The best and worst ads of Super Bowl LI.

The Best—and Worst—Ads of Super Bowl LI

The Best—and Worst—Ads of Super Bowl LI

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 6 2017 2:05 AM

The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads

A report card for 2017’s big game.

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Justin Bieber in one of T-Mobile’s spots.

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The lead-up to the Super Bowl normally brims with discussion of the ads teased in advance online. This year, that conversation got drowned out by a string of insane political events. The only spots that broke through the Trumpian din in the days before the game were those that tackled immigration as a theme: one from Budweiser, another from a building supply company called 84 Lumber. After kickoff, the ads hardly fared better. Many spots played it safe, with wan jokes that felt even lamer than usual. Several were pointedly diverse, or about diversity, but even these sentiments—though preferable to the in-your-face machismo that occasionally surfaces in Super Bowl ads—felt inadequate to the current political moment.

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.

And once again, in what’s become a trend in recent years, the game outshined the commerce that enfolded it. The Patriots’ epic comeback meant that ad breaks played second fiddle to the action on the field. I confess I half-rooted against my own team at times this season—given that the owner, coach, and quarterback are buddy-buddy with our cretinous new president—but I’ve concluded I can love the art without loving the artist. Enjoying a masterful Pats win is akin to appreciating the works of Ezra Pound.

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FIRST QUARTER

Google introduces Google Home, its new Amazon Echo rival, employing scenes of loving interracial and bilingual families. It’s amazing how an ad that would have seemed apolitical just a couple of years ago can suddenly feel like a fierce statement. Google’s Russian refugee co-founder, Sergey Brin, no doubt found it easy to sign off on the ad’s inclusive message.

The first Super Bowl ad from Michelin was filmed on location in South Africa, France, and China, depicting people driving home, lickety-split, to loved ones while avoiding fiery crashes thanks to their cars’ grippy Michelin tires. The Michelin Man (Bibendum to friends) is no longer a cartoon who interacts with real-world folks, as he used to in previous ads. Now he’s a ghostly presence who appears fleetingly in a windshield reflection or in the standing water that’s amassed in potholes.

Avocados From Mexico continues its goofy, entertaining run of big-game ads. This time, the concept involves a purple-robed, Illuminati-like group that tries but fails to protect the secret of avocados’ healthful benefits. The big laugh here: a ridiculous cameo from Jon Lovitz—putatively demonstrating the power of subliminal advertising—in which he appears for a split second as a giant head shouting, “Eat them!”

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Skittles plays on that old trope in which a suitor tosses pebbles at a girl’s bedroom window. This time they’re Skittles, not pebbles, and instead of tapping on a pane, they lob straight into the maiden’s mouth—and then into her mom’s mouth, her dad’s, grandma’s, and eventually into the maw of some sort of random rodent. All of them emit vaguely sexual moans while enjoying the candy. The bizarre gag fell flat for me.

Busch runs its first Super Bowl ad in the brand’s six-decade history. A rugged outdoorsman yanks a sixer of Busch from the froth of a rushing river. (Busch has an official term for this proprietary maneuver: They call it, I kid you not, the “stream pull.”) He then opens a can, which makes a whooshing noise that sounds a bit like “Buschhhhhhh.” The plaid-clad man swears the beer has “the same great taste it’s always had—even the same sound.” Seems feeble to sell your beer on the basis of the sound it makes when you pop a can, given that we all recognize this sound as common to every canned, carbonated beverage on earth.

“This ain’t your daddy’s oil,” we’re told, as we look at a (bionic?) lady archer, a fashion model, and an astronaut. It’s a brazen attempt from the American Petroleum Institute to recast oil as the slick fuel of the future, instead of the carbon-spewing sludge of the past. Text runs across the screen, making proclamations like “oil gushes art,” “oil strikes a pose,” and “oil taps into potential.” I kept waiting for more honest statements like “oil starts wars” and “oil is gradually ruining the planet.”

SECOND QUARTER

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Intel gives us scenes of Tom Brady at home, engaging in routine activities—spiced up by the company’s special video technology. Brady doesn’t have the acting chops of ubiquitous QB pitchman Peyton Manning, so Intel wisely mutes Tom Terrific until the ad’s kicker. Even then, Brady’s wooden line reading nearly sinks the whole endeavor.

