inhabiting The Shining’s Jack Torrance to threaten his terrified wife (?) with Mountain Dew Zero Sugar. Why Cranston? Why The Shining? Is it because he was scary on Breaking Bad and The Shining is scary? Because Walter White was a bad dad and so was Jack? Is it because he is “the one who knocks,” and he’s knocking on a door with an ax? Why not draw some connection between Cranston and this premise? All he had to say was “I am the one who sips.”

The real missed opportunity, honestly, is not making this a Code Red ad. At least then the elevator bit would make sense.

It was almost easier, then, to swallow the commercials that nearly abandoned a premise entirely. Sabra asked the inane question of “how you ‘mus” to 19 celebrities who, by design, share little in common. Ric Flair, Teresa Giudice, Megan Thee Stallion, and Jaleel White flash by alongside living memes, drag queens, Fortnite streamers, and TikTok stars. The commercial sucks, but that’s irrelevant: What matters is that the stars will share the commercial to their online followers, each targeting a different demographic. Shrewd, smart, and—if you’re the kind of person who considers ads art—bad for art.

Overload was a running theme throughout the night. Channeling the cinematic universes that are so hot in Hollywood these days, Proctor & Gamble’s Bounty ad threw a mess of disconnected stars—Sofia Vergara and Rob Riggle among them—in with a bunch of the company’s brand mascots, from Mr. Clean to the Charmin Bear to the Old Spice guy, some of whom also show up in a Planters ad (you know the one).

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Who, we wonder, longs to see Mr. Clean and the Charmin Bear breathing the same air? Along those lines, who asked for a universe in which Mr. Peanut kills himself in an act of self-sacrifice, only to be resurrected as a baby by the tears of the Kool-Aid Man? In a roundabout way, these ads are aligned with Sabra’s, in that they’re both angling to spawn online discussion. Where Sabra is using blunt-force tactics, however, Proctor & Gamble is aiming for something more organic. Unfortunately, it’s also baldly trying to capitalize on the rise of Baby Yoda, and the response hasn’t been kind. Sure, Boda is as much a commerce-driven character as Baby Nut, but at least its first order of business is to entertain. (It’s also just way cuter.)

Of course, not all is lost. A few of the evening’s spots stuck out as imaginative and amusing. Let’s wash the filthy taste of craven consumerism out of our mouths, at least momentarily, to celebrate a few of those.

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(If you’re wondering where the tear-jerking Google ad is, we’ll direct you to this tweet.)

Best concept: Cheetos

MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” turns 30 years old this year, and Cheetos, bless them, proved the iconic track still has some juice. In what was by far the evening’s best ad, the spot spoke to all fans of cheese-flavored corn-based snacks by showing how “cheese fingers” can be a handy way of absolving oneself from unsavory tasks, such as helping someone move or holding a baby. Meanwhile, some very Adult Swim-esque CGI ushers Hammer’s disembodied head into the frame to sing his signature phrase. Finally, a marriage between celebrity and concept that also triggers the nostalgia sensors in a novel way.

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Best nostalgia grab: Jeep

This spoof of Groundhog Day, perhaps one of the most-spoofed movies in history, works only because Jeep actually got Bill Murray. The concept itself is nonsense—Murray’s new Jeep makes his looped day less boring?—but Murray looks like he’s genuinely having fun with his furry friend, which, bonus, doesn’t die in a fiery car crash.

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Best celebrity mishmash: Hyundai

This might be the hackiest premise ever—some Boston locals adopt overdone Bahston accents to talk about a car’s “Smaht Pahk” feature—but it helps when you’ve got John Krasinski, Chris Evans, and Rachel Dratch (and David Ortiz), Boston-area natives who are also beloved in the pop cultural sphere. A contrast to the overstuffed air of many of the night’s ads, the actors exude an easygoing attitude that actually serves the advertised feature, which actually needs a little unpacking. Plus: It’s fun to read what Boston natives think about it.

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Best juxtaposition: Doritos

Sam Elliott and Lil Nas X don’t seem like natural bedfellows, but there’s something truly inspired about filtering the words of the rapper’s viral rap-country hit through the mouth of Hollywood’s most authentic cowboy. This is a perfect blend of concept and talent—even if we have no clue what the hell it has to do with Doritos.

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Best conversation starter: Rocket Mortgage

If you want people to talk about your brand, gross them the fuck out. Rocket Mortgage embraced the uncanny valley and the queasy feelings it offers in the above ad, which we’d rather not recount lest it imprint itself deeper into our subconscious. Just know that it involves Jason Momoa’s beefy face being eerily superimposed onto a thin, spindly body. It is profane and kind of genius.

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