Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The highs and lows of this year’s Super Bowl ads

Illustration for article titled The highs and lows of this year’s Super Bowl ads

Scott: Among our nerdy, sports-hating friends, critiquing the Super Bowl ads has become an annual ritual second only to Puppy Bowl in staving off the boredom of actually having to watch football. It’s also a fascinating bellwether—not just of the state of broadcast advertising, but of the where the culture is at in general. These commercials are ambitious and creatively diverse—and just as often out-of-touch and regressive—but they also reflect our fantasies and wild aspirations, like, say, being buried alive in a casket full of Doritos. What are your thoughts on this year’s crop?


Noel: Let me start by naming a few of my favorites. I thought the Snickers ad that positioned Betty White and Abe Vigoda as the living embodiment of human weakness coasted by on goodwill towards those actors, but I still really enjoyed hearing White grumble, “They’ve been riding me all day.”

The Kia Sorento ad with giant toys partying in Vegas packed a half-dozen great visual gags into a minute: a sock monkey getting a knit tattoo, a robot doing The Robot, Muno from Yo Gabba Gabba shattering bowling pins, and so on. I’m not sure who directed, but the commercial reminded me a little of Spike Jonze in the way it made the ridiculous look real. Dig that sock monkey on the JetSki!

And I know some people were underwhelmed by Google’s “Search On” ad, but I liked it for many of the same reasons that others didn’t. Yes, it tells people what they already know—that you can use Google to search for information you might need—but it does so in a way that reflects the way people really use the service. The misspellings, the suggested and related searches… This commercial is clearly designed to generate a warm feeling towards a common experience, and I thought it was very successful. Plus, the surprise ending is very sweet.

Scott: The Snickers spot was a definite winner, despite my general dubiousness at seeing brittle-boned oldies tackled for our edification. (I’m looking at you, Tim Tebow.) I can see the line “You’re playing like Betty White out there” getting some currency among sporting types, and I thought the twist of having a second, energy-depleted oldie in the form of the very-much-alive Abe Vigoda was a nice touch. This was maybe the only jokey commercial that worked for me, despite the frequent efforts of Doritos and Bud Light. I’m with you on the Kia Sorento ad, too, which avoided the bland car-porn of the Jeff Bridges-narrated Hyundai Sonata spots in favor of a propulsive, exciting, action-packed minute that made the car seem like a delivery system for fun. (Though having just read Randall Rothenberg’s excellent book Where The Suckers Moon, about the failed attempt to rework Subaru of America’s image, I wonder if the Kia spot might be too clever for its own good. A brilliant ad campaign does not always sell cars.) And who were these fools underwhelmed by the Google ad? The computer-savvy among us—those who have heard of an invention called the Internet, basically—probably already know how Google works, but pretending for a second that we don’t, the ad makes an awfully effective (and affecting) enticement for the reasons you mention. The evolution of the story was simple, compelling, and sweet while outlining some basic Google functions—the suggested search terms, the corrected misspellings, Google Maps, et al. Now if only the company can produce a minute explaining to me what the hell Google Wave is all about, I’ll be really impressed.

From the top to the near-bottom, Bud Light took advantage of the four-for-the-price-of-three bulk ad-buy CBS appeared to be offering (see also: Doritos), debuting a quartet of unfunny funny commercials that leaned heavily on standard beer-ad tropes. In short: Beer as liquid testosterone, an elixir that brings men together (in a non-sexual way) and puts women in their place. A Wonka-like house made entirely of beer cans? Like heaven on earth, and it’s environmentally unfriendly, too! The girlfriend’s book club? That classic of Western literature can be my coaster—and hey you over there, you’re quite the looker!

Of the four, the one about astronomers spotting a fiery asteroid plummeting toward Earth got the closest to a mild theoretical chuckle out of me, in part because its take on imminent apocalypse is refreshingly light-hearted and in part because even when facing their doom, everyone is still reaching for watered-down light beer.

The T-Pain spot struck me as painfully behind the times, given how the Auto-Tune thing is played out both as a creative phenomenon and as Internet parody (e.g. Auto-Tune The News, which also featured a cameo by T-Pain). Add to that the general “Wassup” vibe of dudes talking to each other via split-screen, and it earns negative points for creativity.

