Scott: So Noel, it’s time again for us to discuss Super Bowl commercials: the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, and the creamy middles, to paraphrase Homer Simpson. And usually that’s an occasion for griping about the blitz of one-joke Doritos and Pepsi commercials, the agonizing GoDaddy teases, and the horror of old people doing non-old-people stuff to comic effect. Yet while all of those elements were again present in this year’s batch of commercials, I want to start by accentuating the positive and talking about the spots that were striking and genuinely resonant, quite apart from their effectiveness in actually selling product. To me, the common thread of the best commercials this year was their conceptual simplicity and elegance: two or three strong, clear elements that come together to make a powerful statement.
Jokes about man-horse love aside, “Brotherhood,” the one-minute Budweiser spot about the trainer who reunites with the Clydesdale he bred for the iconic beer-promoting group, worked me over good. Trying to eke an authentic emotion out of viewers in 60 seconds is tough business, and that’s where the simplicity of the piece played a role. The Clydesdales have been a part of Budweiser iconography since the end of Prohibition, and are lodged into the American consciousness as special animals, even if these poor creatures are high-hoofing for beer. But the appeal of this commercial is even more fundamental than that: It’s about the basic connection between parent and child, and the bond that remains well after the child has left the home and gone on to do extraordinary things. And if that weren’t persuasive enough, there’s Stevie Nicks singing “Landslide” over the whole thing, hitting us with lyrics that underline the theme so directly it’s as if she wrote the song specifically for Budweiser. (“Well, I’ve been afraid of changing / ’Cause I’ve built my life around you” and “Children get older/ I’m getting older too.”) Commercials like this one aren’t supposed to survive in the Internet age—indeed, plenty of one-liners greeted it on Twitter, and some good ones too—but I know I’m not alone in feeling like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of Terminator 2, a cyborg who finally comes to understand why humans cry.
The other big winner, the two-minute Dodge Ram commercial with the Paul Harvey “God Made A Farmer” overlay, scored on the same principles. Once its makers hit on the concept—which was made easier by the fact that YouTube hit on it earlier for a Farms.com ad—all that was needed was to supply strong, pictorially beautiful imagery to support Harvey’s words. And if there’s anything super-expensive modern-day commercials can supply, it’s impeccable visuals. Frankly, I think Harvey’s speech, delivered to the Future Farmers Of America convention in 1978, is a lot of hokum, particularly now, when the whole idealized notion of the American farmer has been bruised up so dramatically. But there are so many subtle pleasures to this commercial: the sound of Harvey’s voice, made more dramatic by both the original audio quality and the message-from-beyond-the-grave factor; the selection of stills, which are flush with Heartland Americana without ever seeming too tacky; and even the spare typeface, which looks like what was used before we ever started obsessing over fonts. We don’t know until the very end what, exactly, is being sold here, but as a piece of branding—of associating the Ram truck with such a salt-of-the-earth American character—it’s pretty brilliant.
On the simple-is-better front, I’ll even defend the less reputable likes of Beck’s Sapphire, which has been dubbed “fish beer” for its unexpected conceit of an animated fish serenading a beer bottle with Blackstreet’s 1996 hit “No Diggity.” Let’s set aside the fact that, yes, the premise for this commercial is somewhere between bizarre and inane, and let’s please admit that it’s visually and aurally appealing. The dominant colors, black and red, engage the eye without distraction, with the darkness bringing emphasis to the gleaming red gem in the middle of the bottle. Add to that a song that suggests the “smooth” drinkability of this classy-seeming beverage, and the 30-second spot does its work. Contrast this with Budweiser’s fancy beer spots, which I’ll talk about later, and I think it’s a clear winner.
Nevertheless, I freely admit that I like these commercials because they’re aesthetically pleasing. But commercials are not designed primarily to please aesthetes—they’re supposed to help sell stuff. To that end, Noel, what did you find effective?
