Ad Report Card

The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads

Darth Vader and Eminem win. Kim Kardashian loses.

Also, Slate’s sports experts on the Super Bowl

Welcome to the annual Ad Report Card Super Bowl Special. I’m taking over for Seth Stevenson  this year and feeling a bit the way Aaron Rodgers must have the first time he jogged out onto Lambeau Field. (Note to Seth: I’m comparing you to Brett Favre the Super Bowl champion and future Hall of Famer, not the avid sexter.)

First Quarter
It’s a Super Bowl tradition: Each year Bud Light buys the first spot of the game, and each year it’s a stinker. A couple takes part in a spoof of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The host shows the couple to their renovated kitchen, but it turns out the only change he’s made has been to place a bucket of cold Bud Light longnecks on the counter. Dumb, but slightly less sophomoric than openers from previous years—there’s not a single groin or head injury.

The bodily-harm drought ends with the second ad of the evening. Doritos has again offset the hefty price tag for Super Bowl ad time—upward of $3 million for 30 seconds—by farming out the creative work to nonprofessionals via a contest. A man standing behind a plate glass door taunts his girlfriend’s pug with a bag of Doritos. The pug charges, flattens the door and the man, and gets his little paws on the nacho chips. The message: Doritos is the official snack food of dudes who are mean to dogs. The ad does leave the viewer with a burning question: Was that Kristen Wiig? (It was not.)

Audi presents a high gloss, high concept ad. Rich guys mount an escape from some kind of special prison for the ultra wealthy. There are a couple of funny gags as the authorities attempt to capture the fugitives—I laughed when the warden cried “release the hounds” and a pack of well-coiffed Afghan hounds gave chase. But the payoff is disappointing: The prison break turns out to be an elaborate set-up for a bland tagline: “Escape the confines of old luxury.” What’s more, the ostensible hero of this spot is a wealthy criminal. At a moment when America is still licking its wounds from an economic collapse that was fueled in part by the greed and malfeasance of fat cats, is this the man you want representing your brand? That the ad debuted during a showdown between teams representing two proudly working-class cities doesn’t much help Audi’s cause, either.

Pepsi Max sets race relations back a decade or two with a mean-spirited ad that culminates in a black couple assaulting a blond jogger and then fleeing the scene of the crime. Did this really trouble no one at PepsiCo? The ad came out of the same contest that produced the Doritos spot. You get what you pay for.

Earlier in the evening, Chevy embarrassed itself with a tasteless ad for its Cruze Eco that touted the vehicle’s excellent fuel economy by  making fun of deaf old people. The automaker redeems itself with an amusing spot in which a Chevy Silverado HD plays the role of Lassie, riffing on the old joke that Timmy’s father could somehow discern from Lassie’s barking that his boy had been bitten by a rattler in yonder woods. (Here, the pickup’s horn replaces the collie’s bark.) I liked how each of the calamities that befell the young boy allowed the trusty pickup to show off its torque, towing capacity, and other features.

In the worst moment of personal branding of the evening, Alex Rodriguez, arguably America’s most unloveable sports star, allows himself to be caught by Fox’s cameras in the stands, having several kernels of popcorn smooshed into his mouth by Cameron Diaz. Are there even any Yankee fans left who like this guy?

It’s not till the end of the first quarter of play that we have our first effects-rich, blockbuster-caliber ad of the night. A Kia Optima is stolen, in turn, by a rogue police officer, a Bond villain, a sea god, aliens, and ultimately by an Aztec warrior.   The clever tagline: “One epic ride.” It’s worth noting that the plot of this ad is only slightly crazier than the plot of Cowboys and Aliens.

Second Quarter
The only Budweiser ad of the night is a dud: A surly Old West gunslinger is about to shoot up a saloon that’s run out of Bud, when a last minute shipment arrives, saving the day. The gunslinger is so happy he bursts into a rendition of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Can we all agree that the trope of a tough guy doing something kinda gay needs to be retired?