Airbnb shows us a series of diverse human faces, as superimposed text delivers an inclusive message: “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” Good on them for making a statement with an ad that was a late addition, and—according to execs—an explicit rebuke of the Trump administration’s travel ban. A lot of tech companies will no doubt follow suit if reaction to the spot is positive. But it’s worth noting that Airbnb has been accused of some discriminatory behavior in its own right, with users screening potential renters based on race and other factors.

A funny swipe at bad reality TV introduces us to an online freemium game called World of Tanks—in which (I looked it up) players fight each other using various tanks. Who among us has not, on occasion, wished to obliterate reality TV, possibly via the crushing treads of an enormous tank? (As you chuckle at the parodic, fictional show “Teensy House Buyers,” be sure to remember that Geico did the same joke better 12 years ago—before the real-world tiny house movement even existed!)

A bespectacled Justin Bieber, dubbing himself a “celebration expert,” hawks the unlimited data plan from T-Mobile. The ad features a cameo from the Pats’ Rob Gronkowski—not participating in the Super Bowl due to recent back surgery. Gronk plays a semiverbal Neanderthal and, honestly, the role doesn’t seem to require much acting on his part. Bigger stretch for the Bieb to make those sober eyeglass frames look natural.

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Honda employs impressive visual effects to bring a slew of celebrities’ yearbook portraits to life. Tina Fey, Robert Redford, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, and others pay homage to “the power of dreams.” The uncanny valley effect of these reanimated photos is a bit disturbing, and I’m not sure what any of this has to do with Honda—save that “the power of dreams” has been its long-running slogan. But this is a particularly appealing array of stars, and perhaps their collective belovedness will rub off on the brand.

Bai presents the night’s second ad from the “enhanced water” category (following a spot from PepsiCo’s new Lifewtr). It features Christopher Walken delivering a dramatic reading of *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” as former ’Syncer Justin Timberlake looks on silently. This is one of many ads over the years that have relied entirely on Walken’s patented herky-jerky line delivery—just add, in this case, er, water. But Bai/bye is a nifty mnemonic, deftly associating the brand’s name with a memorable tune.

A trailer for Hulu’s new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a dystopian future in which women have been totally stripped of their reproductive rights—aka summer 2017.

Febreze touts its odor-fighting spray as the perfect accessory for a smelly halftime bathroom break. Kathryn Hahn does excellent voice work here, but the ad’s finest moment is when it equates a steamship’s billowing smokestack clouds with the violent expulsion of a man’s flatus.

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Michelob Ultra bought the first ad slot after kickoff last year, but the brand holds off until the second quarter this time around. Titled “Our Bar,” the spot uses the theme from Cheers to suggest that camaraderie can exist in gyms as well as in drinking taverns and that Michelob is the low-cal choice for fitness-driven suds guzzlers. But it’s an insult to Cheers’ memory: That show was about the wry commiseration of the downtrodden. This ad is about rah-rah, collective exultation.

Squarespace shows us famous actor John Malkovich battling with nonfamous fisherman John Malkovich over the rights to JohnMalkovich.com. It’s an odd sales pitch, in that Squarespace can help you build a web site but can’t actually aid you in wrestling a domain away from its current owner. I do, however, recommend checking out Malkovich’s menswear line if you’re into silk scarves, gabardine, and Mao collars.

HALFTIME

84 Lumber, a building supply retailer, runs a confusing ad that depicts what seem to be a Mexican mother and daughter attempting to illegally immigrate to the United States. The New York Times obtained some baffling quotes from the company’s owner (a Trump voter, by the way), who—I’m reading between the lines here—seemed to suggest she aired the ad as a means of recruiting cheap labor in the form of undocumented Mexican workers. The original version of this ad was rejected by Fox, apparently for being too political in nature, so 84 Lumber invited viewers to watch the full, unedited video on a website. Sadly, that webpage couldn’t handle the resulting traffic and was unloadable throughout halftime. This whole mishegas was, frankly, bewildering as a marketing strategy, yet one can’t deny that 84 Lumber garnered itself a heap of attention.

