Ad Report Card

The Super Bowl Ad Report Card

The best and worst commercials of 2015.

After a year full of discord and #outrage, Super Bowl advertisers went waaay somber. It’s as if they hoped to gently heal us, to spur reflection, to encourage us all to just, like, coexist with each other and consider each other’s struggles.

Over the course of the night, there appeared dead children. Absent fathers. People forced to work during the Super Bowl instead of watching the game. There was Jeff Bridges helping us to conquer our nighttime anxieties.

Frankly, the whole thing was sort of a bummer. I’m all in favor of marketers evolving beyond the farting animals and contused groins of Super Bowls past. But it felt like a bunch of the ads this year forgot to have any fun.

(Personal note: You know who did have fun? Jerky, triumphalist Patriots fans.)


After the coin flip, Chevy punked us all with an ad that convinced many folks their TVs had died. Best use of a surprise black screen since the Sopranos finale. But is it really a crucial selling point that you can use your truck as a download hotspot? “I’m tethered to my truck!” “OK.”

The first ad after kickoff went to a Toyota spot titled “How Great I Am.” The ad gave me chills, with its Muhammad Ali trashtalk backing scenes of Amy Purdy, a Paralympic medalist and Dancing With the Stars contestant who lost both legs to bacterial meningitis at 19. The spot is a tremendous advertisement for Purdy herself, who just hit the top of my curated list of indomitable badasses. But do Amy Purdy’s personal heroics make you want to buy a car? I couldn’t find a lot of connection here between sentiment and product—it’s not like we associate mid-sized, sensible sedans with overcoming adversity. A later ad by corporate sibling Lexus (for its NX hybrid) boasted none of this human drama—it was the one with cars zooming around a dark room while people whipped their hair around—but it might well have been more effective at putting the actual car front and center.

An ad for a free-to-download mobile game called Game of War is the first of the evening’s two spots pitching freemium apps. Word to the wise: I know it’s tempting to get involved with anything featuring Kate Upton in a sculpted metal breastplate. But as I’ve noted before, these games are money pits. Stay away. Trust me, you’ll end up paying real dollars for some virtual, like, trebuchets.

A spot for BMW’s all-electric i3 features Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric in a near legendary 1994 TV moment during which they could not comprehend the Internet. Riding in the i3, they are again baffled by modernity. It’s a clever way to position the car as a tech advance. It also keeps the product on display, intertwining it with the humor of the ad. I love Couric’s twinkle when she talks about twerking—perhaps her most coquettish on-camera moment since she flirted with a doctor during her live colonoscopy.

Snickers remixes a famous scene from the Brady Bunch, casting Hollywood heavy Danny Trejo in the role of Marcia (with a last-second appearance by Steve Buscemi as Jan). It’s part of Snickers’ ongoing campaign in which people just aren’t themselves, due to crippling hunger, until they remember to chow a Snickers. Making this the rare candy bar brand that positions its product not as a pleasurable indulgence but rather as a solution to a practical need.

Lovely JFK oratory saluting the majesty of the ocean is ganked to provide the backing track for a Carnival Cruise Lines ad. This spot had all the romance of the ocean and none of the norovirus. It was gorgeous-looking, too, perhaps because it came by way of cinematographer Wally Pfister, who won the Oscar for his work on Inception. There was abundant evidence of his visual mastery. I did keep waiting for the cruise ship’s horn to come into play, injecting a Hans Zimmer BRAAAAAAM into the proceedings.

Skittles, in its first ever Super Bowl ad, imagines a town where every dispute is settled “in the usual way”: with an arm-wrestling match. Everybody’s developed massive right biceps, even the dogs. Fun town. I couldn’t help but wonder what happens to the town’s lefthanders, though. Is there a separate arbitration system for lefties to access? Do they just leave the town when it becomes clear they have no means of legal recourse?

Kim Kardashian West shills for T-Mobile, celebrating all the ways you can use your data to look at Kim Kardashian West–related material. Somehow, I was more compelled by the celebrity spokesperson who lost both her legs at 19 and then won a medal in the Paralympics.

For the second Super Bowl in a row, Budweiser pairs an adorable puppy with its long-time brand ambassadors, the Clydesdale horses. (By the way, was this the same puppy? He hasn’t aged a bit. I need the number for his vet.) Those horses are a carefully tended symbol that’s widely associated with Bud, but can the brand really claim the concept of “puppy” for its own? Still, an animal in peril is sure to pluck at America’s heartstrings—lost! Darting through traffic! Beset by a wolf!—so the  ad will no doubt be among the most beloved of the night. (My question: What does the wolf who threatens the puppy represent, metaphorically? My answer: Craft beers! They are the wolves on the steppes of the alcoholic beverage landscape! Did you know that 44 percent of Americans between aged 21–27 have never even tried a Budweiser? Perhaps the puppy is a way to reboot with the next generation. By which I mean 4-year-olds.)