Motorola makes the ballsiest move of the night, advertising its Xoom tablet by evoking one of the most famous Super Bowl ads of all time: Apple’s “1984,” which presented Apple as an upstart brand for right-thinking rebellious types. This new spot imagines Apple as the hegemon, showing us a world in which all of humanity dresses in identical white jumpsuits (and listens to identical white ear buds). The only outlier is a scruffy young man who will save us from this homogenous dystopia by … using his tablet computer to make a lame animation for the cute girl who sits near him at work. I like this ad’s pluck, but I imagine the meta-narrative was lost on many viewers, and the spot failed to show me why the Xoom isn’t just going to be the next Zune. (It takes pictures, which an iPad doesn’t do, but otherwise it seemed pretty similar to the product Motorola was rattling its saber at.)

Volkswagen plugs the Passat in one of my favorite ads of the night. A small child decked out in an impressive Darth Vader costume storms around the house trying and failing to use the Force—on the washer-dryer, the family dog, a doll. About to give up, he makes a final test of his powers on his dad’s sedan—and manages to use the Force to start the engine. (Or so he thinks—his dad has turned the car on with a remote starter.) I confess I’m an easy mark for this ad: I spent some time as a boy testing out my own telekinetic powers. I also own this. But there’s a sweetness to the ad that I think resonates regardless of whether you know how to spell the name of the Wookiee home planet.

Like many advertisers this year, Volkswagen made its Super Bowl ads—including the Vader one—available on the Web well before kickoff. The idea is to generate some buzz in the run-up to the game. This strikes me as a wise strategy in the case of VW—the Vader ad got more than 13 million views and some nice mentions in the press before the game, but it was still new to the vast majority of television viewers. Plus, the Web version is a full minute in length, allowing for a less hurried pace that better sets up the kicker. Here’s the 60-second version.  

Just before halftime, Chevy comes back for thirds and introduces the single stupidest car feature in automotive history. The aforementioned Cruze will read your Facebook news feed aloud to you as you drive. Climate-controlled cup holders now seem practical by comparison. Also, this can’t possibly be safe. I trust the New York Times’ “Driven to Distraction” team is already on the case.

Halftime: Despite the complex wiring required to make the Black Eyed Peas’ light-up costumes a reality, there’s not a single wardrobe malfunction. Mazel tov to the crew!

Third Quarter
Is there a less sexy word than posturepedic? I can’t think of one. But kudos to Sealy for providing the sexiest ad of the broadcast. It’s a wonderfully simple concept: Overhead shots of attractive couples enjoying post-coital bliss, scored to Carmen McRae’s sultry “Just a Little Lovin.” Though there’s no question about what’s being depicted, the vibe is playful and tender, with no hint of the tawdriness trucked in by the likes of GoDaddy. (The couples are conservatively swaddled in linens.) I loved the tagline: “Whatever you do in bed, Sealy supports it.” A nice play on words, and a touching sentiment. An open-minded mattress manufacturer! It warms the heart.

Mini Cooper reminds us that a silly concept can be winning if well-executed. Here we have a mock game show, “Cram It In The Boot,” in which the contestant must cram as much stuff as he can into the trunk of the new Mini Countryman. The items he’s asked to load into the trunk are delightfully gonzo—a six foot sandwich, a tiered wedding cake, a large tree branch complete with wasp’s nest. There’s not much to this ad, but it made me chuckle and it succeeded in impressing me with the size of this small car’s large boot.

Coming back from commercial, Joe Buck pays tribute to the American servicemen and women watching the telecast in 175 countries worldwide on the Armed Forces Network. I was surprised to learn in an article in Advertising Age last week that AFN does not carry ads—members of the military who watch the game on that channel see only football and public service announcements. This strikes me as unpatriotic. But at least one of the PSAs this year was damn slick. In this spot, a ballpoint pen is convincingly filmed in a closeup that makes it look like a rifle, a reminder to military personnel serving overseas that they should make their voices heard by voting. 

