The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 4 2013 6:58 AM

The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads

Go Daddy is sexist, Amy Poehler is charming, and BlackBerry reminds us all why we don’t have BlackBerries.

super bowl ad taco bell.
"Viva Young" Taco Bell Super Bowl ad.

A recent novel called Truth in Advertising takes place over a few frantic weeks leading up to a Super Bowl. It’s about an ad agency executive who’s scrambling to finish a spot that will run during the big game. The book captures a specific flavor of self-loathing that runs rampant in the ad industry. And it humanizes the faceless creatives who pump all this stuff out: Our hero deals with a pretentious director, a wishy-washy client, and some difficult on-screen talent, but he also faces crises involving a dying parent and a confusing love life.

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.

So, let us not forget (on this national holiday dedicated to advertising) that these Super Bowl ads, good and bad, are crafted by real human beings. People who have hopes and fears very much like our own—but also have $3.8 million to spend on 30 seconds of airtime.

FIRST QUARTER

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Budweiser introduces a new, higher-alcohol beer called Black Crown. We are told this is “our kind of beer.” Who are we? We are “the loud, the savvy, the famous.” And, judging by the people shown in this spot, we are also the young, the slender, and the fedora’d. We apparently love to hang out in rooms full of flaming candelabras. This is what an ad taxonomist would term “associated user imagery”—the ad is less about the product’s attributes and more about signaling the niche of people that the product is meant for. In this case, that niche is a little bit upscale and a little bit downtown. (The spot was at least a refreshing change for the night’s opening slot, which in years past has often featured Bud Light ads with punchlines that depend on animal flatulence and groin contusions.)

An Audi ad opens with a nervous high school boy getting ready for prom. He’s going stag because he has no date. Even his little sis pities him. Then dad tosses over the keys to a bitchin’ Audi. When next we see the kid, he’s driving recklessly, violating parking rules, frenching the prom queen right in front of her boyfriend, and getting punched in the face. So I guess the takeaway is that driving an Audi will transform you from a sweet, humble guy into a total prick? And since teens can’t afford to buy Audis, this metamorphosis is presumably meant to stoke the fires of middle-aged men. Which is kind of gross.

Go Daddy is in the game again, this year with a twist. They’re no longer the domain name service for horn-dogs who get turned on by bikini babes. Now—symbolized by some heavy snogging between a geek and a supermodel (a scene that reportedly required 45 smoochy takes)—they are also the domain name service for people who want their soft-core cheesecake backed by reliable tech infrastructure. I’ve been saying for years that Go Daddy’s lad mag image might unnecessarily limit its appeal by repulsing, for instance, women. For there are indeed women who might wish to register web sites. (And my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg was repulsed by this spot last night.) But to me this ad seems like a tack in in a more promising direction—toward a product-focused pitch instead of a dumb, “sex sells” approach. And as much as I hate Go Daddy’s entire aesthetic, I need to concede that their over-the-top marketing has been an overall success. Quick: How many other domain registration companies can you name off the top of your head?

Doritos once again crowdsources its Super Bowl presence, allowing contest winners to create its ads. In this one, a man buys a Doritos-eating goat. The man soon discovers he is unable to satisfy the jonesing goat’s out-of-control Doritos habit. When the spicy chips run out, the goat screams (and let’s pause to acknowledge the fabulous vocal work done here). The goat then angrily crushes a wooden sculpture that appears to be the man’s handcrafted outsider art project. Doritos has proven yet again that crowdsourcing can result in ads every bit as funny/puerile as the ads that the best agencies think up. This spot also forced us all to ponder what sort of terrifying egestion might result if a goat actually ate 156 bags of Doritos.

A Best Buy ad starring Amy Poehler does celebrity endorsement right. This is a relatable famous person—one we can almost picture shopping at Best Buy—not an impossibly glamorous megawatt celeb. Poehler seems like the kind of person who might crave new high-tech goodies, but might also need a teensy bit of help navigating the consumer electronics landscape (in short, a perfect Best Buy customer). These scenes take place entirely within a Best Buy, so we never forget which brand this ad is for. And Poehler is charming. Who among us doesn’t love a dongle joke?

Oh James Franco, you can keep your Oz the Great and Powerful. I am all about Franco the Dreadlocked and Tatted. Or, as the movie is actually titled, Spring Breakers. The choice of the more discerning James Franco fan.

A Coca-Cola ad uses scenes pulled from security cameras. We see people kissing, being kind to each other, dancing joyfully. I generally count on Coke to nail my one requirement for a great Super Bowl ad: epic-osity. Coke often goes big—thematically, emotionally, and budgetarily. But in recent years, we’ve seen fewer epic ads in general. Whether this is because the national mood calls for restraint or because production funds have dried up, I’m not sure. Either way, this ad seems like a terrific compromise. It feels stirring, yet its moments are tiny delights. And it is made from cheap found footage. It’s also a perfect fit with Coke’s longstanding brand image: positive, global, and youthful.

Oreo partisans take sides in a war of the cookie versus the cream. But since this battle is waged inside a library, all must whisper—including the firefighters shouting “Fire!” and the cops speaking into a megaphone. Funny stuff. But I’m not sure the brand association will stick. What does whispering have to do with cookies?

SECOND QUARTER

Are we truly on our sixth Fast and Furious? How are there undamaged cars still left in the world?

An ad for the Toyota RAV-4 stars the actress from Big Bang Theory (the one whose role is mostly to wear tank tops) as some sort of poorly defined genie character. She grants wishes to a family. Which in turn grants the ad’s production team an excuse to film crazy scenarios like medieval battles and outer space travel. Points for some decent visual epic-osity. Minus points for—after so much razzle-dazzle—failing to be in any way uplifting or moving. Though I did like the idea that “dangerously low chocolate levels” could necessitate a mom hooking up to a fudge I.V. drip.

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