Erik Adams: Super Bowl 50 is already a dim memory fading from the American consciousness, a matchup between two marquee quarterbacks—one a rising star, the other likely playing the final game of his career—that was ultimately decided by defense. Even if the game broke the viewership records set by Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, it’s still likely to be chalked up as a disappointment, for reasons that go beyond the next several months of anti-Cam Newton screeds issued by the nation’s sports pundits and drunk uncles.
But the success of a Super Bowl stopped being just about the quality of the game a long time ago: When the ball is clumsily turned over again, you can at least look forward to the next commercial break. It cost more than ever for advertisers to rent out part of CBS’ telecast—30 seconds would set you back a reported $5 million—and expenses went unspared in the production of the ads, too. (Excepting Doritos’ crowd-sourced “Crash The Super Bowl” campaign, which concluded its ignoble run by inducing the birth of a fetus that wants to get its tiny hands coated in nacho cheese dust.) There were special-effects extravaganzas and pricy music-licensing fees, but the preponderance of celebrity endorsements was the surest sign that money was no object when it came to advertising during Super Bowl 50.
The common man could be seen interacting with more illustrious counterparts, although celebrities regularly outnumbered non-celebrities through sheer force of numbers: The Ryan Reynolds clones populating Hyundai’s “Ryanville,” for instance, or the assembled masses throwing off labels by standing in front of a fleet of Minis. “The Bud Light Party” peddles a populist message—“Beer is one of the last things that brings Americans together!”—but runs almost entirely on star power. Michael Peña gets that across at the start of the 60-second spot, quieting a group of barflies so his fellow famous people can be heard. That conceptual wonkiness aside, it’s one of the funniest ads of the night, which is presumably what AB InBev was hoping for when it hired Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen to hawk watery grain juice. Schumer spins some innuendo off of the word “caucus,” and the entire sequence so accurately mimics an epic cinematic address that Rogen easily slips into appropriating the words and cadence that Independence Day previously lifted from Henry V. (Kudos to other victims of Super Bowl XXX’s cruelest tease who picked up the allusion at “We will not vanish without a fight.”) The pivot of “The Bud Light Party” is mutually beneficial, though: While the comedians upgrade Bud Light’s reputation for game-day pandering, Rogen and special guest star Paul Rudd land the laughs they couldn’t get for Samsung in 2013. Of course, the real victory here might be the unspoken unveiling of the beer’s recent packaging overhaul, which drags Bud Light out of the swooshing, italicized 1990s and restores the blocky text that adorned the tiny sweaters worn by The Bud Light Party’s former chair/original party animal, Spuds McKenzie.
In another meeting between 21st century comedy favorites and things that reminded me of 1980s kitsch objects, InBev also staged a face-off between Silicon Valley’s T.J. Miller and the citrusy smart-ass that serves as the mascot for Shock Top. The structure here is similar to the Apatovian one-upping of that 2013 Samsung commercial, but anyone who’s heard Miller’s stream-of-consciousness podcast patter knows the erstwhile Jellystone Park ranger is smarter than the average love child of Mac Tonight and a dancing Coke can. As a way of introducing Miller to viewers who don’t subscribe to HBO (or aren’t planning to see Deadpool), it’s not bad, though the premise of “unfiltered talk” (because there’s no filtering process involved in brewing a Belgian White like Shock Top, you see) is somewhat hampered by network broadcast standards. Restrictions can breed creativity—as Miller demonstrates by “Yes, and?”-ing the hell out of everything that’s thrown his way—but I can’t help but feel like both sides would have sharper insult games if they were playing on Pied Piper’s home turf.
The thing about “Unfiltered Talk,” however, is that it comes with no burden of recognition. Even if you aren’t familiar with Miller, his Silicon Valley character, or his gonzo talk-show and award-ceremony appearances, you can delight in the way he spins the tap handle’s gibes into fresher material. Kia’s spotlight number doesn’t just presume knowledge of Christopher Walken’s seriocomic monologues from Annie Hall or Pulp Fiction—it expects you to get to those reference points from the pun “Walken closet.” On top of this, there’s the whole earth-tone married-couple angle, which is even more information to be processed by anyone who doesn’t know the words “I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years” or the name of the man who spoke them. Kia has never been afraid of alienating potential consumers with its Super Bowl spots (see: the dancing hamsters that, fortunate for us, have been retired in favor of Walken), but I can’t even begin to comprehend what this ad looks like to someone who hasn’t amused themselves by singing “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” in Christopher Walken’s halting Queens patois.
But that’s my own hang-up about not printing “These boots are made for Walken” T-shirts before somebody else could. John, what celeb-driven ads made an impression on you, for better or worse?