Noel: Well, like yourself, I’m coming at this primarily as a person who’s just kicking back in his recliner and looking to be entertained, so of course I loved the Dodge Ram ad, even though in my head a week from now I’ll probably remember it primarily as a commercial for farming (and for the glory days of talk radio), not so much for a Dodge truck. Along the same lines, I thought the Toyota ad featuring The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco as a genie was enjoyably snappy, thanks to Cuoco’s line-readings—so perturbed when dealing with a dad who just wants to lose his “spare tire,” so delighted by the rest of the family’s more fanciful wishes—and thanks to a running gag that implies everybody kind of hates the dad, even the squirrels in the family’s yard. But every time over the past 24 hours that I’ve tried to tell someone about this commercial, I haven’t been able to remember which car it’s for, or what the hell a wish-granting genie has to do with the product. So if we’re rating the ads’ effectiveness? Both of these fall well short of top marks.
By contrast, the Mercedes Benz ad featuring Willem Dafoe as the Devil—trying to coerce some dude into selling his soul for a hot-ass car—works because its premise has a clear point. The Devil insists that this car will get the kid the attention of Kate Upton, a chance to dance at a club alongside Usher, and international fame as a model. But the man doesn’t have to sell his soul, because the car’s under $30,000, so he can just buy one with, you know, money. Once again, I have to admit that the name of the car doesn’t leap immediately to mind when I think of this ad—though the Mercedes Benz logo is featured more prominently than the Toyota logo in Cuoco’s ad—but I do get the message. The life of a playboy is more affordable than you may assume.
My main issue with the Mercedes ad—and the Toyota ad as well—is that they’re so busy. They’re crammed with gags and setup. Granted, the Mercedes setup involves The Rolling Stones, and a man who once played Jesus taking a turn as Satan, so I don’t mind so much. But when the stuffing is less palatable, it can make even 30 seconds feel like an eternity. Do you know what I mean, Scott?
Scott: Earlier I expressed my admiration for commercials that operated with clear, resonant concepts and a lack of visual clutter. Now let me damn a few commercials that do the opposite, filling the screen with more information than we could ever wish to process. To me, the biggest offender on this front was Pepsi Next’s awful “Party” spot, which I first experienced at 50 seconds before it aired in the more merciful 30 seconds during the Super Bowl. The basic idea is some kid throws a wild party at his house while his parents are away, everyone there is hopped up on Pepsi Next, and his parents are totally cool with it once they try this reduced-sugar soda for themselves. The shorter version loses the strange foregrounded shot of a guy pouring an entire gallon of milk on his head, but it’s still stuffed with rush of party-time wackiness: Somebody in a unicorn head, a guy screaming “Paaaaaarrrents!!!” before jumping out the window (“Do not attempt”), a luchador sliding down the banister, somebody duct-taped to the ceiling, a goat braying, a cat screeching, and so on. Are we supposed to laugh at any or all of these elements? None of them are isolated long enough to make it possible. I’m pretty sure Beyoncé’s Pepsi halftime show moved more units. [Rimshot!]
The Audi commercial “Prom” tapped into the same fantasy of nerd triumph with less busyness, but it was creepy and distasteful, like something brainstormed by American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Before getting the keys to dad’s Audi, the kid in the commercial is a pitiable dork, but the change in status gives him a little too much bravado. He has the courage to storm across the dance floor and plant one on the prom queen, knowing full well that she’s there with the prom king, but her consent doesn’t enter into it. While it’s unreasonable to ask for a pause for him to ask her if she’d like to be kissed, some wordless exchange where she signals an interest would have been preferable to him smooching her from out of the blue. When we see him behind the wheel afterwards, flashing his Bateman smile with a black eye, we’re supposed to be impressed that he got away with something. But this doesn’t feel like a stolen kiss to me—it’s considerably ickier than that.
