The Best (and Worst!) Super Bowl Ads of 2014

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 3 2014 7:08 AM

The Super Bowl Ad Report Card

The best and worst spots of 2014.

I’ve been writing about Super Bowl ads since 2004, and tonight’s ads collectively presented the most buttoned-up, reserved, elevated level of marketing discourse I can recall. Fewer scantily clad ladies. No chimpanzees at all. Only a single flatulence jokeand it was a well-executed, heartwarming flatulence joke.

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.

Meanwhile, various sorts of nationalism took center stage. We got odes to German engineers. To British movie villains. And, of course, the expected paeans to American workers, products, families, soldiers, and sun-dappled vistas.

Perhaps the most representative (and worst written) line of the night came amid Bob Dylan’s semi-embalmed performance in a Chrysler ad: “Is there anything more American than America?” Sounds like a trick question, Bob. I assume the answer is blowing in the American wind.

Advertisement

FIRST QUARTER

Bud Light, as it often does, buys the first ad slot after the kickoff. In the past, this has meant a heaping serving of bikinis, concussed groins, farting animals, and other “funny” beer commercial tropes. This year, it means a strangely flat mini-episode of a reality show that never should have been greenlit. We begin with a teaser scene in which an unsuspecting everydude named Ian is lured into a party limo. There he encounters a bevy of women and the musician/comedian Reggie Watts. Instead of employing Watts’ considerable talents and flair, this ad is content to let Watts sample and replay Ian reciting his own name, which is something I used to do with my Casio keyboard in like 1987.

In a spot directed by David Gordon Green (Eastbound and Down, Pineapple Express), child actress Quvenzhane Wallis basically reprises her role from the indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Her lofty monologue delivers a series of vague sentiments over epic visuals of tornados, fires, and wheeling flocks of starlings. “We were small but fast,” she says. “Being clever was more important than being the biggest kid in the neighborhood.” We see welders. Ballerinas. I am thoroughly confused. “We have prepared. Now we strike,” says little Quvenzhane, and then at last the reveal: the Maserati Ghibli, an Italian sedan that costs almost $70,000. I question the wisdom of using a Super Bowl spot to introduce a car that will be affordable to a tiny sliver of the audience. And I resent the unearned, meaningless portent of this ad. Beasts of the Southern Wild, like the monologue in this spot, centered on hardscrabble underdogs being wily and tenacious. Those themes do not translate smoothly to selling European luxury sportscars.

Doritos’ “Crash the Super Bowl” contest proves yet again that crowdsourced commercials can be every bit as good as the stuff produced by the high-priced ad agencies. This spot, in which a kid yoinks an adult’s Doritos by tricking the guy into believing he’s entered a time machine, was made in eight hours for $200. It did not look out of place amid ads that cost literally 10,000 times more to produce.

Chevy advertises its Silverado pick-up with a story about “a man, his truck, and a very eligible bachelor.“ The bachelor is a bull that’s rented out as a stud. The spot is a clever means of touting the truck’s towing capability (it drags the massive bull all over the country in a rolling trailer) while also hinting at notions of sexual potency in a deceptively gentle, elliptical manner. There’s a smartly subtle bit of transference happening when we cut between the powerful truck, its virile cowboy driver, and a snorting bull who gets released into a pen full of females he’s being invited to impregnate.

We’re back inside the Bud Light reality show, catching up with our dude Ian as he exits the party limo and now enters an elevator that happens to be conveying actor Don Cheadle and his pet llama. Ian is remarkably poised. “Hey Don, how are you?” he says, as though this sort of thing happens to him twice a day. I was forced to wonder whether Bud Light had run this same elaborate prank on several different unsuspecting dudes before settling on this dude and, if so, whether this guy’s unrehearsed reactions were truly the most entertaining of the lot. Because I wasn’t particularly entertained. Both Cheadle and Arnold Schwarzenegger, like Reggie Watts before them, are criminally underused here.

By all means, do take advantage of the free download of a new U2 song that sounds like it could have come out in 1991. If you do, Bank of America will donate a dollar—up to $2 million—to the (RED) campaign for AIDS research. Good idea, win-win-win technique: U2 and Bank of America promote themselves in front a massive audience while associating themselves with an unimpeachable cause. Meanwhile, (RED) gets the dough.

