The best and worst Super Bowl ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 2 2009 4:45 AM

The Super Bowl Special

Were the ads any good?

Welcome to the annual Ad Report Card Super Bowl Special. With rates this year running as high as $3 million for a single 30-second spot, the $100,000-per-second barrier has at last been smashed. What did we get for all that marketing money?

First quarter: We're off to an inauspicious start, as the first commercial break comes on a stoppage for a video-booth review. Dig that breakneck NFL action!

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.

Our leadoff spot involves a team of co-workers in a conference room, looking for ways to trim the company budget. When one fellow suggests they stop buying Bud Light to drink at all their meetings, he's immediately defenestrated, still sitting in his leather office chair. 1) This ad continues a long-running, increasingly irritating tradition: Bud Light always buys the first commercial slot and always fills it with a not-especially-funny ad. Next year, I'd love to see another brand get its shot at this prime real estate and start things off on a high note. 2) Dialogue like "We could cut back on marketing" and "We could eliminate bonuses" suggests that copywriters are attuned to the country's fearful economic mood. It'll be interesting to see if fiscal pessimism becomes a theme as the night goes on. 

Action star Jason Statham appears in a spot for the Audi A6. He careens through different decades, driving iconic sports cars from the '70s (Mercedes), '80s (BMW), and '90s (Lexus) before at last hopping into the putatively superior, supercharged Audi sedan. I liked the grainy, washed-out film stock they used in the '70s bit. I enjoyed the pastel clothes, enormous cell phone, and billboard ad for mousse that appeared in the '80s section. And I thought the '90s part was funny—mostly because the only way the writers could think to signal '90s was by showing a movie theater playing Tommy Boy. (Are the '90s so recent that their aesthetics are not yet mockable?) One problem: What kind of car ad shows a celebrity endorser driving rival brands and looking great doing it? That '80s Beemer was pretty sweet. I think I'd rather buy one of those bad boys (used, with low mileage) than fork out $50,000 for a shiny new Audi. Wintry economic climate and all.

A Pepsi ad boldly suggests that will.i.am is this generation's Bob Dylan. Hmm. Not buying. Nor am I fond of the ad's contention that Jack Black is this generation's John Belushi. Have we really run out of hugely talented iconoclasts? Also, I hesitate to ask, but: Was Bob Dylan heavily invested in financial stocks? He's on a revenue-raking tear, as this Pepsi spot comes hot on the heels of him allowing a British conglomerate to desecrate  "Blowin' in the Wind."

Another celebrity unexpectedly cashes in: Conan O'Brien shows up in Bud Light's second spot. A misguided agent convinces him to appear in a beer commercial by promising it will air only in Sweden. I adore Conan, but I didn't love this ad. Jokes about American stars making ads for foreign markets are old hat. And the imagined Swedish beer spot was just a jumble of stale clichés. What's more, I've had quite enough of celebrities attempting to mitigate their "sellouts" (which may be regrettable but don't warrant an apology) with meta-joshing about the fact that they've sold out. The late great David Foster Wallace once described a tactic he dubbed the "Carson Maneuver." This refers to Johnny Carson's habit of inoculating himself against making bad jokes by letting on that he knew darn well the jokes were bad. Conan—perhaps inspired by the fact that he'll soon be taking over Johnny's old show—has apparently been studying this technique.

Second quarter: Steelers up 3-0. That's already more points than were scored in the entire Liverpool vs. Chelsea match earlier today. Take that, non-American "football"!

A Cars.com spot traces the life of an exceedingly confident young man. He shakes the obstetrician's hand when he's born, he rescues cuddly animals from fires, and he asks out girls much older than he. Yet when it comes time to buy a car, he freezes up. Cars.com is of course the solution. With its twinkly music, deadpan narration, twee vignettes, and overly self-assured protagonist, the ad's clearly striving for a Wes Anderson-lite vibe. I got roped in by the narrative, so I think the ad was a success. But I felt its payoff lacked kick: Nowhere does the consumer learn how exactly Cars.com makes the purchasing process easier.

Cheetosairs another of its moody, countercultural ads, in which brand mascot Chester Cheetah encourages grown adults to behave like mischievous 7-year-olds. The spot opens on a lady who's yammering loudly on her cell phone, annoying a nearby woman who's trying to read a book. Chester the foul-hearted feline prods the aggrieved second woman to throw some Cheetos at the loud-talker's feet, thereby attracting a flock of vicious pigeons. I loved the satisfied look on the Cheeto-tosser's face as she watches the cell phone shouter become engulfed in dirty, flapping feathers. I loved even more the closing moment when Chester nuzzles one of the pigeons, upon which he's placed a falconry hood. One quibble: When I wrote about this campaign last year, the people at Cheetos told me they were executing a two-tiered strategy. Ads for kids showed Chester as his regular, lovable self, and they aired during kid-friendly morning and afternoon programming. Ads like this one—aimed at adults who might be convinced to try Cheetos—aired only at night, so as to hide the more nefarious version of Chester from younger eyes. But this ad aired before 8 p.m., and lots of kiddies are watching the Super Bowl. Isn't there a danger Chester's distinctly targeted personalities might get blurred?

