The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 6 2012 2:33 AM

The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads

The Coke bears weren't cute enough, and Budweiser went Ken Burns.

H&M Super Bowl ad.
The H&M Super Bowl ad featuring David Beckham.

© 2011 Hennes & Mauritz.

Join Slate’s Seth Stevenson and John Swansburg as they discuss last night’s Super Bowl ads with readers at 2 p.m. ET today on Slate’s Facebook page.

Welcome to Ad Report Card’s annual Super Bowl special. Please forgive my post-traumatic mood. As a Patriots fan, I watched that fourth quarter with my heart at 230 bpm and my vision going white around the edges. Now that the bad guys have won, I hate football, and basically all sports, and maybe even leisure activities in general. Also: My stomach hurts because during the course of the game I anxiety-ate an entire large pizza.

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.

Anyway, on to the ads, which this year cost on the order of $3.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime. Did they justify the expense? The Obama campaign has already registered its verdict: In the middle of the third quarter it sent around a text reading, “The commercials aren’t that good this year anyway. Take a break from watching the big game to support Team Obama-Biden.”

Opportunistic gambit. But I’m not convinced it was quite that cut and dried, Mr. President. I liked several ads that ran this year. If I have a complaint, it’s the overall absence of the grandiose tone I crave from Super Bowl spots. Not enough budget-busting epics for my taste. I suppose times are still hard and production budgets are tight.

I did note a couple of broad themes: 1) Last-second cameos by b-list celebrities. Instead of starring second-tier celebs, several ads waited patiently until their closing moments to unveil brief appearances from semi-knowns such as Flavor Flav, Mark Cuban, and Regis Philbin. It’s almost like the ad was done, edited, shipped, and then someone high up the management chain decided, Hey, wedging in a vaguely famous person couldn’t hurt! 2) One of Donald Gunn’s 12 classic advertising formats is the exaggerated, symbolic demonstration of a product’s benefit. It’s a trope that ran rampant among this year’s spots. I’ll note some examples along the way.

First Quarter

For many years running, Bud Light has bought the first spot after kickoff, using this prime real estate to crack chuckleheaded jokes—often involving concussed groins and/or flatulent animals. The beer brand again leads off the ad parade, but this time around it goes sincere, introducing a line extension that it’s labeling Bud Light Platinum. I have no idea how this differs from plain old Bud Light (is it spiked with flakes of precious metal, a la Goldschläger?), but I do note that this more reserved tone held throughout the game. Very few ads employed cheap one-liners or bodily-function humor. I’m grateful—I think we were all a bit Farrelly-ed out.

Audi makes fun of the vampire trend. Good timing: I think they picked an ideal moment to go all in on the brewing vamp backlash. But an ad that touts slightly brighter headlights? Seems like low stakes for a multimillion-dollar Super Bowl spot in the very first commercial pod. Go big or go home, Audi. (Here’s our first symbolic demonstration of a product benefit: Audi headlights are so intense that they mimic daylight, and thus are able to vaporize vampires.)

Elton John portrays a medieval king who cruelly hoards his stash of Pepsi. The ad mashes up two current pop culture phenomena: The Game of Thrones nasty-tyrant-in-olde-tymes aesthetic (with Elton as an ersatz King Joffrey), and the American Idol/The Voice/America’s Kidz Got Singing competition format (with Elton as an ersatz Simon Cowell). X Factor winner Melanie Amaro—why yes, I did have to Google her—plays a role, as does the aforementioned Mr. Flav. I can only wonder if Elton lobbied to portray a queen.

Coca-Cola brings back its polar bears, who are watching the big game in what appears to be their Arctic man-cave. This spot, and two companion Ursus maritimus spots later on in the game, turned out to be my biggest disappointments of the night. I count on Coke to bring it every year with an epic, heartwarming ad that blows out all the stops. These spots were mere trifles. If they cost a bundle to make, I sure didn’t sense that money up on-screen. And, given the presence of furry animals, the ads could have been waaaay more adorable. (Where, I ask, were the polar bear cubs? There’s always room for cute baby bears, Coke.) I’m still not clear on how or why polar bears came to be associated with Coca-Cola, and frankly it might be time for the brand to part ways with them. Coke would have been much better served by going to the well again with Mean Joe Greene. He’s still alive—I checked!

