The best (and worst) Super Bowl ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 4 2008 7:33 AM

So, How Were the Super Bowl Ads?

This year's crop, reviewed.

Also in Slate, Robert Weintraub explains how Eli Manning and the New York Giants' defense took down the mighty Patriots. 

I am super, super cranky. Let's just acknowledge that up front.

My beloved Patriots are unbeaten no longer, and they lost in a most irritating fashion—yet again falling victim to one of those confounded Manning boys. I could not be less psyched to rewatch the game. And yet I will.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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Because it's time to bring you another edition of the Super Bowl Ad Report Card. Let's press play on my DVR and relive the good ads, the bad ads, the mediocre ads—and the flat-out horrific performance of the Pats' offensive line. (I'll be seeing wide-eyed, backpedaling fat men in my nightmares for weeks.)

FIRST QUARTER.

Is anyone else sick of Bud Light claiming the first slot after kickoff? I have been writing this Super Bowl column for five years now, and each year Bud Light has started the evening with a slapstick commercial so blandly lame that it darkens my feelings toward advertising as a medium. Maybe we can try something new next year? Anyway, the ad: Drinking Bud Light somehow gives a man the power to breathe fire. This at first seems useful, but then he has a sneezing fit. Various stuff—including an obligatory screeching cat—gets singed by his bursts of nostril flame. The ad is not very funny, not very clever, and certainly not worthy of prime position at the big dance. What's more, it seems to muddle Bud Light's central sales pitch. How does breathing fire after taking a swig of Bud Light reinforce the brand's message about ice-cold "refreshment" and "drinkability"?

In the second spot of the evening—a Godfather parody—a man wakes up to find the severed grill of his Mercedes is lying next to him in bed. "Old Luxury just got put on notice," reads the tagline, as we see a new high-end Audi roar away from the scene of the crime. The cultural reference here seems oddly chosen (how do the Mafia and/or iconographic American film moments relate to German sports cars?), but I'll admit the ad held my attention. I couldn't help but wonder what was lurking beneath those sheets. Also—and more importantly—the brief shots of the Audi made it look pretty rad.

After a Giants field goal (you poor fools, settling for field goals against the most prolific offense in NFL history; that'll never work!), we cut to our second commercial break. Wow, what was I saying about oddly chosen cultural references? A spot for Diet Pepsi Max plays off those old "Night at the Roxbury" sketches from Saturday Night Live—the ones with the doofus clubgoers who nod their heads in time to the beat. Don't get me wrong, I was as elated as the next guy to learn that Chris Kattan is still alive (he shows up in a brief cameo). But weren't those sketches, and the movie based on them, only mildly popular even back in their late 1990s heyday? Is there a more recent critical reappraisal I'm unaware of? Will the next Diet Pepsi Max ad feature Jim Breuer  as "goat boy"? *

SECOND QUARTER. (I'm not concerned that the NFL's all-time best offense has so far not scored any points. This is surely a key part of Bill Belichick's visionary game plan.)

For some reason, Doritos decides to spend millions of dollars not on a commercial for its tangy chips, but rather to promote some unknown folk singer named Kina Grannis. She is the winner of a contest Doritos sponsored, and as her prize she gets to perform one of her songs in this Super Bowl ad. (Couldn't they have taken her time away and tacked it onto Tom Petty's halftime set?) Watching bad folk singers does not, in any way, make me hungry for snack chips.

In the first chuckle-worthy spot of the evening, FedEx envisions enormous carrier pigeons delivering packages. It's a cute ad, with funny visuals. And I notice FedEx resisted what was no doubt a powerful urge to do a joke about oversized pigeon droppings. Were this a Bud Light ad, rest assured some hapless fellow would have endured a thorough and viscous soaking.

In a spot for Tide to Go stain removers, we see a man at a job interview. When he speaks, his voice is drowned out by a shouting coffee stain on the front of his shirt. "Silence the stain, instantly," reads the ad's tagline. At last, an ad where the joke is neatly entwined with the product's selling point. Was that so hard?

Garmin hawks its navigation system by showing us Napoleon trying to find his way through Paris. I get the joke, and I like that it connects to the product. (Napoleon's so short that he can't see out the windshield, but he doesn't get lost thanks to his Garmin.) Still, I found myself wondering why Napoleon would need a GPS to get around on his own turf. Wouldn't the Garmin have been much handier during an invasion of unfamiliar territory, like on the steppes of Russia? Or he could have used it to find an escape route from Elba! (I'm letting my mind wander so as not to dwell on the latest crushing hit to Tom Brady's torso.)