Revisiting the interracial family that was introduced in a previous ad, Cheerios goes pleasingly mushy. A little girl and her dad move their Cheerios around on the kitchen table to illustrate the number of members in their growing family. Good job keeping the product itself front and center on the screen. Even better job presenting America with a no-big-deal take on racial harmony. Cheers to Cheerios.

Radio Shack pokes fun at itself by admitting its store designs are stuck in the 1980s. It illustrates this concept with appearances from the California Raisins, Teen Wolf, Alf, Mary Lou Retton, and a host of other ‘80s luminaries. “It’s time for a new Radio Shack,” announces the tagline. Acknowledging your own shortcomings is all the rage in marketing these days, ever since Dominos allowed that its pizza used to taste like cardboard. Carefully doled-out dollops of self-flagellation can go a long way toward convincing customers that your intentions are good and your promises are genuine.

SECOND QUARTER

GoDaddy first drew attention years ago by reliably producing retrograde, deeply sexist Super Bowl ads. There were bikini models all over the place, and accomplished female athlete Danica Patrick was reduced to a piece of cheesecake for the ogling hordes. I always felt the brand was dangerously limiting itself—you know, there are women who buy web site domains, too. Well, this year GoDaddy reversed course and made an ad about a fully clothed, female entrepreneur. We are introduced (by actor John Turturro, for some unknowable reason) to a real-life lady named Gwen, who proceeds to use this moment on national TV to quit her day job as an engineer in order to further pursue her dream of puppetry design and performance. I took a look at PuppetsByGwen.com, where I met characters including Dr. Billington Duckworth, MD, and … I won’t say “don’t quit your day job,” because that ship has sailed. But I will instead urge all of you who are in range of Yonkers, N.Y. and are in need of a puppet show to go ahead and throw Gwen your business. As for GoDaddy: I am loath to admit it, but I think their long-game strategy has paid off.  Their early, crass, attention-seeking efforts won them brand recognition as a domain name purveyor, and they’re now pivoting their image to something more broadly palatable.  

WeatherTech uses its 30-second ad to boast that it builds American factories, uses American raw materials, and employs American workers. Good for them. Not so clear: What the heck is the product here? At the very close of the ad, a guy holds up some sort of molded plastic thingamajig. Is it a prosthesis? A hamster habitat? I needed to visit the company’s web site to figure out that they make car floor mats. I doubt many Super Bowl viewers will bother to do the same.

Volkswagen illustrates the longevity of its vehicles by imagining that every time a VW reaches 100,000 miles, a German engineer “gets his wings.” Absolutely no reason for this ad to be a full minute long. The joke is simple, and doesn’t get any funnier each time we see wings sprouting from the back of a white-coated engineer in a German lab. Another nitpick: All these engineers are men. We see one woman, but she doesn’t get wings, and she instead factors into an uneasy sexual harassment gag.

David Beckham engages in semi-naked parkour while wearing H&M underclothes. This was the most blatant sexual objectification of the evening and, surprise, the object on display was a man. Progress?

Steven Colbert shills for Wonderful Pistachios. I’m not sure I understand the celebrity spokesperson choices of this brand—Korean rapper Psy last year, and Colbert this time. Does either man seem a natural choice to advertise tree nuts? The special effects shot transforming Colbert’s head into a cracked open pistachio also failed to enhance the appetizing qualities of the product. I don’t care to envision each pistachio I eat as a tiny skull and brain. I did enjoy the presence of a bald eagle perched next to Colbert, wearing a matching outfit.

A trailer for the new Spider-Man sequel confounds me, as I was pretty sure I had already seen at least one Spider-Man threequel. I feel like there’s a strangely duplicative, non-linear thing going on here. We may need to devise a Dewey Decimal-style organizational system solely for cataloging Spider Mans.  