Mindy Kaling thinks she’s “invisible” in an ad for Nationwide. The idea that an Asian woman feels invisible is sort of socially loaded, and the spot makes it more explicit when it has her ignored by a cabbie—a classic trope of racial invisibility. Did Mindy Kaling agree to appear in this ad because of its slyly subversive subtext? Or did she just want to sniff Matt Damon’s temple? (Side note: Both Kaling and Damon are from Massachusetts. Congrats on a gratifying win guys, really glad you could be a part of this night with me.)

Coca-Cola bemoans the incivility of the Internet. It turns out all it takes to end online bullying and political polarization is to fertilize a server farm with a splash of spilled Coke. Poof, the entire Web turns into Upworthy. I encourage you to try it yourself: Sprinkle some Coke on your keyboard and I guarantee this snarky column will evaporate immediately.

I am pleased to inform you that, according to the Produce News, Avocados from Mexico is the first fresh produce brand to advertise during a Super Bowl. Its spot imagines countries making draft picks for their key flora and fauna. America chooses wheat. Brazil chooses the sloth—despite its “off-field issues.” Mexico drafts the avocado. It’s a clever premise that reminded me of Chappelle’s Show’s “Racial Draft” (in which Jews claim Lenny Kravitz and Asians claim the Wu-Tang Clan). But you may wonder: Who’s the target for this ad? Do consumers spend a lot of time in grocery stores figuring out which distributor their avocados come from? Or do they just grab some random avos and crush them into their game-day guac? It turns out boosting generalized avocado demand is very good for Avocados From Mexico’s parent company, the Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association, which has more than 60 percent market share in the United States. Odds are that if you buy more avocados, they’ll benefit.

In the first of the evening’s multiple maudlin, daddy-themed ads, Dove markets its Men+Care line of grooming products by celebrating the dad who shows “that he cares.” Dove often eschews talking about what its products actually do, instead preferring to wrap them in feel-good gauze. The brand has previously exposed unrealistic fashion industry standards, and frequently positions itself as a booster of women’s self-esteem. Smart moves. It’s hard to go wrong flattering your customers. And here Dove offers a sweet paean to attentive dads. As a non-dad, though, I felt a little left out. Even a bit shamed. Does strength only come from “caring”? Can it also come from selfish hedonoism? Relatedly: When guys don their deodorant, or lather up their shampoo, do they want to remind themselves of their familial obligations? Will they be eager declare themselves “Dove guys”? And will this eliminate younger men from the customer base? I feel like Old Spice manages to appeal to a wide range of male age groups. (Or is this ad actually directed at the woman of the house? Is she the one who ends up buying Daddy’s shampoo?)

Nissan runs an ad that’s like a bleak Lifetime movie, and feels almost as long. As “Cat’s in the Cradle” dirges on the soundtrack, we see a racecar-driving father neglecting his son; terrifying his wife each time he’s involved in a televised wreck; and generally choosing to gamble his life while completely ignoring his family. It’s kind of baffling that Nissan thought a story about a resented, absent father would somehow make people like its cars more. Even more baffling when you recall that “Cat’s in the Cradle” composer Harry Chapin died in a car crash. (OK, he was driving a Volkswagen. But still, jeesh.)

An ad for Nationwide starts like it’s a cheery fantasy about a pint-sized Walter Mitty, as we see a little boy enjoying all sorts of imagined adventures. Then we learn that, in fact, the kid is deceased. Whoa. Dark. “I’ll never grow up because I died from an accident,” the freckled boy informs us. Then we see a montage of grisly ways that kids can bite it. Sort of like a modern gloss on Edward Gorey’s The Gashleycrumb Tinies. Not so uplifting. But instructive—I didn’t know, for instance, that televisions falling on children is a thing. Fun factoid.

For the second year in a row, WeatherTech invests in a spot. This year the theme is patriotic. The ad serves up “the sound of America, working with American materials in American factories” and later, in case we weren’t 100 percent clear, reminds us that its products are “proudly made in America.” Message received, American company crafting American products in America! I’m not sure I could name a single other brand in the automotive floorliner space, so I guess WeatherTech’s Super Bowl marketing gambit has been a success.

McDonald’s “Pay with Lovin’ ” spot announces that, in the first half of February, randomly chosen patrons will be able to pay for their orders by calling their moms, or hugging each other, or doing a little dance. Apparently, McDonald’s has become Burning Man. The fast-food behemoth anticipates a post-scarcity, “gifting” economy in which human relationships trump commerce. Really getting ahead of the curve on it.