John Teti: I’d argue that you’re overthinking the Walken spot, which to my eyes depends only on a vague awareness that Christopher Walken is a weird old famous dude—and is therefore a side-splittingly zany choice as a celebrity spokesperson. The Kia spot was one of a few commercials I enjoyed last night. I was amused by its logic, which as far as I can tell goes like this: “Look at these beige socks! Boring, right? But now look at this reasonably priced white midsize sedan! Yowww!” To me, the ad tells the story of a guy who just wants to live his dull, beige Kia life in peace, yet this septuagenarian gremlin keeps waving socks at him. Also, I did not get the “Walken closet” pun until you explained it, because I was too busy admiring that gorgeous walk-in closet.
But you wanted to talk about celebrities, so let me ask you, is two-time Blockbuster Entertainment Awards nominee Tea Leoni enough of a celebrity for you? That is a rhetorical question, because obviously one of the most enduring images of Super Bowl 50 was the third-quarter promo for next week’s episode of Madam Secretary. I love the part where Leoni says that it’s important to do the right thing, and President Somebody tells her, “Good work.” And then she says “thank you,” because Tea Leoni’s America runs on politeness. So the question to ask of each celebrity appearance from last night’s ad-stravaganza is: Was it more exciting than the promo for next week’s episode of Madam Secretary?
You and I have debated the merits of the Apartments.com campaign with Jeff Goldblum as tech visionary “Brad Bellflower” before, so you already know that I like these spots in general. They feature Jeff Goldblum smiling at me, which makes me feel warm inside. But last night’s “Movin’ On Up” Jeffersons tribute left me cold once Goldblum finally reached the penthouse and spotted “George and Weezy.” Now here’s an ad that hinges on a specific pop-culture reference—indeed, the whole affair leads up to this one bit of wordplay. And sure, Lil Wayne as Weezy works well enough, but then the “George” is…George Washington. Which strikes me as a cop-out. Were Foreman, Clinton, Takei, and Jetson all unavailable? More to the point, was this more exciting than the promo for next week’s episode of Madam Secretary? No, it was not.
At least the Apartments.com commits to its pitch, though. TurboTax’s Anthony Hopkins ad goes coy and self-referential, with a scenario in which the esteemed actor claims not to be selling anything, but actually he is selling Intuit TurboTax.com very much! Eight percent of Intuit’s workers were laid off last year, but I’m sure this canny meta-commentary made the downsized masses piss themselves with laughter, tinging the unemployment checks in their pockets with joyous urine. The real question is whether that dog at the end—who, get this, is named after the very website Hopkins claims not to advertise—is enough to push this spot over the Madam Secretary threshold. And the real answer is no.
The script for this drunk-driving quasi-PSA is pretty much what you’d expect if you asked a Budweiser creative director to come up with something funny for Helen Mirren to say. The “donate your brain to science” zinger landed with a thunk for me given all the retired players who have recently done just that to advance research on chronic brain trauma. But on the whole, this was a pleasant minute of quiet that delivered a wholesome message without reveling too much in its own cuteness. It was graceful, it was straightforward, and the performance was effective. I liked watching the deft Mirren attempt to draw energy out of the ad’s meandering copy—it was even more exciting, dare I say, than the promo for next week’s episode of Madam Secretary.
Still, all of these ads hew to familiar formulas. Super Bowl commercials were never as great as people liked to pretend they were, but even after talking animals and splashy celebrity cameos became cliches—and after calling out those clichés in your commercial became a cliché in itself—ad agencies are still going back to the same standard gags, and this year’s display of consumerist pap was more lifeless than ever. The spots are less effective as entertainment than they are in evincing what creative directors believe is “edgy” this year. I wonder, Erik, did you encounter any ads that didn’t ultimately feel like just another variation on the same old themes? The only one that struck me was Colgate nagging us to turn off the damn faucet when we brush our teeth. The conceit behind the visuals doesn’t quite cohere—it’s not like closing the spigot is going to magically deliver water to the imperiled children of the world—but I appreciated the specificity and earnestness of Colgate’s plea.
Erik Adams: 2016 may have been the first year where the entire concept of making an entertaining Super Bowl ad finally lost its luster. There’s no novelty to the comedic ads this year, their power of surprise sapped by early online debuts or played-out formulas that crystallized during the reign of the Budweiser frogs. The more recent trend of commercials trying to out-blockbuster the summer tentpoles being pitched around them has also reached a tipping point of dispiriting bang-pow discombobulation. Perhaps sensing this shift, Coke went ahead and gave its 60 seconds over to a sponsored Avengers DVD extra.
LG’s Jake Scott-directed “Man From The Future” boasts two generations of Neesons and a behind-the-scenes pedigree steeped in Super Bowl Sunday tradition, but neither cinematic dynasty can make anything intelligible out of the inter-ad Tron interlude or the tin-eared refrain “a perfect picture on glass.” Liam Neeson can say those words as many times as he’d like, but they’re not going to gain any meaning out of repetition.