A Coke ad offers up gauzy imagery of folks living in harmony, scored to the strains of “America the Beautiful” being sung in a host of different languages. A Latino family goes bowling together. Asian kids play in a pile of leaves. It’s a lovely, multi-culti melting pot and, in my view, the best ad of the night. No one does globally-minded positivity like Coke—ever since 1971’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” America is a delightfully diverse place, Coke rightly celebrates that fact, and I’d wager it got a little misty in a fair number of Super Bowl parties around the country.

The Muppets pack into a Toyota Highlander to emphasize its vast interior, singing, “We ain’t got room for boring.” The ad demonstrates the car’s capacious seating arrangement and storage compartments (including a bin where Gonzo stashes his chickens), and it made me want to take time off from my job to follow Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem on tour. If you need bootlegs from the Boise show, let me know—Animal does a righteous, 72-minute drum solo.

Subway unveils a horrifying, Fritos-infused chicken sandwich. We’re told we “have got to taste it to believe it.” Sadly, I have no problem believing it. But you’d have to scratch out my eyes with a sharpened Frito before I’d consent to taste it.

HALFTIME

Some markets get a halftime ad for Scientology. The organization positions itself as a meld of science and religion, claiming that “there are higher states of existence” and alluding to mysterious “spiritual technology.” In one shot, we catch a glimpse of the famed E-meter cans that get used in auditing sessions. As with a 2009 Scientology ad campaign that I previously wrote about, this ad is light on specifics and heavy on vague promises of betterment. It’s my feeling that Scientology has garnered enough widespread, negative press at this point that it can no longer afford to count on curious innocents as new parishioners. It might be time to bite the bullet and make an ad that—Radio Shack and Dominos style—addresses the church’s detractors instead of ignoring them.

THIRD QUARTER

(I don’t mean to interrupt all this talk about ads to dwell on actual in-game developments. But the Seahawks return the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown to make the score a lopsided 29-0. If that wasn’t enough to send viewers home from Super Bowl parties, outspoken Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman soon after injures himself and leaves the field, jeopardizing the chance that he will deliver a juicy post-game interview. Advertisers who bought second half timeslots can’t be happy at this point.)

Audi visualizes a dog that’s a mix between a doberman and a chihuahua. This giant-headed, tiny-bodied “doberhuahua” soon terrorizes pedestrians, dog show judges, and animal rights advocate Sarah Maclachlan. “Compromise scares us, too,” says the tagline, presenting the Audi as a purebred car instead of a mutt. A few points: This is America. We love mutts. We are suspicious of Germans who tout the superiority of pure breeds. And we will go to the mat to defend the honor of our labradoodles and our puggles. For all we know, the doberhuahua might be a fine addition to the crossbreed pantheon.

Kia exhumes Laurence Fishburne in his Morpheus guise. Much as the themes expressed in Beasts of the Southern Wild do not align with selling fancy Italian sportscars, the themes expressed in The Matrix do not align with selling Korean luxury sedans.  There is no spoon, Kia! And hey, what’s powering your electric systems, hmmm?!

Heinz runs a boringly conventional ketchup ad. Don Draper would be disappointed. Lone redeeming moment: When Grandma empties the Heinz squeeze-bottle with a final push, eliciting a flatulent splort. People, this is how you do a bucolic, family-friendly, heartwarming fart joke.

Bruce Willis and Fred Armisen team up to talk about the safety bona fides of Honda. Brilliant use of the dolly-out reveal for comedic purposes, as we slowly realize that Armisen is clinging to Willis’ torso like a clip-on koala bear. And a sweet sentiment, inviting us to look around at our loved ones and consider the importance of their well-being. One problem: Willis begins the spot with a chummy, “Great game, right?” when in fact it is a dreadful blowout at this point. Maybe should have had some contingency footage in your back pocket, Honda.

Budweiser welcomes a soldier home by surprising him with a hometown parade. A well-intended gesture. And it doesn’t hurt to remind forgetful Americans that, yes, we are still at war after 13 long years. A couple of points, though: 1) A friend thought she detected nerves and tentativeness from the soldier, who’d had an elaborate corporate to-do sprung upon him in the middle of an emotional, intimate moment, as he reunited with his family. 2) Consider how this ad compares to the 2005 Super Bowl ad from Anheuser Busch thanking American troops. In that previous ad, the soldiers appear to be arriving at an airport to fly away to the front, not to return from it. Those soldiers are smiling, and anonymous, and numerous.  The mood is all pride and confidence. This year? The soldier is alone. He’s a very real, very vulnerable man. We are told his name and where he lives. There’s very little pride or confidence on display. The look on everyone’s face upon seeing this soldier return home is unmistakably one of relief.

