Super Bowl 50 ads: Watch the best and worst of 2016.

The Best Super Bowl Ads of 2016. (And the Worst Ones.)

The Best Super Bowl Ads of 2016. (And the Worst Ones.)

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 8 2016 12:12 AM

The Best Super Bowl Ads

And the worst ones, 2016 edition.

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Dan Marino shouldn’t dance.

Amazon

Last year, the Super Bowl ad mood was decidedly somber. It’s not every day a consumer-facing brand makes a spokesperson out of a tragically deceased young boy. This year marked a clear return to lighthearted tropes of yore: animals, topical jokes, and a passel of celebrities. The result was less of a downer. But this was an evening of meh—a sloppy game, with few memorable moments, paired with a forgettable slate of ads.

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.

FIRST QUARTER

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The first ad after kickoff appears at first to be a pitch for new cross-training sneakers. We observe fit young men and women exerting themselves—running, weight training, shadowboxing. Just when we’re ready to hear details about heel-strike cushioning, we discover this is in fact an ad for a beer. Michelob Ultra, with its 95 calories and 2.6 carbs, declares itself “brewed for those who go the extra mile.” I’m a firm believer in the value of rehydrating with alcohol immediately after exercise. But when I think Michelob, I think husky 48-year-old guys at the corner tavern after a softball game, desperately pretending that drinking three light-bodied lagers is a healthy choice. Perhaps this campaign will reel in a younger, more co-ed crowd.

Snickers dumps nougat all over our collective memory of Marilyn Monroe. I’ve never been a fan of using ghosts as spokespeople (and in this case, two ghosts: Marilyn’s, plus the ghost of Willem Dafoe’s career), but this seems particularly weird. Does the resurrection of a suicidally depressed mid-century actress make you hanker for a chocolate bar?

Last year, Avocados From Mexico became the first fresh produce brand to make a Super Bowl commercial (hat tip: The Produce News). This year, the coalition of avocado sellers solidifies itself as one of the better Bowl advertisers around. In an absurd, chuckle-inducing spot, a group of extra-terrestrials tours a museum of Earth culture that features Chia Pets, Scott Baio, airplane travel (presumed to be a form of torture), and, best of all, avocados. Why advertise avocados? The corporate giants behind this ad dominate the market share of avocados sold in the United States, so any general boost to avocado demand helps their cause.

Hyundai highlights the Elantra’s remote start feature by showing people running away from bears in a forest, reaching their (remotely unlocked) Elantra just in time. I know you’re thinking this so I’ll be the one to say it: At a moment when The Revenant has raised global awareness around the hot-button topic of bear rape, do we really want to fill our airwaves with casual, commercialized scenes of aggressive bear pursuit? It’s no laughing matter, Hyundai.

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Apartments.com exhumes the theme song to The Jeffersons in an ad featuring Jeff Goldblum and Lil’ Wayne. “Movin’ on Up” (perhaps the greatest sitcom theme song of all time) was intended as an ode to black socioeconomic ascendance, with lyrics like “took a whole lotta tryin’/ just to get up that hill.” It’s a minor desecration to see it employed in a pitch for an apartment search site. And I’m left wondering what makes Apartments.com better than its many alternatives—the ad made no effort to demonstrate the product’s benefits. I did enjoy Goldblum’s casual song stylings and Lil’ Wayne’s punny cameo as “Weezie.”

A Doritos ad has a fetus ejecting itself from its mother’s womb because it can’t wait any longer to try a Dorito. My heart goes out to this premature infant—it won’t be able to digest any kind of solid food, never mind the stomach-jarring spiciness and palate-shocking crunch of a Dorito chip.

A PayPal ad claims its online payments system is “new money.” Hmm. Not sold on this. I’d argue PayPal feels more like 1999 money. Newer money seems to flow through PayPal’s corporate sibling, Venmo, which is a favorite of the kids these days. And maybe the newest, hottest money of all is Snapcash? Anyway, to me, PayPal screams “money that bought DVDs on eBay at the tail end of the Clinton administration.”

