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

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.

A second crowdsourced Doritos ad shows us a dad crossdressing in order to steal his daughter’s Doritos. How do you know you live in a post-Modern Family world? Before, the punchline here would have involved gay panic when the guy’s macho pals catch him cavorting in women’s clothes. Now, that’s merely the premise. The punchline arrives when the pals crossdress, too.

Calvin Klein debuts its “Concept” line of underwear, using slo-mo shots of a dude with a washboard stomach wearing nothing but his skivvies. Is this a reminder that the Super Bowl audience is nearly half female, and that these ladies occasionally like to buy underthings for their dudes? Or is it a reminder that you can never go wrong marketing to guys by exploiting their abdominal aspirations?

This year’s Cars.com ad was mediocre. But it did include an adorable wolf pup. Hypothetically: Where might one adopt a wolf pup? Also: Do you think my condo board has rules that specifically govern the keeping of wolves?

Go Daddy is back with a second ad. Couples from around the world—accents ranging from Cockney to Hindi—bicker over their lazy male half’s failure to launch a brilliant business idea (with a .co address from Go Daddy). At the close, we see the one guy who didn’t hesitate, flying aboard his private jet. Ugh, why is it only the men who have entrepreneurial ideas in these couples? Women start web sites, too! You are killing me, Go Daddy! Don’t make me sic my wolf pup on you.

Yes, it is officially titled Star Trek Into Darkness. But to me it will always be Star Trek: Cumberbatch.*

In an ad for the Hyundai Sonata turbo model, the car gets stuck behind a motorcyclist with his butt hanging out, a truck full of smoldering fireworks, two dogs emitting streams of drool, and so forth. The car’s turbo acceleration allows it to zoom past these various scenarios that you presumably don’t want to get stuck behind. A nice little ad. The premise demonstrates the strength of the product (its acceleration), it displays the product in action, and it manages to be fun. It pulls off that all-important two-step jig that brings a memorable image and product attribute together in the consumer’s mind.

A Volkswagen ad shows us a white Minnesotan guy who talks like a Caribbean islander. Why? Because his VW makes him so happy he just needs to lilt. There have been accusations of racial insensitivity leveled at this ad, but I can’t get worked up over it. Seems fairly harmless. And the tonal calibration is excellent—the island persona could have been way over the top, played for campy silliness, but the actor gets it just right. I laughed when he assured his friend at the vending machine, “The steeky bahn cahm soon.” Every office might benefit from a cubicle Rasta.

Coke’s second ad is on a grand scale. Cowboys, ruffians, and showgirls all race through a desert toward an enormous bottle of Coke. Cleverly conceived, as I empathized with these parched characters—I could imagine how refreshing a cold Coke would taste amid the sand dunes. But I didn’t like the interactive aspect of the ad. The spot encourages us to choose which group will win the race by voting at CokeChase.com. And then it doesn’t let us vote for the poor fellow we see dragging a camel at the beginning of the ad. Why can’t Camel Guy win? Write-in campaign for Camel Guy! (Incidentally, CokeChase.com was also the domain name for my late ‘90s blog chronicling the Manhattan club scene.)

Was this Subway ad toasting longtime spokesman Jared Fogle a bittersweet valedictory? Something in the ad’s tone seemed to suggest we won’t be seeing much more of Jared in Subway marketing. If so, cheers to him. Kind of mindblowing that an obese man could became a multi-decade celebrity just by going on a diet.

Elderly geezers sneak out of a nursing home to live the thug life and eat Taco Bell. This ad demonstrates primarily that Fun’s hit song “We Are Young” is even more grating in Spanish than in English. Would not have thought it possible.

A guy in Skechers running shoes outpaces a cheetah. Oh, cheetah, if you ever went extinct what would we then use as a shorthand symbol for extreme rapidity? A further question: At this point, does anyone believe that a shoe will make him faster? Provide better arch support, sure. More ankle stability, maybe. But faster? Brand overpromise alert!

An ad for the Lincoln MKZ hilariously includes a brief shot of a man wearing a stovepipe hat. Yes, it is Abraham Lincoln in fuzzy silhouette, brooding as he gazes out at the horizon, as though he were a Michael Mann antihero. I know Abe is hot these days. But can The Great Emancipator really sell sedans? I am not convinced this endorsement is fitting and proper.

HALFTIME: And God said let there be fierce. And there was fierce.

The NFL thanks its fans by having players jump out of giant, giftwrapped boxes in people’s driveways. Have you people been following recent NFL news? If you saw a pro football player suddenly leap out of a box, wouldn’t you back away, wide-eyed, anticipating erratic behavior due to chronic brain trauma? 

A promo for the CBS show 2 Broke Girls is basically the lead actresses writhing around on a stripper pole. I bow to no man in my appreciation for Kat Denning’s combo of comic timing and eye-popping curves. But this seemed in poor taste. Regressive, even, following as it did on the heels of Beyonce’s all-female, girl-power stage show.

