Ad Report Card

Super Bowl Special

The best and worst ads this year.


For the third year in a row, I have sacrificed my Super Bowl Sunday to review these ads for you. I’ve abstained from all beer drinking (and permitted myself only moderate food-gorging) so as to remain sharp and alert throughout my critique.

How am I rewarded for this effort? Each year, the ads have gotten progressively worse. I’m not sure this new batch offered a single watercooler-worthy moment. What’s up with you, Madison Avenue? Do you want us to pay attention to the game?

I submit to you my cranky, underwhelmed Super Bowl ad diary:

Pregame. Conditions are still promising: We’ve got a couch, a very large television, a few friends, and takeout Chinese. Let the marketing begin.

Heading into the game this year, industry analysts said the ads would skew more female-friendly. (Supposedly, advertisers had discovered that women make up half the Super Bowl audience.) But the first major spot of the evening, for Full Throttle—a new energy drink from Coca-Cola—features scores of troglodytic male clichés. (Hydraulic hot rods. Shark fishing. Mexican wrestlers.) The tagline is “Let Your Man Out.” At one point, a massive 18-wheeler with Full Throttle logos terrorizes a puny, foreign-make pick-up with Red Bull logos. Clearly, Full Throttle seeks to feminize, wussify, and emasculate its main competitor. This worked astonishingly well when the GOP did it to the Democrats, and I see no reason why it can’t work again.

Team introductions: The Seahawks run out to “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, while the Steelers counter with “Right Here, Right Now” by Fatboy Slim. Is this 1998? In Britain? No time to wonder, because here’s the kickoff. And if you must ask, yes, I am indeed ready for some football.

As with last year, our first in-game ad arrives courtesy of Bud Light. And, just like last year, it’s a bit of a dud. A man hides bottles of Bud Light around his office, causing a frenzy of destruction as co-workers hunt for them. This is not all that funny, nor all that distinctive. Just more slapstick dross from a beer brand. What a letdown—America waits all year for these ads, and this is how we kick things off?

Ah, now here’s a showstopper that should have been our lead-in: Burger King puts on a Busby Berkeley musical number. Singing and dancing “Whopperettes” dress as various burger components (my favorite is the mayonnaise dress, followed by the beef-patty tutu). This was the only ad all night that was outsized and garish enough to be Super Bowl-worthy. Thus, I approve. I’m still not sold on BK’s mascot, though. “The King” is a silent, frightening weirdo, whom even the Whopperettes refer to as “freaky.” No doubt he appeals to Burger King’s core demo of 18- to 25-year-old men. But I get the sense that he repulses everybody else.

Toyota hawks a new hybrid Camry. A Hispanic dad explains to his son that their car runs on both gas and electric power—just like the dad speaks both Spanish and English. Cute. And likely effective with the target market for hybrids (progressive, forward-thinking people who think bilingualism is hip). But does anyone not understand, at this point, the basics of the hybrid concept? Do we need a reductive explanation couched as a discussion with a child? Also, my friends felt the analogy could have been less trite and more fun. What if, say, a bisexual mom explained to her kid that—just as the car runs on two kinds of fuel—she’s attracted to both men and women? Now, that’s the kind of boundary pushing that a Brokeback-loving, hybrid-buying America wants to see.

A FedEx ad shows a caveman trying to deliver a package via pterodactyl. When this fails (the pterodactyl is eaten by a T-Rex), his caveman boss fires him. It’s a moderately funny spot, but I think Geico has caveman humor sewn up. Last year’s FedEx spot—a meta-ad, which listed key elements for a great Super Bowl commercial (dancing animals, celebrities, groin kicks, etc.)—was far wittier.

Diet Pepsi introduces a new theme song for the beverage, titled “Brown & Bubbly.” This phrase does not, for me, conjure appetizing imagery.

Leonard Nimoy appears in an ad for Aleve. (Other big celebrities spotted so far tonight: P. Diddy for Diet Pepsi, and Jessica Simpson for some kind of Pizza Hut pie that has cheese-filled tumors budding from its crust.) In this spot, Nimoy is at a Star Trek convention but worries that his arthritis will prevent him from performing. After taking Aleve, he overcomes his hand pain, and is able to give the split-fingered Vulcan salute. This spot made me chuckle, but more important: The joke here directly relates to the product’s purpose, so we’re more likely to remember tomorrow what the ad was for.

The Budweiser Clydesdales are poised to begin their annual football game when they are rudely interrupted by a streaker: a shorn sheep. He waggles his naked sheep butt, gyrating for the crowd. “Didn’t need to see that,” says a spectator cowboy. This is a warmhearted, adorable spot, which will no doubt appeal most of all to … small children. Isn’t there some sort of law against alcohol brands marketing to kids? Didn’t Bud already catch some flak for its kid-friendly lizard characters?

The monkeys are back for another Super Bowl. This time, they dance to a Quiet Riot song. And yes, I know, monkeys are funny to look at. But I find monkey humor unpalatably facile. Anybody can throw a bunch of chimps up on screen and wait for the smiles. It was the second spot—in which a woman says she works in an office full of “jackasses” (played by actual donkeys)—that offered the more layered, effective joke.

