The best and worst Super Bowl ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 8 2010 7:31 AM

The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads

Google wins. Talking babies lose.

Also in Slate: Josh Levin analyzes how the Saints pulled off their Super Bowl victory.

Welcome to the annual Ad Report Card Super Bowl Special. Among the recurring advertising themes I noticed during the big game: animals hot-tubbing with sexy ladies, paunchy dudes wearing tighty-whities, defiant misogyny. Not being a huge fan of bestiality, hairy male thighs, or woman-hating, I must admit I was underwhelmed by this year's commercial crop.

First Quarter
It's one of the most enduring and most irritating Super Bowl traditions: Bud Light buys the first ad slot of the game and ruins it with a not-especially-funny joke. This year, the gag is that a guy has crafted his house out of full Bud Light cans. People begin ripping out the walls and fixtures in an effort to quench their thirst for watery lager. Is there a less exciting brand slogan right now than Bud Light's "Here We Go"? It sounds like a defeated office drone trudging back into his cubicle each morning—or bellying up to the bar each night for the familiar bottle of swill.

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.

Snickers throws Betty White and Abe Vigoda into a sandlot football game. The message: When you're hungry, you play football like a withered octogenarian, and the solution is to wolf down a restorative Snickers bar. I'm not sure I buy the underlying argument (did I miss the sideline shots of Drew Brees licking nougat from his lips?), but the visual metaphor (frail old person morphing into hearty young person through the power of Snickers) was clear. And, yes, it's fun to watch Abe Vigoda take a crushing hit to his ribcage.

Focus on the Family airs its controversial pro-life Tim Tebow ad. But the ad's content is the opposite of controversial; it skips the details of his mother's placental abruption and decision not to have an abortion when she was pregnant with Tim. Big winner: the Tebow family. This is a Super Bowl ad in which the entirety of the message is that Tim Tebow's mommy loves him. It's sort of like when your mom bought that half-page spread in the program for your elementary school graduation—except this cost $2.5 million, reached a national audience, and was paid for by someone else. As for Focus on the Family, the group behind the spot: They tricked us. Their clever media strategy thrust Mrs. Tebow's story into the national conversation long before the ad aired. The spot itself turned out to be their post-game celebration. (See my Slate colleague Will Saletan's piece for a deeper take on the Tebow tale.)

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Boost Mobile brings back the '85 Bears to perform a bloated, creaky Super Bowl Shuffle. This cellular phone service brand previously targeted teens and young adults. I have to assume—since most people under 25 weren't even alive for the original iteration of the Super Bowl Shuffle—this is an attempt to reach a broader demographic. I'm not sure what sort of cachet dorky 50-year-old dudes in nonlicensed, generic football outfits will bring. But the cringe-worthy spectacle held my attention long enough to make me aware of Boost Mobile's offer of $50 unlimited talk/text/Web, so I grudgingly deem it a success.

Secondary characters from The Simpsons star in a vaguely upbeat ad for Coke. Fiendish tycoon C. Montgomery Burns loses his fortune and his mansion but is consoled when Apu hands him a bottle of corn-syrupy sunshine. It was nice to see the Springfield gang's communitarian spirit, but I have to ask: Is America ready to feel sympathy for evil billionaires brought low? Anyone care to offer Bernie Madoff a Coke and a smile? (I did find it interesting to learn that the Burns fortune totals only $3 billion. I'd always thought he was a Warren Buffet-level billionaire, not a Ross Perot-level billionaire.)

Bud Light makes an Auto-Tune/T-Pain joke. Note that Jay-Z released a single titled "Death of Auto-Tune" in the summer of 2009. And that I released my own single, titled "Death of Jokes About Auto-Tune," a short time later.

Second Quarter
A promo for The Late Show With David Letterman finds the ornery talk-show host seated three-on-a-couch with Oprah and Jay Leno, enduring the "worst Super Bowl party ever." Fascinating dynamics here. Whose idea was this? I assume Leno's motivation was to soften his image by showing he can take a joke. But why is Leno-hater Dave helping to resuscitate the battered image of his sworn enemy? Why is CBS promoting an NBC star? And is poor, forgotten Conan crying into his Super Bowl chili as he watches this chummy post-war rapprochement between talk-show survivors?

A pair of back-to-back ads inflict on us the sight of pudgy middle-aged people in underwear. First, a CareerBuilder.com spot is set at a company where "casual Fridays" have become a fleshy affair. (Note that The Office made this joke a while back, when office drunkard Meredith wore a casual Friday mini-dress cut simultaneously too low and too high.) Query: In this economy, would anyone really leave a job because of something as trivial as an eccentric workplace culture? I imagine a more fruitful market for CareerBuilder's services would be found among those who have no job to complain about. But perhaps the specter of unemployment is too depressing and scary to be raised in a Super Bowl ad.

Immediately following the CareerBuilder spot, Dockers shows us another pack of pasty thighs. Yes, I realize that lumpy guys in their skivvies are a comedy winner (every bit as can't-miss as talking babies, naughty animals, and pummeling blows to the groin—all of which appeared in this year's and last year's ads). But two such ads in a row is about 1.8 too many.