Why is that unattractive, unibrowed woman turning all the guys' heads? Turns out she's been rubbing Planters cashews on herself like a perfume. * "This turned my stomach," said a friend I was watching with. "I'm not sure I can eat peanuts again." Indeed, it's a curious choice to show your edible product, in close-up, being rubbed against the skin of a repulsively ugly person. You know, I've been thinking: When advertising food, it might be better to portray the product in an appetizing manner than in an unappetizing manner. I'll have to think this through some more, but at first blush the idea has promise!

Justin Timberlake shows up in a Pepsi ad touting all the free stuff you can win by collecting points from Pepsi products. Kudos to Pepsi for doing a cameo with a popular, current SNL cast member (Andy Samberg) instead of with an unpopular cast member from a decade ago (no offense, Chris Kattan!). Otherwise, there's not much to this ad beyond the unstoppable magnetism of JT. Once he started bumping uncontrollably into objects, I was 100 percent certain that a violent groin impact was forthcoming. I was not disappointed.

HALFTIME. (When the Pats' final drive before the half ends in Tom Brady being brutally strip-sacked, I just assume this is yet more Belichick genius. I bet the Giants are by now letting themselves imagine that Belichick hasn't stolen their play signals by secretly videotaping their practices. Suckers!)

In many local markets (including mine), Barack Obama airs a campaign commercial. It's in most ways a generic political ad, full of vaguely uplifting sentiments. But check out that backing music, with its driving guitar and drums. Not your typical campaign easy-listening. To my ears, it sounds like a poor man's REM. A far cry from the Clintons' musty old Fleetwood Mac tracks, anyway. Is America really ready to elect a man who likes indie rock?

THIRD QUARTER. (I hate how close this game is and I'm totally ready for the Patriots to start cheating. Please commence with the underhanded tactics.)

An ad for SalesGenie.com shows us a panda who runs a bamboo furniture store and is having trouble making enough sales. SalesGenie will provide him with new leads. Fine. But did the panda really need to speak with the most offensive Asian accent this side of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's? Seems unnecessary.

A Bridgestone ad features Alice Cooper and Richard Simmons. (The joke: A driver on a twisty road swerves to avoid Cooper, but hesitates a few extra beats before dodging the shrieking Simmons.) Let's pause here to appreciate the longevity of these dudes in the pop culture landscape. (Chris Kattan, take notes.) It's really amazing to think that some black and white eye makeup, a pet snake, a curly hairdo and a tight pair of gym shorts could be enough to propel these two men through multiple decades of notoriety.

FOURTH QUARTER. (Is this the best you can cheat?? Cheat harder!!)

A talking baby makes a pitch for E*Trade. Much like Richard Simmons, talking babies seem to hold a permanent place in our collective imagination. It was not so long ago that Baby Bob, the former sitcom star, was resurrected to hawk Quiznos sandwiches. * Here, a baby illustrates how easy it is to use an online stock service, clicking to make a trade as he spits up on himself. Not bad, but it would have been funnier if he turned into a rogue, infant investor—making billion-dollar arbitrage bets while blowing nose-bubbles.

Giant, Macy's parade-style balloons shaped as Underdog and Baby Stewie (from The Family Guy) battle for a giant inflatable Coke bottle. They float around Manhattan, bouncing off the sides of buildings, until the bottle at last comes to rest in the arms of a Charlie Brown balloon. Easily the best ad of the night, this one had no dumb jokes—and in fact, no dialogue at all. Just some gorgeous, cinematic shots (I love the view from inside an apartment as the menacing balloons approach the plate-glass windows), plus a sweetly satisfying conclusion. Thank you, Coke, for coming through with what we all want from a Super Bowl ad: big-budget, showstopping grandeur with a dash of heart.

In the final, and best, Bud Light ad of the night, Will Ferrell appears in an alarmingly tight basketball uniform. We've seen this shtick several times over from Ferrell, but he's still funny—showing off patches of doughy flesh, sporting a ridiculous 'fro, working those short-shorts in a manner that might make even Richard Simmons proud. I figure he can do this for another three years at least before we tire of it.

OK, we're nearing the two-minute warning, and I refuse to go any further. I'm going to stop my DVR before I'm forced to watch the last few minutes of the game again. It's possible I left out your favorite spot—for which I apologize—but I'm sure you'll understand how very painful it is for me to relive this traumatic event.

So, let's just press "stop," and ... "erase recording." Perfect. Like it never happened. See you next year!

* Corrections, Feb. 4, 2008: This piece initially misspelled Jim Breuer's name. It also mistakenly said that the Planters ugly-woman Super Bowl ad was for peanuts; it was for cashews. And it said that Baby Bob once hawked Subway sandwiches; he actually shilled for Quiznos. Return to first correction.