 

Second Quarter

A Chevy Silverado spot emphasizes the truck’s durability by suggesting that, unlike Ford pickups, it shall survive the coming apocalypse. This was the only world-end-in-2012-themed ad of the night—I’d expected a few more. Seems the Mayan apocalypse meme doesn’t have nearly the same buzz that Y2K enjoyed. Will the average consumer even get the reference? Either way, nice touch with the raining frogs at the end. Someone’s been watching Magnolia on cable. (Symbolic demonstration of the product’s benefit: Chevy trucks are solid enough to survive the end times.)

Bridgestone says its tires are so advanced that if you made a football out of that same material, it would defy all the rules of ballistics. This ad was simple and straightforward, but it’s worth mentioning that it does what so many other too-clever-by-half Super Bowl ads fail to do: It mentions the Bridgestone name early and often—even displaying some Bridgestone signage in the context of the spot’s narrative. We see the tires in action on a sportscar before we get to our requisite celebrity cameos and anemic punchline. (Symbolic demonstration of the product’s benefit: Bridgestone tires give you so much control, it’s like you’re Troy Aikman zigzagging a throw past Deion Sanders.)

Hey, it’s an ad for the Battleship movie! I’m awarding points for the fact that they didn’t utter the phrase “You sunk my battleship” during the ad. I’m deducting points for the fact that they made a full-length film based on Battleship. I think I’d much prefer to watch a movie about Battle Shots.

A Budweiser ad re-creates the dark days of Prohibition, and the triumphant return of booze to American life. Finally, an ad with a little scope—this spot had a cast of thousands, some sepia-toned grandeur, and a feel-good vibe. I enjoyed its small details, like when a dude blows the dust off a long-dormant bottle opener. Not quite sure why they chose this moment for a Prohibition-themed spot, though. Could the recent Ken Burns documentary possibly serve as a peg? If so, highbrow kudos, Bud! This mournful violin refrain’s for you!

A new graduate’s parents don’t have the heart to tell him that his gift is a mini-fridge, not that yellow Camaro parked out on the street. The ad is mildly amusing, but I give it special credit for literally putting the product front and center: For most of those expensive 30 seconds, that pretty convertible is attractively posed in the center of our TV frame.

TaxAct.com gives us the story of a little boy who desperately needs to pee. He can find no relief—until he soils a swimming pool. The urge to micturate is well-evoked here. But I question the wisdom of associating your product with streaming urine. (Symbolic demonstration of the product’s benefit: Doing your taxes for free at TaxAct.com provides the same satisfaction as taking a long-overdue leak.)

Volkswagen follows up last year’s beloved Darth Vader kid ad with a spot about a dog that’s grown too obese to chase cars. The scenes of the dog working out elicited grins—I especially enjoyed the shot of the dieting doggie allowing dropped meat niblets to bounce uneaten off his snout. In a closing twist, the ad goes meta: It shows us the alien denizens of the Star Wars bar arguing over whether this ad is better or worse than the one with the Vader kid. I suppose it’s a tribute to the previous spot’s success that VW deemed it famous enough for a call-back reference. But this complicated ploy ate up precious airtime, and as a result we barely glimpsed the car that’s on offer. (You know, the product?) Keep it simpler, VW. And stop resting on your laurels—the Vader kid is so last year.

H&M has David Beckham in his skivvies. I have to imagine this is an ad aimed mostly at women, who are urged to purchase these briefs for the men in their lives. Thus the lingering shots of Beckham’s wedding band. And of his tush. Check it out, ladies: a monogamist with a hot bod!

Teleflora always seems to court controversy. This year’s effort from the flower delivery service has supermodel Adriana Lima sexily donning lingerie. She coos to the camera, explaining to men that if they give they “shall receive.” Implication: Ladies put out for flower bouquets—which, by the way fellas, you can hastily order with a few Internet clicks. I understand that flowers are often bought by men, and thus this ad is targeting dudes. But Teleflora again risks severely alienating women—who, one assumes, sometimes send flowers to sick, bereaved, or newly promoted friends. When it comes to branding, I am an advocate of not ticking off a massive swathe of potential customers.

