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.
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.
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!