Audi imagines an astronaut, referred to as “commander,” who’s lost his lust for life. He barely eats the food put in front of him. He wistfully recalls favorite moments in his spacerocket. The only way to snap him out of his funk? Hand him the keys to an Audi R8, capable of going 205 mph, while the chorus of David Bowie’s “Starman” revs into gear. The notion: Anyone driving this car will experience reclaimed pep, a renewed sense of “command,” and a general feeling that the lead is back in his pencil. Niggling question: If this older chap is sound enough in mind and body to drive a sportscar at high speeds on public roads, why has he been issued a home health aide?

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The animating idea behind Mountain Dew’s “puppymonkeybaby“ is that this beast comprises three great things, just as Mountain Dew Kickstart is made from three ingredients. Those ingredients are “Dew, juice, and caffeine,” so, first of all: That sounds like an 11-year-old made it in a bathtub. And second of all: This spot seems destined to garner attention—no doubt #puppymonkeybaby will trend if it hasn’t already—and that’s half the battle in the ad wars these days. The puppymonkeybaby cuts through the cultural clutter because the puppymonkeybaby is such a disquieting image. It’s a mélange whose sum is far creepier than its adorable parts. (And am I wrong to be wigged by the fact that presumably this creature has human genitalia?)

National treasures Key and Peele re-team in an ad for web site builder Squarespace. This pair is known for creating indelible comic characters. But 30 seconds isn’t nearly long enough for “Lee and Morris,” a couple of amateur sports commentators who host a webcast called Real Talk, to take shape. Luckily, this campaign has a sizable online component—worth checking out to watch Key and Peele work their magic at greater length.

Rocket Mortgage promises to let you “get a mortgage on your phone.” Tagline: “PUSH BUTTON, GET MORTGAGE.” I admire efforts at convenience. But the ad asks, “If it could be that easy, wouldn’t more people buy homes?,” and then posits that more homebuying would goose the American economy. As I recall, in the mid-2000s we dabbled in making sure mortgages were super easy to get, and embraced the idea buying lots of homes would goose the economy. Results were … mixed.

SECOND QUARTER

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In what will surely be a theme that gathers steam as the presidential election nears, Bud Light hops on the political parody train. America is invited to join “The Bud Light Party,” headed up by Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer. Couple of interesting things about these celebrity spokesperson choices. Rogen seems more likely to tipple a Belgian in a bottle than a domestic in a can, no? As for Schumer: It’s fascinating that this brand, once famous for bikini model ads, now shoves feminist icon Schumer front and center. She’s no sexual object here—though she does nail an off-color “caucus” joke. Instead, she’s one of the frat guys. She’s Seth Rogen in a dress. Or perhaps it’s fairer, at this point in their careers, to say that Seth Rogen is Amy Schumer in a suit. (Also present: the suddenly ubiquitous Michael Peña, representing the Latino voters/drinkers all candidates must court. Meanwhile, America would unanimously confirm the appointment of Paul Rudd to basically any cabinet position.)

Hyundai envisions a place called “Ryanville“ where every single citizen is Ryan Reynolds. Is this in any way an intriguing notion for any of us? Like, we are hounding for more Ryan Reynolds in our lives? Just can’t get enough Ryan Reynolds? I mean, RyanGoslingburgh, sure. (RyanO’Nealtown, too. Don’t start, he was great in Barry Lyndon.)

Look in the mirror, America. You are a bunch of constipated opioid addicts. I hope this ad that carefully explains how opioid-induced constipation is different from regular kinds of constipation helps bring you some measure of relief.

Laundry detergent Persil runs its first-ever Super Bowl spot. Often, we wonder why companies bother to advertise during the Super Bowl, but this is a perfect spot for Persil. The brand has only been for sale in the U.S. since March 2015, and is not well known among American consumers. Almost everybody does laundry—men, women, all age groups. The Super Bowl is an effective place to reach us all at once, and to boost awareness of a product that’s available in giant stores like Walmart but that people might not be familiar with yet.

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HALFTIME

Amazon’s first-ever Super Bowl ad is for Echo, its voice-controlled music player/digital assistant. Within this celebrity stew (I confess I wouldn’t turn down an invite to party with Jason Schwartzman and Missy Elliott) lurks a classic demo ad in which the spokesperson (here, Alec Baldwin) runs the product through its paces. We get a look at what the Echo can do. We also get a look at some surprisingly solid comedic timing from Dan Marino.