Halftime: Suck it, haters—Springsteen was awesome. Granted, the Boss misjudged his powerslide and smashed his crotch into a TV camera. But these things happen as we age. 

A suite of 3-D ads, including a bizarre spot for Sobe Life Water (in which NFL players dance awkwardly with animated lizards) leaves me cold, as I somehow missed the bulletin about picking up 3-D glasses. I tried to watch the ads through a half-full beer bottle, but the effect was disappointing.

An ad for the Toyota Tundra shows the pickup driving through a tunnel of flames and emerging unscathed. I very much hope, for the sake of Tundra drivers, that this functionality never comes into play. Separately: I am puzzled by the announcer's contention that "truckers know towing 10,000 pounds up a steep grade ain't good for your tranny." I'm picturing a post-op sex change patient standing in the pickup's bed, hands on hips, displeased with the truck's towing power. What's that you say? He means transmission? Oh. I suppose that would make more sense.

Third quarter: Cards down 10. If he can't lead a comeback, I hope Kurt Warner will at least challenge Roger Federer for most tears shed during a postgame ceremony.

A Coca-Cola spot shows a young man walking through a town populated solely by online avatars. These fantastical creatures, taking over the real world, represent the idea that people now conduct much of their social interaction over the Internet. At the end of the spot, a shared bottle of Coke helps a young gentleman realize that the jumbo-sized ogre sitting next to him is actually the avatar of a cute girl. This is the eternal message of the Coke brand: Pausing for a moment to enjoy our fizzy beverage will help you remember the simple, classic pleasures of life. Two thoughts: 1) I like online avatars and hope one day to achieve immortality by downloading my brain into the body of a computer-generated elf character. 2) This is the opposite of Pepsi's branding approach, which always rushes to embrace the newest fad (see, e.g., will.i.am). Pepsi would have happily shown two avatars enjoying a virtual cola together, somewhere out there in the cyber-ether.

A spot for Monster.com opens on an executive sitting in an expansive office, with a moose head mounted on the wall above him. The camera swoops around to the other side of the wall, where we see a lackey working at his far more humble desk—with the rest of the moose, and especially the nether-regions, protruding into his face. I thought this was the funniest ad of the night. It also felt timely, as it takes a shot at corporate fat cats and perhaps even references the John Thain office-decoration scandal. Seemed like a clever attempt to capitalize on America's stick-it-to-the-greedheads mood.

A Budweiser spot serves up an origin story for the Clydesdale mascot. This is the third hokey Clydesdale-centric ad Bud has aired tonight. I wonder if there's a risk that—like Joe Camel before him—the lovable Clydesdale will be condemned as a Trojan horse (if you will) designed to attract children to the Budweiser brand. I also wonder why the ad's equine narrator, who says he's a third-generation immigrant Clydesdale, still retains a thick Scottish accent. Assimilate already.

Fourth quarter: In which the game suddenly becomes a real game, and the referees attempt to set an NFL record for dubious, outcome-altering calls.

Oh my, it's an ad for Cash4Gold. Billing itself as "America's #1 Gold Buyer," this outfit, according to its Web site, buys gold "strictly for its melt value." There was some pregame discussion among advertising types about whether this spot is the first "direct response" ad to air during a Super Bowl. Direct response means the ad urges consumers to contact the product's sales team directly—often via a 1-800 number, or, in this case, through a Web URL prominently displayed throughout the ad. It generally implies a down-market vibe.

This ad certainly reflected the desparate-ish tenor of the times. In the spot, ex-talk show sidekick Ed McMahon and ex-hip-hop idol MC Hammer (both known for having made and then lost fortunes) display the multitude of gold objects they plan to sell through Cash4Gold.com. Among these items: a set of gold golf clubs, a gold hip replacement, and (you knew it was coming) gold Hammer pants. By my count, this is at least the third time MC Hammer has appeared in a Super Bowl ad as the corporeal embodiment of squandered fame and wealth. Great gig. But how much longer can he pull off the role? Haven't all these advertising paydays restored Hammer to solvency?

In the final big spot of the night, Web site registration service GoDaddy.com reprises its long-running marketing theme: boobs. Several chesty women are for some reason testifying before a congressional panel, arguing over which of them has been "enhanced." In the feeble punch line, racecar driver Danica Patrick says, "Yes, I've enhanced. … I've enhanced my image with a domain and a Web site from GoDaddy.com."

GoDaddy has worked assiduously to make itself the laddish, soft-core porn brand of the domain registration category. This seems very limiting. No other domain-registration sites advertised during the Super Bowl, so GoDaddy had an opportunity to differentiate itself in any way it wished. Why go after Maxim readers? Do women not register Web sites? And are we to believe that a GoDaddy Web site—backed by bosom-centric marketing—is really the best way to enhance one's professional image? This ad actively drives me away from the brand.

And that's a wrap, folks. Nothing left but a thrilling finish to the game. For the second year in a row, the on-field action was more entertaining than the commercial breaks. Let's hope this doesn't happen again.

No doubt I've left out your favorite ad. Or maybe your least favorite. You can tell me all about it—and also suggest other, non-Super Bowl ads you'd like me to review—by e-mailing me at adreportcard@gmail.com.