Coca-Cola returns to a tried and true theme: The universal appeal of an ice-cold soda. Two guards eye each other warily as they patrol either side of a remote, contested border but briefly let down their guard so they can share a Coke. The ad has a careful vagueness about it—clearly the folks in Atlanta didn’t want these enemies to evoke any real border dispute. The guards’ archaic, tasseled uniforms and swords suggested some benignly bygone conflict. But I was impressed that after the guards finish their Cokes, they resume their lonely marches, less thirsty but still sworn enemies. I admire an ad that is realistic about the power of soda to alter geopolitical realities.

I am pretty sure this Hyundai ad is actually an outtake from The Big Lebowski.

An ugly missed field goal set up the night’s best ad, one so strong I don’t even mind that it was paid for with my taxpayer dollars. In a mesmerizing 120-second spot, Chrysler, which still owes the U.S. government $5.8 billion, sets out to introduce its new 200 model and to rehabilitate Detroit’s tarnished image while they’re at it. The ad’s co-stars are the city itself, shot in blue-gray hues, and one of its proudest sons, Eminem, who drives a 200 around town wearing a look of defiance familiar from his turn in 8 Mile. The rapper’s impact is diminished slightly by the weak, stop-motion spot for Lipton Brisk iced tea he was featured in earlier in the evening, but the opening strains of his anthem “Lose Yourself” are the perfect accompaniment to this audacious ad. “I got a question for you,” the ad’s salt-of-the-earth narrator says in a voice-over. “What does this city know about luxury? What does a city that’s been to hell and back know about luxury?” He goes on to offer a compelling answer, arguing that Detroit is a city whose residents have auto-making in their bones. Anyone who has driven a Sebring, the unloved model the 200 is replacing in the Chrysler fleet, might uncharitably note that Detroit’s years of experience haven’t always served it well. But the spell the ad casts doesn’t admit such thoughts. It left me pumping my fist and pledging to buy American everything.

Fourth Quarter
A mash note from the NFL to its fans splices together Super Bowl moments from across television history—Happy Days, Seinfeld, TheSopranos, Cheers, and other classic programs are represented. I’m a sucker for a good montage, so I appreciated the gesture, but I’m still mad at the NFL for its slow response to the concussion crisis.

A driver swerves to avoid hitting a beaver, and the beaver returns the favor six months later by saving the man’s life. I enjoyed this lighthearted ad for Bridgestone tires. It dramatized an experience I imagine most drivers have had, that strange reflex that leads you to endanger your own life to spare the life of a varmint. I like the idea that each time you dodge the poor creature you’re paying into some kind of karmic reserve fund. It makes me worry about my father, however, who lives by the cold-blooded rule that it is always better to stay in your lane, the squirrel be damned.  

Skechers has installed Kim Kardashian as the new spokesperson for ShapeUps, its appallingly ugly line of workout sneakers. (She replaces Joe Montana, whom I won’t be able to forgive for several more years.) Like many brands this year, ShapeUps coordinated its Super Bowl strategy with its social-media strategy, announcing the Kardashian ad, a steamy affair in which she breaks up with her hard-bodied personal trainer on the brand’s Facebook page. The move seems to have paid off, eliciting enthusiastic responses such as these:

Geri Anton: Love my Skechers but I do not respect Kim as a front runner for the ads. She is not a good role model.Annette Pentecost: Skechers; you have gone down in my opinion of your shoes by having anything to do with the Kardashians. I can’t stand them and by the comments I have read on here neither can many of your other shoe purchasers.

You can’t buy that kind of word-of-mouth. OK, time for me to slow down this ad for Rio on my DVR so I can get the code to the special level of Angry Birds—seems like a good way to unwind after a long night of ad viewing. If I didn’t discuss your favorite ad, please do the honors in the comments section below. Apologies in advance for fans of talking babies and middle-management monkeys—those venerable Super Bowl friends were basically just doing the same old same old, so I skipped them.

Congratulations to the Green Bay Packers on their victory, and good luck to the NFL’s players and owners. The specter of a lockout looms over next season, which raises a question. If an agreement isn’t reached by this time next year, and the Super Bowl is canceled, will advertisers sit idly by? Or might we spend a Sunday night next February watching back-to-back ads, with no distracting interruptions from the gridiron?

Corrections, Feb. 7, 2011: The article originally misspelled the words Wookiee and Aztec.

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