On the other hand, maybe I should question my long-running assumption that advertising types are supposed to be on the cutting edge of trends. As Mad Men has shown us, it’s very often the other way around—and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less effective as advertising.

Noel: Since you don’t watch Lost, you missed the key element of the “observatory” spot: the appearance of everyone’s favorite multi-named Dharma Initiative scientist Marvin Candle. And I have to admit that I chuckled at the Auto-Tune bit, even though it was hardly cutting-edge. But you’re not being hard enough on the “book club” ad, which continues Budweiser’s long history of depicting anything even remotely cultural as wimpy chick stuff, largely intolerable unless there’s plenty of cold beer around.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the general response to this year’s Super Bowl commercials will be mild-to-strong disgust over how anti-woman so many of them were. I know it’s the norm for ads during sporting events to play up how “man time” is sacred and “woman time” is lame, but I’ve rarely seen that theme take such a hostile turn. I’m not sure which of this bad lot was worse: The Dodge Charger ad where a succession of miserable-looking men acquiesce to cleaning up after themselves and “watching your vampire TV shows with you” in exchange for being allowed to drive a bitchin’ car?

Or maybe Jim Nantz demanding that a spineless schlub “change out of that skirt” and buy a FloTV so that he can watch the game while accompanying his woman on errands?

Leaving aside my longstanding annoyance at any journalist—even a sports journalist—serving as paid pitchman, I just don’t understand how spending time with women has become such a soul-crushing burden for men. TiVo the damn game and watch your lady try on clothes for an hour. Who knows? You might even get to see her naked and stuff.


In the end though, I’m going to pin The Misogyny Badge Of Shame on Bridgestone’s “Your tires or your life” ad, which is set in some post-apocalyptic battle zone where a hard-of-hearing man would rather hang onto his wheels than his woman. Even worse? The band of marauders he encounters are equally disgusted at the idea of being saddled with a hot babe in a sleeveless leather catsuit.

In this atmosphere, the epic “Boys rule!” commercial for Dove For Men was practically a beacon of enlightenment. It may not have been as quirky as the similar “look how cool a dude can be” Cars.com ad, but at least Dove encouraged men to embrace their vanity and clean themselves up a little. That’s… progress?

Scott: The misogyny in this year’s crop was pretty intense, and always of the same spirit: that women are demanding killjoys and every second spent away from them is a chance to taste the sweet nectar of freedom. (And I apologize for not seeming as repulsed by the Bud Light book club ad than I was; it’s sad that we’re supposed to identify with the boorish twit who uses Little Women as a coaster.) That Bridgestone ad is pretty gross, too, but there’s something profoundly creepy about the Dodge Charger spot, which was like American Psycho with Patrick Bateman standing in for the emasculated everyman. Are men the only people who buy cars? And would buying a Dodge Charger be a unilateral decision? (Typical response to the ad on my Twitter feed, from progressive activist Shaunna Thomas: “Dodge Charger. Because women can go fuck themselves.”)


Poor Doritos. Another massive four-spot ad-buy, but a resounding 0 for 4 on scoring on their one-joke premises. And commercials like these are not the kind that reveal more on repeat viewings; if they don’t work on Super Bowl Sunday, when we’re sucking down Bud Lights and paying keener attention to commercials than at any point in the year, they’re certainly not going to play when we’re nursing hangovers the next day. The first one breaks a cardinal rule for me: If a commercial features children or animals doing things that children or animals are incapable of doing without the help of a computer, I’m almost certain to hate it. So having a dog remove its own anti-barking shock collar and attach it to a Doritos-munching human wouldn’t have been funny to me, even if I couldn’t see the punchline coming immediately.

Though there’s something novel about the premise of the second spot—little boy screening dates for his single mother—the cartoon slap was more lowest common denominator stupidity. (Side issue: Gratuitous violence was the order of the day in this batch of Super Bowl commercials. But I’ll get to that later with the Tim Tebow ad.) The “Tim’s Locker” spot finally seized on Doritos’ sharp, tri-cornered chip for a ninja joke, but the prospect of stealing a bag of chips from a guy’s gym locker doesn’t seem that appealing in the first place, does it?