THIRD QUARTER: I don’t want to distract us by talking about the game. But the beginning of the third quarter may have had disastrous effects on ad viewership. First, Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones returned a kickoff for a touchdown to lopside the score at 28-6. Then, the stadium power flickered out, causing a 34-minute delay in the action. No doubt a fair amount of people—thinking the game pretty much decided, and not knowing how long the outage might last—departed Super Bowl parties at this point and drove home, or just flipped over to another channel. I’ll be interested to see if ratings dipped. (I’m sure CBS producers were not thrilled when commentator Bill Cowher said, mid-blackout, “This is just like another, longer halftime.” Yes, except instead of watching Beyoncé dance on stage we were watching dudes doing stretching exercises in murky halflight.)

A groom faints at the altar when he realizes he’ll be sharing a house with his mother-in-law. “Is there a Century 21 agent in the house?” asks the bride. A realtor comes to the rescue. Sorry, but I will never forgive Century 21—particularly when it comes to creating portraits of marriage—after it made the worst, most evil ad in history. An ad that cheered on a wife as she bullied her husband into buying a house at the very top of the market. If I had a wolf pup, I would sic it on that ad.

BlackBerry introduces its new z10 model by showing lots of cool things it can’t do—like give you elephant feet or make you disappear in a puff of rainbow smoke. Super awful idea. I think most people now just assume that BlackBerries have limited utility. Why reinforce the notion? At this point, if you want me to try a BlackBerry, your best bet is to convince me that it actually can give me elephant feet. Who among us doesn’t want elephant feet?

The E*trade baby envisions all the things he could do with the money he saves from reduced brokerage fees. He hot tubs with a panda, bids on fine art, and runs with the bulls in Pamplona. Most realistic moment: When we see the baby’s yacht run aground on a beach. I mean, seriously, can you imagine an infant trying to hoist a mainsail or trim a jib sheet? Ridiculous. There’s simply no way that baby could meet the Basic Keelboat certification standards of the American Sailing Association.

Gildan (a clothing company I’ve never heard of) airs an ad in which a guy wakes up from a weird one-night stand, only to discover that the woman in bed next to him is still wearing his t-shirt. He’s afraid to wake her. But he needs that shirt back because it’s his “favorite.” Really? According to Gildan’s web site, this is a $6 t-shirt. Seems a fair price to pay if the guy really wants to escape an awkward sitch. Make the sacrifice, dude. New shirt’s on me.

Psy appearing in a pistachio commercial formally marks the end of the Gangnam era. Round of applause. It was a good run, Psy. Ride that invisible horse into the sunset.

An ad shows us a fish serenading a bottle of Beck’s Sapphire, which I gather is a new beer offering. Really at a loss here. Why is a black fish singing a Blackstreet song to a black bottle of beer?  That’s a lot of “black” coding going on. But then the beer is called “Sapphire”! Which is a different, non-black color.

The Budweiser Clydesdales make their return in an ad that follows a trainer as he spends years preparing a horse to join the Budweiser horse team. Cute infant horse. Sweet tale of a trainer who misses his horse baby. The Clydesdales are powerful and memorable brand imagery for Budweiser—more powerful and memorable even than Bud Man—so it’s worthwhile to periodically renew the association. Also, any time you can play Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” in an ad, you should probably do it. Take your love and take it down, Bud.

FOURTH QUARTER

For me, the big disappointment this year was the lack of a great Chrysler ad. Two years ago, we got the amazing tagline “imported from Detroit.” Last year, we got Clint Eastwood warning us we were at “halftime in America.” And this year? First, an ad for Chrysler’s Jeep brand that, while a well-meaning tribute to military veterans, was ultimately sort of meh. Then this spot, in which a 1978 recording of radio legend Paul Harvey is used to sell Ram trucks. The visual imagery is stark and arresting—grimy hands, lined faces, wide-open vistas. The recording is great—Harvey’s piercing voice and evocative phrases hold our attention. But this ad isn’t new. It’s a reworking of a YouTube video made by Farms.com in 2011. More important, the ad doesn’t put its finger on the pulse of the national mood the way those previous Chrysler spots did.

Mercedes-Benz introduces its CLA model with a Faustian tale. Satan (played by Willem Dafoe, enjoying his meatiest role since Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant) offers a Mercedes in exchange for a man’s soul. The man thinks about all the devilish things he’ll do when he gets his new ride. Party with Kate Upton. Dance with Usher. Make the cover of Vanity Fair. He’s ready to sign on the bottom line until he learns that the car costs a mere $29,900. So he opts to pay in cash instead of in metaphysical debt. Well-conceived ad. And take note, Audi: This is how you give your car some evil swagger without suggesting that teen boys should sexually accost teen girls.

Samsung is advertising a product here, I think. Or maybe a suite of products. But I’m not sure what they are or what they do. Why? Because this ad uses its interminable two-minute running time (I’m guessing they got a bulk discount—otherwise that adds up to roughly $15 million) to show us Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen halfheartedly joshing in casual clothes. It’s like the Judd Apatow movie that never should have been. In these two minutes, we learn basically nothing about the products vaguely on view. And we are given zero incentive to buy them beyond the irresistible, lighthearted charm of these mid-list actors. Color me dubious.

Well, that’s it for Super Bowl XLVII. No doubt I left out your favorite ad (or said nasty things about it). Take to the comments to let us know what you thought of this year’s commercial crop.

Correction, Feb. 4, 2013: This piece originally included a superfluous colon in the title of the upcoming film Star Trek Into Darkness.