THIRD QUARTER

Mini taps into our age’s obsession with identity. Serena Williams insists the Mini Clubman is not a “chick car,” and then Abby Wambach insists it’s not a “gay car.” Those happen to be the very stereotypes currently associated with Mini owners. The rest of the ad—featuring celebrities of dubious appeal, like Randy Johnson and Harvey Keitel—is an effort to “defy labels” and, in doing so, welcome other buying demographics. Whether this’ll work remains an open question, but I’d like to note that I’m fond of the name “Clubman” because it sounds antiquated in a pleasant way.

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Honda differentiates its Ridgeline pickup by adding speakers inside the truck bed (thereby entertaining a flock of sheep as the pickup-borne shepherd makes his tour of the farm). This seems like a small-bore product attribute to tout. We’ve given up on towing torque and cab capacity? It’s all about speaker placement now? Meanwhile, as a citizen, I guess my concern regarding these truck bed speakers is that they’re less likely to be used in an open sheep field than at a traffic light on a busy main drag, imposing top-volume Toby Keith on all in the vicinity.

FOURTH QUARTER

The NFL presents a “Super Bowl Babies Choir,” composed of kids all born nine months after Super Bowl victories (the spawn of parents who celebrated the big win with the big nasty). Cute idea and cute kids. But, if I may, a question for you, Mr. Goodell: Where are the Patriot babies in this NFL-sponsored ad? Four super bowl victories since 2001, sir. That equates to Super Bowl babies who are 15 years old now, some 13s and some 12s, and no doubt a slew of adorable infants named for Malcolm Butler. You couldn’t find a spot for these kids in the ad? I guess because you couldn’t fit them all? So many little champions.

I’m accustomed to Axe ads where the underlying message is that if you spray Axe on yourself, bikini babes swarm like flies. (Flies that want to have sex with you.) This ad appears to be a new direction for the brand, encouraging young men to eschew the hunt for six-pack abs and instead embrace their distinctive noses, their high-energy enthusiasms, and even, it seemed, cross-dressing. Nary a bikini in sight. This is affirmation marketing—a product to help you find the strength within. The closest analogue that comes to mind is also from the grooming space: Dove is forever promising women they can love themselves if they just buy the right moisturizer. Maybe we’ve achieved a modicum of gender equity here.

Kia conjures a “Walken closet”—a storage place in which Christopher Walken sits at the ready, prepared to offer advice on which car to buy. A groan-making pun. But truly excellent stuff from Walken, replete with his signature sing-song line readings and some yeoman prop work involving a sock puppet. (Almost certainly his best performance since Man Makes Chicken With Pears.) Still, I don’t buy the ad’s thesis—the suggestion that the protagonist is taking a walk on the wild side, renouncing his colorless life, by stepping into a white, mid-size Korean sedan—and Walken’s likening the Optima to “the world’s most amazing pair of socks” seems like an ill-conceived sales pitch.

T-Mobile has Drake recreate his “Hotline Bling” video for an ad about cell phone service limitations. I’m amazed at how powerful the color affinities have become in the wireless branding battle. A competitor can flash a little yellow and we all know it’s gibing at Sprint; orange for AT&T; red for Verizon. The strength of these color links at this point rivals red-Coke/blue-Pepsi and red-Avis/yellow-Hertz. (Meanwhile, Drake’s endorsement game is approaching “will.i.am wearing a Target logo on his hat“ levels.)

A Budweiser entreaty against drunk driving offers cheeky reproach (Helen Mirren will deem you a “human form of pollution” and a “pillock”) instead of typical dire warnings (spinning police lights, flashbulb mug shot). There’s a dual purpose here, though, for never have burger and Bud seemed so temptingly paired as when set before a ravishing Helen Mirren. Who among us wouldn’t long to sit beside her in that banquette, sipping a cold brew, suggesting we order an Uber together?

Colgate implores us to turn off the tap while we’re brushing our teeth. While not getting preachy, the ad demonstrates how thoughtlessly wasteful we can sometimes be—and what a precious resource water remains for much of the globe. I don’t leave the water running while I’m brushing. But I’ve been known for indulgent bathing. I might think twice the next time I’ve already shampooed and I’m still lingering in the shower.

And that’s a wrap on Super Bowl 2016. No doubt I’ve dissed an ad you liked or, worse, neglected to mention it. You can make your arguments for your favorite spots in the comments.