The E*Trade baby is back, hawking financial consulting services. This whole baby campaign has veered way off track: The original notion was that E*Trade’s interface was so simple, even an infant could use it. Over time, the baby has transformed into an arrogant, slick-talking sharpie—which seems to negate the whole point of the sales pitch. This particular spot is about a dad trying to meet the fiscal challenges of having a kid, so the baby at least seems relevant here. But the punch line—another baby is speed-dating in the newborn infirmary—fell pretty flat. (Symbolic demonstration of the product’s benefit: Once upon a time, it was that even a baby could use E*Trade. Now? I have no idea.)

 

Halftime

I love Madonna, have tremendous respect for her, and have been known to karaoke Cherish when I’m feeling frisky. But the poor gal looked past her prime here. She moved with decided creakiness, lost her balance for a few frightening seconds, and at moments verged into Patsy-from-Ab Fab territory. I was relieved when she made it offstage without breaking a hip.

Chrysler exhumes Clint Eastwood for a rousing spot proclaiming “halftime in America.” I’m a sucker for this “Imported from Detroit” campaign—I think it hits all the right notes at the perfect societal moment. But what’s with Clint’s voice? He appears to have Batman-throat disease.

 

Third Quarter

A spot for the updated Toyota Camry is a muddle—it’s as though the ad creatives couldn’t decide which way to demonstrate the car’s new-and-improvedness, so they larded the spot with every funny metaphor they could conjure. Thus we see the Toyota’s improvements compared to: improving rain so that it makes you lose weight; improving a plant so that it fights crime; and improving a blender so that it plays Lionel Richie songs. Amusing stuff. I enjoyed the spot. But amid all those jokes, Toyota couldn’t spare a single second to show us how the Camry has actually improved. With no connection between the jokes and the brand, will anyone remember which car this ad is selling? (Symbolic demonstration of the product’s benefit: It’s like a policeman who gives you a massage instead of a ticket; a couch made of attractive naked women [or men]; window treatments made out of pizza; and on, and on.)

A spot for Oikos has a woman head-butting John Stamos in a battle over a spoonful of yogurt. A few questions: Why has Greek yogurt exploded on the dairy scene? I’ve tried it and have decided it offers few advantages over non-Greek yogurt. It just has squatter, wider packaging. Also: Is John Stamos here as a fungible stand-in for “man attractive to the typical hetero, yogurt-eating woman,” or is it because his last name suggests he is Greek, like the yogurt? Lastly: Where did this woman learn to head-butt? She goes forehead to forehead, which is ineffective—she needs to ram the crown of her head into the bridge of Stamos’ nose for maximal impact.

Century 21 slathers on the celebs, grabbing Donald Trump, Deion Sanders, and Apolo Anton Ohno. Sort of surprised the notoriously Pollyanna-ish real estate company wouldn’t proclaim a housing bottom and declare it once again safe to overbid on that condo. But perhaps they’re gun-shy after creating a notorious boom-time commercial featuring the nastiest wife in television history.

Acura has Jerry Seinfeld eager to buy its new NSX model.* Seinfeld always seems to bring the funny when he makes ads. And Jay Leno is of course a natural as a villain. But again, we barely see that sleek sportscar at all, while the ad finds time to show us multiple other transport options: a boat, a zip line, and a squirrel suit jetpack contraption. Maybe don’t be afraid to show the actual product? It looked pretty sweet.

Fourth Quarter

At last, the Ferris Bueller-themed Honda ad that everyone’s been talking about. I was fond of the extended version posted in advance of game night. Lots of sly nods for Ferris aficionados (though I wish the Walrus introspection scene had been backed by that awesome instrumental version of The Smiths’ "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want"—the one the movie uses when the gang visits the art museum). The problem with the version of the ad that actually aired is that the truncations remove all the subtlest, funniest, most rewarding moments. We’re left with lowest common denominator Ferris. And: If you’d told my tween self that Ferris would grow up to wear quarter-zip sweaters and dad jeans, I might have cried. Also: What, Alan Ruck was too busy? Come on!

Correction, Feb. 6, 2012: This article originally misidentified the Acura NSX as the MSK. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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