This week’s question comes courtesy of A.V. Club film editor A.A. Dowd: What’s your favorite Super Bowl commercial of all time?
When I proposed this question, I was under the impression that Spike Jonze’s sublime, hilarious IKEA ad—probably my favorite commercial of all time—aired during the Super Bowl. Further investigation, however, has set the record straight, so I’m forced to champion an alternate selection. Product placement doesn’t get much more egregious than the constant promotion of FedEx in Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away—especially considering how the film’s ending makes the entire film feel like a commercial for the company’s above-and-beyond customer service. A couple years later, though, FedEx had the good sense to spoof its own involvement in the movie with the hilarious send-up “Cast Away.” Like Jonze’s commercial, it’s essentially a build up to a great punch line (“Just silly stuff”), which I’ll always take over talking animals, slapstick, or shameless heartstring-tugging.
The mid-1990s were a weird time to be a kid fascinated with science fiction on TV and film: Amid revived interest in the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, all contemporary offerings in the genre suggested that outer space and/or extraterrestrial life was out to murder me. So when the teaser trailer for Independence Day blew up the White House real good during a Super Bowl XXX ad break, it was a personal turning point. Roland Emmerich’s ominous flying saucers tripped a hair-trigger panic left over from the ad campaign for Fire In The Sky, but the grandiosity of the effects in the 30-second spot calmed my nerves. Massive destruction aside, I found the beam coming from Independence Day’s spacecraft far less menacing than the one hitting D.B. Sweeney on “November 5, 1975.” (There’s evocativeness in that one sheet that still gives me the willies.) Maybe the scale of the shot brought up pleasant associations with proton torpedoes and Death Star exhaust ports; whatever the reason, the ad left a positive impression on me and I was among the first in line for Independence Day the following July. I did have to walk out during Brent Spiner’s big scene, though—too close to Alien Autopsy: Fact Or Fiction for my 11-year-old comfort.
I’m a sap with a short and populist memory, but I’m going with the 2011 Volkswagen ad known as “The Force.” It’s the one with the little kid in Darth Vader clothes who gets tricked into thinking he can start the car with his mind. I wasn’t too into the whole media circus that came up after the ad ran, with the kid going on The Today Show and a zillion moms reposting the ad on Facebook, but for a pure 30 seconds (or 60, if you’re watching the online version), I really did get swept up in that commercial’s childlike sense of whimsy and magic. I still didn’t buy a Volkswagen though.
There’s a grand tradition of Western celebrities starring in lucrative commercials that only air in foreign countries. Most celebrities don’t talk about them, and try to hide the fact that they make such blatant cash grabs, even in the Internet age when anything remotely embarrassing will end up going around the world. Late night host Conan O’Brien has only rarely done commercials. He’s said that he’s game for product integration, but “if it can’t be funny, I’d rather go hungry.” That was a good sign for his Bud Light ad during the 2009 Super Bowl. When O’Brien’s agent (played by H. Jon Benjamin) promises that an over-the-top commercial will only air in Sweden and uses the “all the Hollywood guys do this” peer pressure line, Conan relents. The ad—featuring Conan in a sleeveless mesh shirt, wearing bunny ears, and crawling on a fur rug encircled by flames—then pops up on a stories-high screen in Times Square. It’s Conan at his best, using self-effacing humor to make fun of other tropes of celebrity, with a clear message: By all means, take the money if you want, but the shameless footage won’t stay hidden forever.
When Michael Jackson performed at the Super Bowl halftime show in 1993, he opened by standing motionless and silent for 90 seconds. Apparently, someone had told him how expensive airtime was during the game, and he decided to waste three commercials’ worth, just because he could. While the King Of Pop could afford to be so audacious, the companies that actually pay money for those commercials have a lot riding on them, and can’t afford to mess around. Except in 2000, they did. The peak of the dotcom boom’s “irrational exuberance” meant a lot of companies—many of which didn’t exist three years earlier and wouldn’t exist three years later—had a lot of money to throw at often-absurd advertising. Ross Perot’s now-defunct EDS had a memorable commercial featuring a cowboy wrangling cats. The Pets.com sock puppet did a song and dance. But only one company was frivolous enough to mock the frivolity. E*TRADE ran an ad that was simply a monkey, dancing to “La Cucaracha,” with the kicker, “Well, we just wasted two million bucks.” It was the rare Super Bowl ad that existed solely as a commentary on Super Bowl ads. Still, it’s probably no accident that the company savvy enough to be self-aware during the dotcom boom’s lunacy is one of the only ones to survive long enough to be able to run an ad during this year’s game.
I’ll go with the Ridley Scott-directed 1984 commercial for the Apple Macintosh, for a few reasons. It really is a brilliantly conceived and executed, attention-getting ad. It was an inspired decision to only air it the one time during Super Bowl XVIII, and in a sardonic way that may not have been fully intentional, it sums up its moment like nothing else, with the possible exception of the “1984” scenes in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine. But it’s also my favorite Super Bowl ad, because I actually saw it, and can remember thinking, partway through, “Shit, when does this movie open?” Considering I can’t really focus on football for more than a few seconds at a time and have never sat down to watch a Super Bowl in my life, I still can’t believe my luck that I happened to be sitting on somebody’s couch facing the TV at just the right moment. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to flipping on Ed Sullivan just in time to see The Beatles’ American debut.
When I watch TV commercials, I want big, slapstick violence, which means the only Super Bowl commercial for me is “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker.” The commercial turns out to be for Reebok, something I only barely remember, which also explains why the campaign was so short-lived. Really, it’s not that great of a commercial. It’s just a bunch of people getting tackled in an office setting. But it makes me laugh, because I like watching people fall over. So?
As a big comic book nerd, I got lightheaded watching The Avengers trailer during the Super Bowl two years ago. It was already hard to believe that a team of comic book superheroes was assembling on-screen under the guiding hand of one of my favorite creators, but when I saw the shot of the Hulk smacking an alien fighter out of the air, I started to freak the hell out—a “shaking on the couch with uncontrollable glee” freak-out. It’s hard to describe the emotional overload felt by a comic fan when witnessing a property brought to life for the first time, but the thrill I got watching that first Avengers trailer has yet to be matched by any other trailer I’ve seen since in terms of sheer fanboy glee.