Getting back to the fancy-beer wars, I mentioned earlier my guilt-laden affinity for the Beck’s Sapphire “No Diggity” spot, but some of that has to do with how well it contrasts with Budweiser’s Black Crown commercials, which try to do too much. Where Beck’s allows its fish beer to make an impression without getting into specifics, Budweiser’s “Coronation” wants to make sure viewers not only associate Black Crown with hip, sexy people wearing black clothes, but also know about the whole stupid process of choosing the “golden amber lager” that would class up the nation’s refrigerators. (“Here’s to taste! Here’s to our kind of beer!”) The follow-up, “Celebration,” gives us 30 more seconds of these douchebag tastemakers partying it up over the beer they’ve selected. Thanks, but I’ll take the fish beer.
Am I drawing too sharp a line in the sand here, Noel? Are there times when more is more in commercials?
Noel: If I had to pick one gag-a-second ad that I thought worked really well, I’d go with the one that has a red M&M singing Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” over images of him happily carrying shopping bags and trying on toupees and then unhappily being nibbled on and placed atop an oven-bound cookie. But maybe that’s because I’ve always been a fan of any commercial in which some cute spokesfood suddenly remembers that its ultimate purpose on earth is to be consumed. I dig the existential angst of the talking candy—doomed as we all.
I also thought Blackberry’s Super Bowl commercial was fairly effective—the one with a Blackberry user walking down the street and growing elephant legs and bursting into rainbow-colored powder, all thanks to his Blackberry Z-10. These are illustrations of some of the few things the device can’t do, which is a clever twist on the usual “litany of features” ad. And the commercial sports some pretty amazing special effects, too. The shot where the Blackberry user turns a runaway tanker trunk into a shower of rubber duckies is especially impressive. My one major complaint with this commercial is that the “guy moseying down generic city street” visual is so common that it’s sometimes hard to tell one of these ads from another. (Note to self: This is the one where the guy catches on fire.)
The better gag-a-second spots also developed their miniature stories well. I’m thinking here of the Got Milk? ad, with The Rock neglecting his action-hero duties until he completes the more important task of making sure he and his daughters have a “glass of protein” to start their days. I’m thinking here also of the commercial for NFL Network’s draft coverage, starring Deion Sanders as himself, pretending to be a potential draftee named “Leon Sandcastle” in order to show the recent wave of hotshot NFL rookies that there’s still a few more minutes left in “Prime Time.” Like the Got Milk? ad, the Leon Sandcastle bit packs a lot of actual narrative into one minute, but because it holds focus on one character with a clear goal, both spots are funny and memorable. (Also, leave it to the Kansas City Chiefs to waste their first-round pick on a 45-year-old impostor.)
Outside of The Rock, Deion Sanders, and a few others, this wasn’t as big of a year for celebrity endorsements as the Super Bowl usually is. Scott, what did you think of the handful of hip, middle-aged comedians making pitches?
Scott: I loved the Deion Sanders bit, too—it would make my top three, along with the aforementioned Clydesdale and Ram spots—and I was happy to see some other celebrities make quality appearances, too. If you’re a Parks & Recreation fan—and you should be, since it’s the best-run comedy machine on television—then you know how much gold the show spins out of Amy Poehler’s improvisations on a theme. The show’s faux-documentary style often gives Poehler the opportunity to riff around a line, and she looked right at home in a Best Buy spot that had her asking strange questions of a patient, dutiful customer servant. (“Will this one read Fifty Shades Of Grey to me in a sexy voice?” “No.” “Will you?”) It’s not her most brilliant material, but the sheer relentlessness of her questions makes it fun (and poignant when Best Buy goes bankrupt before the next Super Bowl).
I can’t say Tracy Morgan’s pitch for MiO did as much for me, though the fact that it’s exactly the kind of dumb commercial product that might appeal to Tracy Jordan, Morgan’s whoring 30 Rock character, provides a level of meta-amusement. Morgan as George Patton is a funny idea that’s abandoned as hastily as it’s introduced, and none of the “changes” he heralds comes within the vicinity of a good joke. But I think Tracy Morgan could be counted on to squeeze bottles of MiO into every liquid he comes across—it could be the biggest sensation this side of Tracy Jordan’s Meat Machine.