“Is there anything more American than America?” So goes the inauspicious opening line of the hands-down strangest ad of the evening. Why, Bob Dylan? Why? When you made a 2004 ad for Victoria’s Secret, we could convince ourselves you were doing it for cheeky kicks. But here you are in a middling Chrysler spot, looking even more desiccated and sepulchral, dogged by inartful overdubbing that misaligns the movement of your lips with the polished ad copy emanating from your mouth. “Let Asia assemble your phone,” says Bob. “We will build your car.” It’s a bold statement on behalf of a brand that is part of an Italian-based conglomerate, corporate sister to Maserati, Fiat, and Ferrari, among other foreign marques. Unlike the socially relevant, well-conceived and executed “Halftime in America” ad from the 2012 Super Bowl, with Clint Eastwood grimly addressing the fragility of the economic recovery, this Chrysler ad is lame patriotic hokum. You don’t need a spokesman to know which way the wind blows.

FOURTH QUARTER

Microsoft offers a generic spot in praise of technological advancement. Yay, prosthetic limbs and motion sensors and speech recognition. Anodyne stuff. What this mostly made me think about was: Where’s Apple? This year marks the 30th anniversary of the most famous Super Bowl spot of all time—the 1984, Ridley Scott-directed epic that introduced the Macintosh. Perhaps Apple was wise not to invite comparisons with the upstart Apple of old? Or perhaps, right now, it doesn’t have much to say?

In the second Greek yogurt ad of the night, following fast on the heels of a Chobani spot, Oikos brings back John Stamos for further yogurt-centric foreplay. The former Full House star—still a steamy sex symbol to the cohort of women who buy Greek yogurt—drips some Oikos on his thigh and invites a willing lady to lick it off. Congratulations, America! You are now totally OK with fellatio allusions in your primetime yogurt commercials. You’ve come a long way.

I didn’t care for the T-Mobile ads with Tim Tebow. He has zero screen presence—the guy can do earnest, but he can’t play for laughs. (In other words, as a pitchman, he’s no Peyton Manning. Though he might have put up more than 8 points against the Seahawks. Oh snap!) Toward the end of the game, however, T-Mobile ran a simple text ad backed by a tune I hadn’t heard in years: the theme song from the classic, animated version of Robin Hood. I didn’t know how much I missed it. Thanks, T-Mobile, for bringing it back into my life.

I’ve got multiple problems with the Sodastream spot, and that’s leaving aside (for now) the ongoing boycott of the Israeli company for opening a factory in occupied Palestinian territory. 1) Scarlett Johansson rips off a robe to strut around and sexify the ad, a dopey move that suddenly seemed out of place, and even mildly tawdry, given the general lack of superfluous cheesecake over the course of the evening. 2) “Less sugar, less bottles.” Fewer bottles, ScarJo! FEWER! I guess I wrongly assumed that when you achieve singularity as a non-corporeal operating system, perfect grammar is part of the package.

TWO-MINUTE WARNING

Budweiser falls back on a can’t-miss, battle-tested, tried-and-true strategy: a puppy. The Bud Clydesdales are a powerful brand mascot, and Bud always tends the Clydesdales' image and backstory with care. Here, they are given a puppy sidekick, which they embrace and defend. Seems like a pretty safe (if also bland) means of advancing the Clydesdales' character arc. This guy predicted the ad would win the night because it employs a multi-act, dramatic narrative. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did in fact win the night, as measured by public opinion surveys. But I’m going with a much less high-falutin’ reason, which is: a puppy.

And that’s all for Super Bowl 2014. No doubt I’ve ignored your favorite ad, or rudely snarked on it. I invite you to share your own thoughts in the comments. Which ads did you love, or hate?

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.