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Expedia shows us a woman who expands her horizons with foreign travel. She witnesses soldiers guarding a border, and at one point embraces what appears to be a child refugee who’s making landfall in an inflatable boat. Another example of progressive sentiment from a tech brand. (Fun fact: There’s a close correlation between a state’s percentage of passport holders and whether it went for Trump or Clinton.)

The NFL promotes the league with a series of cute babies costumed as Super Bowl icons. Who can help but grin at the sight of a dour-faced Belichick baby in a cutoff hoodie, or a Michael Irvin baby sporting diamond earrings and a dapper ’stache? To be fair, though—for accuracy’s sake—shouldn’t we also have seen babies getting concussed, swallowing fistfuls of pediatric pain relievers, and punching girl babies?

THIRD QUARTER

Audi airs a 60-second ad in which a dad watches his daughter compete in a soapbox derby. Touting the company’s commitment to gender equality, the spot has the dad wondering whether his daughter will get equal pay for equal work. Another admirable message. And it’s nice to see brands feeling pressure to stay in the good graces of a gender-equity-favoring consumer universe. But I’d also note the spot suffers from a case of “as the father of a daughter”-itis.

The first Super Bowl spot for Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean includes a disquieting visual: Mr. Clean’s tight-denimed, gyrating ass. The ad’s twist is that Mr. Clean is in fact a regular husband doing housework—a husband who becomes suddenly attractive to his wife because he’s managed to, against all her expectations, perform some chores. “Clean enough?” the man asks his wife, looking at her with a dopey grin, proud of himself for deigning to do a little mopping. She rewards this behavior—which any adult should view as mere duty—by jumping his bones.

Budweiser runs a spot portraying its founder, Adolphus Busch, as a brave mid-1800s immigrant facing down discrimination from unenlightened Americans. The young German is greeted upon arrival at America’s shores with taunts like “You’re not wanted here!” and “Go back home!” Bud says the ad has been in the works since last spring. But immigration issues were a matter of campaign debate even back then—so kudos to the company for sticking with the spot despite the certain odds that it would kick up controversy. A relatively bold move for an old, massive, traditional brand. What’s remarkable is that this ad, too, would be completely uncontroversial in any other year, and yet in 2017 it’s reportedly sparking efforts to boycott Bud. (By the way, the ad apparently offers some alternative facts regarding Adolphus’ origin story.)

Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg continue to monetize their charming chemistry with an ad for T-Mobile, touting its unlimited data plan. It’s testament to the success of the marijuana legalization movement that, in a Super Bowl ad for a cellular carrier, Snoop is shown digging in his pockets for what we’re led to assume is his stash while Martha tosses out a series of casual weed puns. My favorite: “can ’o bisque.”

FOURTH QUARTER

Morgan Freeman shills for Turkish Airlines, and again some ad copy that might have washed right over me in prior years suddenly takes on poignant dimensions. “There are those of us,” intones Freeman, who are interested in “bridging worlds, finding delight in our differences.” Right on, Turkish Airlines. Your anodyne platitudes are, sadly, what we need right now.

Last year gave us the politically themed “Bud Light Party” ads starring Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer. The brand has stepped back from politics now, understandably. Instead, this year’s Bud Light spot shows us a spectral, floating bull terrier who encourages a young man to hang out with his friends more often. Why is this ghost dog here? It’s the 30th anniversary of Spuds Mackenzie’s 1987 Super Bowl debut. Who is Spuds Mackenzie? That’s exactly what the millennial sitting next to me on the couch asked when this ad ended. Spuds was a thing, back then, for reasons I have a great deal of trouble explaining now. I also have trouble explaining why Bud Light would think the millennials its targeting with this ad would care about an ancient pop culture reference they’re far too young to remember.

Peter Fonda desecrates Easy Rider and the iconic, countercultural hero he portrayed in that film in an effort to sell Mercedes convertibles to nostalgic baby boomers. Fonda flashes a peace sign as he speeds away in his luxury car to the strains of “Born to Be Wild.” I guess it was 33 years ago now that Don Henley saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, yet the perversion of 1960s ideals never quite loses its power to depress.

KFC introduces a new colonel. This time it’s Billy Zane. This is Zane’s best work since he appeared alongside Ron Perlman and Kimbo Slice in The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption.

And that’s it for this year. No doubt I dissed your favorite ad—or even failed to mention it. Let us know which spots you loved and loathed in the comments.