In an ad for the Dodge Charger, men stare into the camera with expressions of either defeated resignation or seething resentment. "I will be civil to your mother, I will put the seat down," goes one section of the voiceover litany—much of which centers on how unbearable it is for men to listen to the opinions of, and on occasion respect the wishes of, women. The Charger is billed as "man's last stand." Not long after, an ad for Flo TV declares that when a man goes shopping with his girlfriend she has "removed his spine." He is urged to "change out of that skirt." Is it me, or was this year's dose of casual misogyny a little rawer and angrier than usual? Are men feeling especially threatened by the fragile economy and by the fact that the vast majority of job losses have afflicted traditionally male, working-class strongholds like manufacturing and construction (the kind of guys I picture wanting … a Dodge Charger)?

In another Flo TV ad, will.i.am offers his updated take on the Who's "My Generation." Last year, in a Pepsi ad, will.i.am offered his updated take on Bob Dylan's "Forever Young." Two points: 1) Corporate America, please end your fascination with will.i.am, and stop enlisting him to desecrate the history of music. 2) Can we all take this moment to acknowledge that it is still possible for an artist to sell out, and that will.i.am is demonstrating this possibility on a near-daily basis?

Halftime
Stumbling around over by the drum kit—with his black fedora, patchy white stubble, and oversized eyewear—Pete Townshend looks a bit like a confused Junior Soprano. By the way, how tempted must CBS have been to parade CSI stars across the stage during "Who Are You"? Gary Sinise windmilling on a Fender. David Caruso snapping off his sunglasses to stare accusingly into Roger Daltrey's eyes. This must have been narrowly rejected in the planning meetings.

Third Quarter
Megan Fox's Super Bowl ad for Motorola—in which she imagines what might happen if she snapped a semi-nude pic of herself with her cell phone and put it on the Web—is the final rung in the actress' ascent (or descent?) from actual sex symbol to culturally signifying "sex symbol." I did enjoy the notion that straight and gay men would enrage their partners by being unable to resist the allure of Megan Fox cheesecake photos.

HomeAway.com resurrects the Griswolds, the hapless tourists from the Vacation films, played by Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo. Nice gag about the "complementary" water in snooty hotel rooms. ("With an E—it complements the rooms. It's not free.") But the ad simply teases a longer video posted to the Web at the expense of explaining to the Super Bowl audience what HomeAway.com is and how it works. I, for one, am not anxious to log on and view more sweaty Chevy Chase antics. I'd rather watch the depressing, fully-clothed jiggle footage at GoDaddy.com.

The E-trade talking baby sweet-talks his girlfriend over video chat—and then gets busted for two-timing when his girlfriend realizes "that milkaholic Lindsay" is over at our hero's crib. Maybe talking babies are your thing. They don't do a lot for me. Whatever. Can I just point out: The original idea behind the talking baby was to send the message that E-trade is incredibly easy to use (so easy that an infant can do it). The ads have now lost all connection to this logic. They're just a series of 30-second Look Who's Talking sequels.

The rumblings were correct: Google bought its first Super Bowl ad. True to form, the company didn't attempt to shape its brand with a celebrity spokesperson, a lame comedy bit, or shenanigans involving animals. Instead, an almost all-text ad told the story—through search engine inquiries—of a guy who visits France, meets his soulmate, and starts a family. This was one of multiple ads this year tracing long character arcs (Cars.com and Dove Men+Care both followed a character from birth through adulthood), but, amazingly, the narrative here was expressed entirely through a product demonstration. Ad Report Card has long considered the melding of practical sales pitch with uplifting emotion the holy grail of advertising, and here's a prime example. Frankly, I'm getting a little of sick of Google doing everything right.

Fourth Quarter
An ad for Vizio televisions—touting their ability to display content from the Internet via special included software—shows you all the incredible Internet stuff you could be watching on your Vizio TV: dramatic gopher, the "Numa Numa" guy, the "Chocolate Rain" guy. … Wait, this is what's supposed to convince us we need the Internet on our TVs? Ancient YouTube clips? Tell me honestly: Are you excited to watch content like this on your TV? If so, please let me know, so I can decline your invitation to come over and watch TV.

Emerald Nuts and Pop Secret (both owned by Diamond Foods) team up to share a 30-second ad with the tagline "Awesome + awesome = awesomer." I can't decide whether it's appealingly frugal for two brands to split the expense of a single ad or whether it's just low-rent. I'm leaning toward the latter.

A man is so protective of his Doritos stash that he uses the savory snack chips as ninja throwing stars when someone tries to steal a bag from him. I admit I chuckled at the suit of Samurai armor made entirely from Doritos. I also liked the earlier ad in which a little boy admonishes his mother's suitor, "Keep your hands off my mama, keep your hands off my Doritos." In the battle of pure humor spots, I'd say Doritos bested Bud Light. Which is remarkable when you consider that all the Doritos ads were submitted as part of a contest, while the Bud Light ads were made by an expensive advertising agency. Chalk one up for the slightly superior mediocrity of crowds.

Two-Minute Warning
With the game slipping out of Peyton Manning's hands (how delightful for this Patriots fan to once again see the glazed eyes, flushed skin, and pursed lips of a whupped Manning), Joe Montana celebrates his intact legacy as the greatest Super Bowl quarterback of all time. How does he celebrate? By doing a voice-over endorsement for Skechers Shape-ups—the butt-toning sneakers that look like orthopedic hospital equipment.

And thus ends a decidedly uninspiring slate of Super Bowl commercials. Will we still be talking about any of these ads years from now as we do with truly great Super Bowl spots? I doubt it. But we can talk about all of them today, in the comments section. Have at it.

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