That said, the “Buried Alive” segment was perhaps my guilty pleasure of the night, because the concept is so profoundly stupid that it made me laugh. It’s all there in the dialogue (“At least he got his dying wish.” “A jumbo casket full of Doritos.”), which articulates a fantasy so gloriously banal that it wouldn’t be out of place in a Mike Judge movie. But alas, this isn’t a satire of consumerist junk, but a commercial about junk to consume, so the punchline was destined to undermine the premise.

Noel: I can’t say that I found any of the Doritos spots funny, even incidentally. Each year, the Super Bowl introduces a slate of ads that we’re going to be seeing for the next several months. Do you really think the casket bit will still be amusing by the time March Madness rolls around?


And here’s another question: What CBS advertising exec approved running two consecutive ads featuring pantslessness?

The decision might not have been so bad if both ads weren’t so dopey. I’m not sure I get the point of pitching Dockers by having a chorus of schlubs sing a catchy song about not wearing pants. Seems self-defeating. And the Careerbuilder ad kind of underscores what I was saying above about the Google spot. Google deals with how people really use Google, while Careerbuilder offers a scenario I’ve never seen in the real world. Do people really want to change jobs because of casual Friday? (Even an extreme version of casual Friday?) The Careerbuilder ad smacks of some copywriter looking for gags about office life, and settling on some low-hanging, not-that-ripe fruit. In this economy especially, surely Careerbuilder can find some more persuasive way to get people to try their service.



Scott: So what, in the cold light of day, did you think of the Late Show ad? It was surprise of the night for many, and a great one. After the Conan debacle revived Letterman and Leno’s long-simmering rivalry—mainly by giving Letterman the opportunity to gleefully hammer away at Leno, night after glorious night—no one could have guessed the two would agree to a joint appearance, in support of Letterman’s show, no less. (The incredible logistics involved in getting the two of them (plus Oprah) in the same studio without anyone knowing, are detailed in this great post by Bill Carter.) The bit played off a Super Bowl ad Letterman had done with Oprah back in 2007 (“Super Bowl Of Love,” which can be found here), but really, much of the context for this 15-second stinger is off screen. Just having them in the same room (with Oprah mediating) for the worst Super Bowl party ever is joke enough; Letterman throwing in another whiny-Leno impersonation was like sprinkles on top.

Noel: I’m mixed on the Letterman/Leno ad, I have to admit. If I’d seen it live, I might feel differently, but I was driving home from a party when it aired, and by the time I got around to watching it, I’d already had the punchline spoiled. Plus, it raised too many questions for me, like: What did Dave and Jay talk about—if anything—while waiting for the cameras to roll?


Here’s another one I’m mixed on: the Motorola ad featuring a bathing Megan Fox.

I’m weirded-out by the implication that some kid would lock himself in his bedroom and start whacking off to Fox’s cheesecake shots, and I don’t know quite what to make of the two gay guys slapping each other. But I thought the ladder gag was funny (“Got me….?”), and though it may be un-hip to say so, I like Fox as an actress. She’s got an ease about her that I think is underrated. Given my choice of the current buzz ingénues, I’ll take Fox over Kristen Stewart any day of the week.


Scott: I’m going to have to part ways with you on the Motorola ad. You should be weirded-out by the implication that a kid is off pleasuring himself; the parent in me is horrified by such smuttiness during family hour. And yeah, why would the gay dudes be slapping each other? I saw The Butterfly Effect, and I don’t think that’s how it works. As for Fox herself, I’m no Kristen Stewart fan (though I like her well enough in Adventureland), but I prefer her low-key-to-the-point-of-sleepy performances to Fox’s brash, smug self-consciousness.

So what of the “controversial” Tim Tebow spot, which somehow enjoyed first-commercial-break status? I’m of the camp that believes CBS should not have run this ad—not necessarily because they chose to run this ad and turned away other “advocacy” spots; not necessarily because veracity of the Tim Tebow legend (mother advised to have abortion for health reasons, gave birth to future Heisman winner/Jesus) is up for debate; and not necessarily because I think Focus On The Family is a truly risible, hate-mongering organization. Mostly, I object because it breaks with the spirit of Super Bowl commercials in general, which celebrate the slickest, splashiest, most broadly entertaining campaigns the advertising world has to offer. Some of them are terrible failures, but at least they don’t prompt the kind of tortured, divisive hang-wringing that took place in advance of this commercial airing. It was, in short, a buzz-killer.