The sheer length of Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd’s (and Bob Odenkirk and Lebron James’) pitch for Samsung Mobile drew about a half-dozen variations on the same Judd Apatow joke at the same time in my Twitter feed, but a tighter cut would be gold. Rogen and Rudd bring back the teasing chemistry from their “You know how I know you’re gay?” sequence in Apatow’s The 40 Year Old Virgin and apply it to a rivalry for a Samsung commercial casting. The joke is that they’re not rivals at all, but have been called in together. And then the topper to that joke is that they’re being called in to pitch someone else for “The Next Big Thing.” It takes a little over a minute to get to these (lame) punchlines and we still have nearly another minute to go after the point where the commercial might have ended. Performers as funny as Rogen, Rudd, and Odenkirk shouldn’t need Lebron James to bail them out.
It’s probably safe to say that we won’t be seeing undigested two-minute commercial blocks any time after the Super Bowl, which suggests to me that the Samsung commercial—and several others this year—have as much or more life online as they do on network or cable television. Are you seeing that trend too, Noel?
Noel: Actually, I can’t remember any previous slate of Super Bowl commercials that was so focused on getting the viewer to look at anything but the 30 or 60 seconds of airtime their companies bought during the game. A large number of the Super Bowl ads posted online early, in much longer versions, and with teasers and pre-air controversies aplenty. I’ve already mentioned the Mercedes “Sympathy For The Devil” ad, which was teased on TV long before it aired (and which was available online well before game time as well). Another example is Volkswagen, which teased its goofy little “C’mon Get Happy” spot for days in advance, by showing clips of distraught folks in famous viral videos, as a way of implying both that VW would make these people happy and that its Super Bowl spot could become the next viral sensation. Of course, Volkswagen then got unexpectedly bad publicity—if there is such a thing—when they were hit with a wave of pre-air criticism over the final commercial, which shows a white office drone cheering up his bosses and co-workers up by speaking in a Jamaican accent. So the clip did go viral in a way—by being accused of racism. (Personally, I found the commercial more amusing than insensitive, though I get why the idea of co-opting and dumbing-down an entire culture would be offensive.)
And then there’s Sodastream, which got as much attention for the commercial the company didn’t run as the one it did. The Sodastream ad that aired during the game shows people obliterating soda bottles by making their own soda at home with the Sodastream machine. The ad that didn’t air—the one that was hyped as “banned” in some quarters—shows Coke and Pepsi delivery guys watching their entire stock get decimated because people aren’t wasting bottles any more, thanks to Sodastream. In the days leading up to the game, I read a lot of articles about how CBS rejected the ad, reportedly because it pokes at two of their biggest advertisers. None of the stories, as far as I could find, included any comment from CBS confirming that the network had in fact put the kibosh on any Coke/Pepsi criticism. (Though certainly CBS’ “no comment” in Ad Age speaks volumes.) Either way, “the ad Coke and Pepsi don’t want you to see” got seen by plenty of people: More than 3.8 million people had watched it on YouTube as of this morning.
Oreo’s Super Bowl commercial—which shows Oreo-eaters “whisper-fighting” in a library over whether the cookie or the crème filling is better—pushed viewers to Instagram to carry on the argument, via a gallery of sculptures made out of either cookie crumbs or molded crème. That’s a reasonably clever use of social media, rooted in the particulars of the product itself. Oreo also won the social-media game by immediately posting an ad related to the Super Bowl blackout, giving Twitter users something to pass around while waiting for the lights to come back on at the Superdome.
