Ad Report Card

Were the Super Bowl Ads Any Good?

The best and worst of the night.

I should note right away that I’m greeting this Super Bowl telecast with a total baditude. I hate the Colts (for beating my Patriots in the AFC championship game). I hate Peyton Manning (for looking like a whiny chump all the time). And I also badly injured myself before the game playing touch football (my hamstring is on fire right now).

What could snap me out of my funk? Some epic, showstopping commercials. Uplifting. Emotional. This is what we want from our Super Bowl ads, yes? Something a cut above the everyday.

Sadly, that’s not what we got. With minor exceptions, the ads this year were disappointingly small and instantly forgettable.

First quarter: We just called to order our pizza. ETA on the delivery: Oscar night.

Another year, another Bud Light ad to kick things off. They always buy the first slot after kickoff and always fill it with mediocre physical humor. This time, two guys play rock-paper-scissors for the last Bud Light. One dude throws paper, putting out his flat hand; the other dude throws an actual rock, braining his opponent and thus winning the beer. A little bit funny. Would have been funnier if he’d thrown scissors.

Next up: a Doritos ad, made by some average shmoes who entered a contest. Two characters eating Doritos act out various adjectives (“Spicy,” “Cheesy,” “Crunchy”) that putatively describe the snack. Considering the ad was made for $12.79, in four days, with a crew of five (none of whom was over 22 years old), it’s really quite good. Also, save for its milky-looking digital photography, it didn’t seem at all outclassed by its big-budget competitors. Which is bad news for highly paid advertising professionals. Get ready for a whole lot of sub-$15 ads.

A Sierra Mist Free spot features a guy with a “beard combover,” who sweeps his whiskers up and across his bald head. I liked the gag. But the repulsive visual of doughy comedian Jim Gaffigan sporting the beard-over—along with roller skates and some too-short denim cutoffs—did not in any way say “refreshing citrus diet soda” to me.

Two auto mechanics have a Lady and the Tramp moment, their lips meeting at the midpoint of a Snickers bar. “I think we just accidentally kissed,” says one guy. “Quick, do something manly,” says the other. Each rips out a tuft of his own chest hair and holds it aloft. Thoughts: 1) Ripping out chest hair is manly? I thought chest-hair removal was a firmly metrosexual move. 2) Once again, disgusting hair imagery appears in a food/beverage ad. Not appetizing! 3) Apparently, knee-jerk homophobia is still grounds for comedy.

In a spot for Bud Light, Carlos Mencia teaches English to a classroom full of immigrants. The ad closes by making fun of one man’s accent as he tries to say, over and over, “Bud Light.” Apparently, being foreign is still grounds for comedy.

It’s a house ad, but it’s great: David Letterman, wearing a Colts jersey, eats potato chips in front of his TV. “You want the Bears and I want the Colts,” he says, “but we both win because we’re in love.” The camera pulls out to reveal his arm around Oprah Winfrey, wearing a Bears jersey. By far the most charming spot of the night.

In an animated ad that at first looks to be footage from a Grand Theft Auto-style video game, a car swerves through a dicey-looking neighborhood and squeals to a stop. Out steps a badass dude in a leather jacket. He appears poised to rob a convenience store—but instead happily pays for his bottle of Coca-Cola. He then extinguishes a trash can fire, donates money to a homeless man, and helps an old lady in distress. The background song exhorts us to “give a little love,” and the tag line reads: “The Coke side of life.” I liked this ad a lot. It’s clever, funny, and squarely in Coke’s branding sweet spot: hip positivity. (Also, this is how my girlfriend actually plays Grand Theft Auto. Instead of shooting cops and beating up prostitutes, she just drives around and listens to the car’s radio stations.)

Second quarter: (Bears winning. Peyton has set some sort of record by actually looking whiny before his first snap, as the Bears returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. I am feeling better already.)

Garmin introduces the “evil Maposaurus.” Using his Garmin GPS device, a man defeats a giant fold-out map beast. This parody of Japanese monster movies was the funniest ad of the night, yet also managed to convey a straightforward sales message: A GPS in your car means no more fumbling with unwieldy maps.

A robot in a GM assembly plant drops a screw. As a result, he’s fired. He tries to make do with menial jobs, but he remains miserable. In the end, he jumps off a bridge. Thoughts: Haven’t a lot of actual human auto workers been laid off lately? Are they meant to laugh when, at the end of the ad, the robot wakes up to realize this was just a bad dream, and that he still has his job so he doesn’t need to commit suicide after all? Whew, thank goodness things worked out for you, robot!

Frito-Lay offers a warmhearted spot celebrating the fact that two black coaches have reached the Super Bowl. “Who’s winning?” it asks. “We all are.” The ad is low-key and likable. And wholly fitting, given the vital role Tostitos played in the civil rights movement.

Halftime: Prince looks resplendent in Miami Dolphins turquoise and orange. “Purple Rain,” in the rain, is a rock god moment. But can anyone explain why he played a Foo Fighters song? Puzzling.

Third quarter: I forgot to mention that Adam Vinatieri missed a field goal right before the half. This turned out to be the high point of the game for me.

Another animated Coke ad is every bit as winning as the first. We see the inside of a vending machine and learn it contains various adorable creatures who make each bottle of Coke with love and devotion. Here’s a grand-scale, big money ad that’s both eye-catching and cute. Coke is the evening’s marketing champ.

Sheryl Crow hawks Revlon. Crow covers the Buddy Holly classic “Not Fade Away”—an unpretentious ode to enduring love—and turns it into a message about long-lasting hair-color products. Boo, Sheryl Crow. Booooooo.

Emerald Nuts enlists celebrity spokesman Robert Goulet. Apparently, ironically deployed B-list celebrities are still grounds for humor.

Kevin Federline shows up in a Nationwide ad. The ad begins with Federline rapping about “rolling VIP” and ends with him as a fry cook. But are we really to believe the riches-to-rags narrative here? I thought Federline was demanding some serious Britney bucks in the divorce settlement. False humility alert!

Fourth quarter: Is it over yet?

An Izod ad is just a blur of tropical scenery and bikini bottoms. I don’t know what’s going on, but I think I like it.

In a Bud Select ad, Jay-Z and legendary football coach Don Shula square off, playing an awesome, imaginary football arcade game. I loved the graphics, and the ad was entertaining. But I could use a little more brand differentiation from this spot: How is Bud Select not like Bud, again?

A Flomax ad shows a bunch of older dudes riding mountain bikes, kayaking, and … not having problems with urination! I love the subtle shots of these guys taking lusty gulps from their water bottles. Go ahead, kidneys, excrete that water—I’m not afraid anymore! Also, Flomax is an awesome name for a urine-related product.

End of game.

I was thinking I might begrudgingly admire the Colts after they won. Nope, still hate them. And Peyton seemed whiny even in triumph. His victory face—furrowed, closed-mouthed—made him look like he was in a Flomax ad.

As for the ads: At some point, we may have to drop all this Super Bowl advertising hoopla. The ads have been roundly mediocre for a few years running, now. Some huge advertisers—including Procter & Gamble and Unilever—decided to ditch this Super Bowl entirely (with Unilever instead airing a big ad for its Dove brand during the Academy Awards).

Are we seeing the end of an era? And will we even miss it?