As for the spot itself, my first reaction to Mrs. Tebow standing in front of that clean, white backdrop was this: “Finally, an Apple product I have no interest in buying.” Before the game started, I saw another incarnation of the Tebow Super Bowl commercial on Mediaite that was virtually the same as the one that aired—Mrs. Tebow flashing a picture of her son, making the vaguest of references to him almost not making it into the world and being “different.” The Super Bowl twist? Little Timmy tackles his mother! (And then jumps back into frame with a big ol’ grin on his face.) The earlier commercial I could appreciate (if not embrace) as a simple, relatively classy note of mother-son devotion. But the tackle is a transparent case of flop sweat; it’s as if the makers felt unnaturally compelled to make it just like all those other dumb, violent Super Bowl commercials, no matter that it distracts from the message.

Noel: Yeah, I’m not sure it was that effective an ad either. And I’m not sure that the Super Bowl was the right venue for it. But honestly? I found the outrage in the weeks leading up to last night a little unnecessary. I’m about as pro-choice as they come—and I’ve got major problems with Focus On The Family—but since the core of Mrs. Tebow’s message is, “I was given the choice to have an abortion, and I’m glad I didn’t,” I’m not really that bothered. It reminds me of the flap over “Choose Life” license plates. So long as the word “choose” is in there, I’ve got no beef. (That said, it would’ve been nice if Planned Parenthood could’ve gotten some airtime too.)


Switching gears: Coke had a somewhat muted presence at this year’s game. Their big swing came early, with a minute-long ad featuring The Simpsons’ characters all reacting to the news that Mr. Burns had gone bankrupt. But aside from Burns putting Smithers up for sale and Milhouse sputtering “Sorry Coke!” when he bumped into their logo, the ad didn’t seem all that true to the spirit of the show. I know The Simpsons has heart and all, but using Coke to make Mr. Burns feel a part of the community? Is that really the kind of situation you picture when you think about The Simpsons?

I much preferred the “sleepwalking” Coke ad in the second half, which had a sort of Buster Keaton vibe with its near-misses and clockwork timing.

Scott: How about a little ’80s revivalism? Stick that down your pie-hole, Gen-X’ers! The Boost Mobile spot tragically wasted a great opportunity to reunite the ’85 Chicago Bears for a twist on their infamously goofy “Super Bowl Shuffle.” Alas, it would take some fiendishly clever ad men (and women) to convert that heartfelt anthem into the “Boost Mobile Shuffle,” and this one doesn’t come close, despite the appearances of key alumni and a scrupulously cheesy ’80s-video sheen. The jokes are all pretty feeble: McMahon pulling up in an old-age scooter, a tight end with a cheetah thong, spray tan. It tarnished the legacy of something that was already awful, if that’s possible.

Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo appearing as the Griswolds in the HomeAway.com commercial proved a little more successful (it’s mildly amusing, though well short of inspired), and better at actually selling the concept on offer—in this case, the hassles and expenses of going to hotels. Then again, those hassles are more lightly absurd than truly identifiable, with rooms with Being John Malkovich ceilings and valets that kick the shit out of your car. Hotels can be crappy enough without having to make stuff up.

Noel: Ads like those depress me, because they remind me that I’m now in a different kind of desirable demographic than I used to be. Advertisers used to love me because I bought beer and went to movies. Now they love me because I remember crap from 25 years ago.


As a counter to the “Hey, Remember The ’80s?” ads, we got two ads featuring the hipster rock of today. Grizzly Bear loaned a song to a fairly clever VW spot that updates everyone’s second-favorite Volkswagen-related game (next to Nazi collaboration, of course).

And The Arcade Fire allowed the NFL itself to use “Wake Up,” in exchange for a hefty licensing fee that the band reportedly plans to donate to Haitian relief.

If you ask me, it was a mixed bag for Super Bowl commercials this year. But it’ll all be worth it if “Wake Up” becomes a Jock Jam.