Coca-Cola, meanwhile, asked viewers to vote on who should win a chase through the desert to buy a Coke: camel-riding nomads, cowboys, post-apocalyptic bikers, or a busload of pink-clad showgirls who looked like they stepped out of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (only with their gender switched). By the way, for those who didn’t stick around for the postgame to see how the story ended: The showgirls won. Nice to see women catch a break in a Super Bowl ad for a change.
Speaking of sexism and interactive marketing, one of the pioneers of the Super Bowl commercial as a driver toward Internet pitching has been Go Daddy, who were represented this year by two very different ads. Where do you stand on this year’s Go Daddy efforts, Scott?
Scott: No matter how bad Super Bowl commercials get, we can always count on GoDaddy.com scraping the absolute bottom of the barrel—and it came through once again. Let me start with the less controversial of the two Go Daddy spots on offer, “YourBigIdea.co.” Now, this is remarkably civil for a Go Daddy commercial, despite the implication that behind every great man is a hectoring wife. The company does sell URLs, after all, and the notion that you, the consumer, can use your own website to get your big, moneymaking idea off the ground before same other person does is more practical than promising to “see more” of Danica Patrick’s body by going to the site. But then Patrick herself makes a cameo in what has to be one of the worst single second of acting in screen history. How many takes did she get here? Was she in a hurry? Has she never had occasion to laugh maniacally until now?
But everyone was agog, rightly so, over the other Go Daddy commercial, “Perfect Match—Bar Refaeli’s Big Kiss,” which has Patrick introducing the “two sides” of Go Daddy’s brand: the “sexy side, represented by Bar Refaeli” and “the smart side, that creates a killer website for your small business, represented by Walter.” Refaeli is a gorgeous supermodel, Walter is a typecast super-nerd, and together these two sides kiss. In extreme close-up. The awkward, graphic open-mouthed kiss isn’t the half of it. Worse yet is the bone-chilling slurping sound they make together, as if both are lapping up the pockets of matzo ball soup tucked away in each other’s cheeks. It’s part of Go Daddy’s mission to scandalize the Super Bowl every year with sexist, amateurish, repugnant commercials. And here’s another one, if you dare.
We’re told that sex sells, though, Noel. And Go Daddy wasn’t the only brand trying to be sexy this year. Did any of them succeed?
Noel: Over the time that we’ve been doing this annual round-up, Scott, you and I have often complained about the sexism in Super Bowl commercials—less as some great social ill than as the source of some weak, clichéd comedy. And over the past two years, advertisers seem to be getting the message that it may not be worth alienating half of their potential market for the sake of a lame gag. Actually, sex appeal in general was way down in this year’s batch of ads. The most overtly sexy commercial was from Calvin Klein, and featured a jaw-droppingly handsome muscle man wearing nothing but his CK briefs. I get two FedEx deliveries a day at my house, and I was still impressed by that package.
The other sexually suggestive commercials were more subtle and/or strange. In a commercial for Gildan T-shirts, for example, a man has trouble sneaking away from his kinky one-night stand once he realizes that she’s wearing his favorite shirt. I actually think that’s a smart pitch for a brand that’s not so well-known, but the over-the-top details of the commercial—the fuzzy handcuffs, the accusatory cat—are distracting from the closing punchline of him trying to pull the shirt off his sleeping date. It would’ve been funnier if the entire ad had been the guy trying to figure out a method to remove it without waking her.
And Kia—which was also responsible for an ad in which sexy androids give a dork an atomic wedgie as retaliation for him kicking the tires on a Forte—produced one of the creepiest spots of the night, in which a dad answers the “Where do babies come from?” question with an elaborate tale of interplanetary travel. It starts out weird and gets weirder, culminating in description of space flight that’s disturbingly close to being just a guy telling his toddler what ejaculation is like. Right around the time the dad describes a “rocket” that “penetrates” the atmosphere and “releases” babies “all over the place,” I pictured poor Paul Harvey, spinning in his grave. (And thus tilling the soil. Y’know, for the farmers.)