Any trailblazing was done in increments. Or ratios: Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is as warmed-over as any of the old advertising tricks trotted out between plays last night, but the 30-second teaser for the latest cinematic take on Mowgli’s wilderness adventures takes an innovative tack in selling the 3-D upgrade. The trailer is letterboxed, but its most potent visuals (a roar from Shere Khan, Mowgli swinging through trees, Baloo nosing Mowgli awake) are not. The characters break their own aspect ratio to create the look of 3-D on 2-D screens, an illusion of an illusion that stands among the quick cuts and the eerie lullaby covers of the other cinematic fare being advertised. The fatal flaw, as some A.V. Club contributors noted on Twitter: After showing that this Jungle Book has pop-up pages, the teaser fails to mention that the movie is in 3-D.
The message of rugged individualism of Jeep’s two commercials isn’t anything different for the Chrysler brand, but the fearlessness about blanking out two-thirds of the screen in “Portrait” is. Once more, an advertiser creates a striking visual with a subtle tweak, made all the more striking by the series of still photographs that give the commercial its title. Watch closely and you’ll see that the images aren’t totally still—some, like the spacewalking astronaut or the hooded woman, are cinemagraphs, those magical hybrids of still photo and animated GIF. These adornments give the historical record of “Portraits” a little forward momentum, as do the Ken Burns zoom effects.
Jeep wouldn’t want its warriors, royals, and chaos-theory mathematicians to seem stuck in the past, after all—that’s what the extreme athletes of its other Super Bowl 50 ad, “4x4ever,” are for.
But I shouldn’t make too big a deal of last night’s small novelties, because my favorite commercial depends on one of the hoariest Super Bowl clichés of all: Dogs! Lots and lots of dogs! “Wiener Stampede” isn’t just a fun phrase to type—though I can’t resist typing it a few more times: Wiener Stampede Wiener Stampede Wiener Stampede—it’s also a gorgeously shot ad with an expertly chosen Harry Nilsson soundtrack. The spot begins with a memorable visual and rides those floppy ears and wagging tails all the way to the condiment aisle.
While many brands rested on the old faithfuls of Super Bowl advertising, I was surprised and relieved to see so many of them avoiding the temptation to use the game’s 50th playing as an occasion for mawkish sentimentality or nostalgic games of “Remember this?” Jeep and Snickers relied on some good old fashioned Americana (both invoking Marilyn Monroe), but anything relating to the history and significance of the game was relegated to the folks at CBS Sports. Or maybe I’m forgetting something. John, were there any ads that jumped out at you through their reenactments or remembrances of Super Bowls past?
John Teti: Well, the NFL’s remembrance of Super Bowls past was certainly striking: The league stuck a bunch of kids on a rooftop (or in an empty room) and declared them “Super Bowl babies,” because “data suggests” that birth rates spike in a championship city nine months after the game airs. I hasten to remind readers that in the hands of NFL decision-makers, “data” can “suggest” pretty much anything they want, so this statistic warrants some skepticism. In any case, the main thrust of the ad was to remind viewers that it is acceptable to engage in sexual intercourse once the game has concluded, as long as it’s for the purposes of procreation—the league needs new fans.
Aside from that reproductive propaganda, the ads this year were not terribly interested in paying tribute to football. Instead, there was a trend of commercials that referenced other commercials, another sign that the Super Bowl intermissions are essentially a journey up Madison Avenue’s own intestinal tract. The most savvy of these was T-Mobile’s “Drop The Balls,” which played off a Verizon ad that football fans have seen countless times in recent weeks. Typically, it’s not much fun to watch telecom companies snipe at each other in public, but there was some satisfaction in seeing T-Mobile say to its rival, “You like balls, do you? Well, have ALL THE BALLS IN THE WORLD!” The Steve Harvey connection only makes 80 percent sense, but Harvey’s goofy verve justifies the conceit. I will not be employing the hashtag “#ballogize” anytime soon, however. I think my dozens of social media followers might get the wrong idea.
Wix’s Kung Fu Panda tie-in was confusing—predictably so, you’d think—because it was hard to tell whether it was advertising Wix, or a new Kung Fu Panda movie, or both. Po’s quickie dream sequence references three beloved (?) commercials from Super Bowls past, including the Budweiser frogs and Old Spice’s “I’m On A Horse.” (The first reference is vaguely familiar, but I don’t recall the exact ad it’s aping, and I’m okay with that.) What most impresses me about Wix’s pitch is the chutzpah of a commercial whose whole idea is to salute other commercials that had better ideas.
The specter of the Budweiser frogs also hung over the “Puppymonkeybaby” spot for Mountain Dew Kickstart. Both the Bud amphibians and this grotesque beast were designed to introduce catchphrases that kids across America could parrot on the playground the next day, and I have no doubt the Mountain Dew people were effective on that front. In fact, this was probably the most successful ad of the night, open in its desire to irritate the viewing public. Perhaps that’s the only way for advertisers to make a mark anymore on Super Bowl Sunday, because it sure feels like everything else has been tried, and we keep ending up back on the same annoying CGI animals. It feels to me that we’re reaching the end of the era when Super Bowl ads remotely justified the special attention they receive. Maybe we won’t even need to do this Crosstalk next year. We can debate Madam Secretary instead.