A Dove ad shows us little girls who have body-image problems: “hates her freckles”; “thinks she’s ugly”; “wishes she were blonde.” It then announces this: “We’ve created the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, because every girl deserves to feel good about herself.” I had mixed feelings about the last set of Dove ads (which featured “healthy”-sized models in their underwear). Dove has nicely distinguished itself from the crowd with this “Campaign for Real Beauty.” But I hate this new ad more than I can express. First of all, Dove cheated: How am I supposed to make fun of cute little girls who think they’re fat? I can’t win here. Second, this is the most cynical ad campaign of the last several years. Women, do not be duped! Dove is not selflessly interested in your (or your daughters’) well-being. It is a multinational beauty-products company, which hopes to sell expensive cellulite cream to these same little girls just a few years down the road. And using Dove products is not some sort of righteous political statement. Buying retail goods—from a division of Unilever—is not in fact the pathway to gender equity.

Gillette introduces its new Fusion razor, with five blades on the front of the cartridge and a sixth, edge-trimming blade on the back. The ad itself is a pretentious mess (helicopters, scientists, tubes of bubbling chemicals). And I’m terrified to find out what the razors cost. No doubt we’re approaching $15 a cartridge at this point. Clean-shavenness will soon be an indicator of extreme wealth. What’s great, though, is that this ridiculous, two year-old Onion story—”F*ck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades”—has actually come to life.

What a thrill to see the lovely Sabine Ehrenfeld (an Ad Report Card favorite) making a Super Bowl appearance. The hottie is back with her mesmerizing, all-white color palette; her cheesy, airy background music; and her beguiling German accent. My heart melts a little each time she says, “Overschtock dot cahm.”

A man says his new Sprint cell phone is a “crime deterrent.” He demonstrates this by hurling the phone at his friend’s skull. After the friend recovers from the blow, he hucks the phone again. Right on target. This was the most viscerally funny ad of the night. Because it’s funny when people get injured. I have one quibble: It would have been funnier had he thrown the phone at his friend’s groin.

Halftime. The Rolling Stones perform. The only thing sloppier than the sound mix is the Seahawks’ end-of-half clock management.

Another gorgeous, animated United Airlines ad. I love to watch these, sheerly on aesthetic grounds. This one uses beautiful, two-dimensional, overlapping cardboard cutouts. It tells a confusing story about a businessman who flies on a goose and then slays a dragon. One friend called it “Air Hallucinogen,” but I felt it worked. Classiest ad of the evening.

ABudweiser ad shows a little Clydesdale foal, who tries to haul the beer wagon by himself. *  The cart is too big for him, until he gets a helping hand from his horse-mom and horse-dad. This was by far the most family-friendly spot of the evening, and it was for beer! Seriously, this is absurd: An underaged being (granted, a horse) wants to be part of the Budweiser world—even though he’s way too young. His parents lovingly aid him in realizing that dream. My interpretation: “Parents, go ahead and buy your kids some beer.” Maybe I’m too imaginative. (By the way, I notice that Bud didn’t air any “Support Our Troops” ads this year, whereas last year this was the theme of Bud’s centerpiece spot. What changed? Does Bud not support our troops anymore? Or is troop support less marketable these days?)

Fabio is on a gondola. Later, he’s a much older dude with wrinkles. Somehow, this is meant to advertise Nationwide insurance. I don’t understand, and, when it comes to Fabio, I don’t want to understand.

Beginning of Fourth Quarter. Did Keith Richards fix somewhere inside Ford Field, do you think? Or did he wait until he was in the limo?

On the heels of its successful Super Bowl presence last year, Emerald Nuts offers another in its series of word-game ads. This time, a bizarre scene illustrates an acronym: Eagle-eyed Machete Enthusiasts Recognize A Little Druid Networking Under The Stairs. I think the word-play is a smart approach, as we’ll always remember which brand is behind the ad. Also, maybe it’s just the crossword geek in me, but I like the challenge of guessing what the acronym will be.

An ad from something called the “Beer Institute” shows us people all over the world enjoying their brewskis. “Here’s to Beer,” says the tagline. I’ll drink to that. But what I’m wondering is whether I can snag some sort of fellowship at the Beer Institute. Is it like a think tank? Can I get beer tenure? (By the way, this ad was actually paid for by Anheuser-Busch. Miller is also a sponsor of the Beer Institute but apparently scoffed at the idea of random beer cheerleading. Miller spokesman quote: “We are happy and supportive of Anheuser-Busch spending its own money on an industry campaign. We will be making our own investments in marketing Miller brands.”)

And there you have it. There were other ads, which no doubt you’ll be angry at me for omitting. I apologize if I neglected to mention your favorite—about the pirate with the Sharpie, or the doctor killing a fly with a defibrillator, or the woman accidentally straddling a strange man on an airplane. Or MacGyver—the sight of whom elicited a repressed memory from my girlfriend, who flowed forth with forgotten feelings about her girlhood crush on Richard Dean Anderson.

Anyway, I’ll see you next year for a whole new round of lifeless, humor-deficient pablum. (I’m talking about the ads here, not my critique of them. But I’m certain you knew that.)

Correction, Feb. 6: This piece originally referred to the young Clydesdale in the Budweiser ad as a pony. It is a foal. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)