When a man drops his erectile dysfunction pill in the gas tank of a Fiat, the car becomes “bigger, more powerful, ready for action.” The car is an erect penis, is what’s being suggested. By all means, buy this Fiat if you would like to ride around inside an erect penis. It’s essentially the same motivation most Ferrari buyers have.


(Eyeballs note: As Katy Perry was delivering the most crunked Super Bowl halftime show in years, advertisers must have been relieved. This remained a tight game. Recall that in last year’s Bowl, the Seahawks returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a TD to make the score a lopsided 29–0, no doubt driving droves of viewers to click away. No blowout this time.) ran a spot about domestic violence based on a (maybe) true story, in which a woman calls 911 and pretends to order a pizza (so she won’t be found out by whoever is in the house with her). The spot brings attention to an often-ignored subject, one that has lately—thanks in part to some horrific domestic violence incidents involving NFL players—crept into the national conversation. It’s a powerfully crafted PSA, and the airtime was donated by the NFL. Deadspin noted earlier on Sunday that turns out to be a bit of a shell organization, with no full-time employees, and as such is perhaps a curious choice as a partner in this initiative. But the places steers donations to appear to be nonprofits that are worthy of your consideration.

A Toyota Camry spot features a weepy dad saying goodbye to his teenage daughter. What is it with the dads tonight? Is 2015 officially the year of the maudlin father?

Always takes a spot that’s been kicking around online for a while and airs it during the Super Bowl. In the ad, little girls are asked to demonstrate what it looks like to “run like a girl” or “fight like girl,” with results that are predictably fierce. This is reportedly the first Super Bowl ad for a feminine hygiene product. Slate’s Amanda Hess previously found this spot so winning, she argued that we’re wasting our best filmmakers on tampon ads. I agree. Very cute ad, delightful message.

In the night’s second ad for a freemium mobile game, Liam Neeson reveals that he plays Clash of Clans and that his screen name is AngryNeeson52. I have spent a lot of hours playing Clash of Clans, and yet have never encountered Liam Neeson online. Pity. I have a very particular set of skills—skills I have acquired after spending like $130 on in-app purchases.


T-Mobile advertises its Wi-Fi calling feature by showing Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman making Wi-Fi calls from all over their respective manses. Silverman’s has a hydroponic kale garden. Handler’s has a basement skating rink. Good premise, in that it manages to be funny while demonstrating the purpose of the service. I especially enjoyed Silverman’s misandrist apology to a woman who delivers a baby at her in-house obstetrics clinic: “Sorry, it’s a boy.”

A mellowed-out version of “This Land Is Your Land” runs on the soundtrack as Jeep lectures: “The world is a gift. Play responsibly.” Interesting commandment, given that the ad’s footage is of people in Jeeps ripping up pristine, undeveloped terrain all over the globe.

Mophie shows us burning bushes, looting priests, and the reversal of gravity in its vision of the apocalypse. Why is this all happening? Because the battery on God’s cellphone is dead. This is a classic “show the need” ad, reminding you that life can fall out of kilter when your phone dies. Mophie’s charging packs presumably offer a solution. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it’s nice to confirm it’s possible to visually represent a deity without anyone being murdered for it. But making God essentially endorse a tech product? Sort of not cool. I wouldn’t be surprised if the devout get irritated at seeing the Lord turned into a pitchman.

Congratulations to Mercedes for horribly perverting the moral of Aesop’s classic fable about the tortoise and the hare. While the original tale taught us that the slow but assiduous toiler could defeat the gifted but indolent cad, the new message is that buying a luxury sportscar is awesome. (And, by the way, it helps you steal the hare’s girlfriend. Classy.) Additionally: This ad includes the lines “hare-raising power and performance” and “it’s no fairy tale.” The big punch line is “Who’s your turtle?” This has got to be some of the laziest copywriting I’ve ever seen. “Who’s your turtle?”?? 1) “Who’s your daddy?” is already a seriously outdated meme. 2) Replacing “daddy” with “turtle” doesn’t even qualify as a “joke.” (I admit it’s possible I was cranky at this stage. The Pats were still losing.)

For the ninth year running, Doritos’ “Crash the Super Bowl” contest proves that crowdsourced ads can be every bit as clever as ones created on Madison Avenue. I wonder how much, if at all, this annual demonstration has managed to disrupt ad-world norms. Consider: The “When Pigs Fly” spot was made for $1,200, and looks just as professional as some of the million-dollar efforts from earlier in the evening.

Various NFL legends use to create web sites for their entrepreneurial projects. Amusing, and I enjoyed Brett Favre’s pronunciation of “charcuterie.” But what interested me was that I counted at least three ads for services that help you build and maintain your own site. You hang out your shingle, America! We are a nation of personal #brands! (Also, raise your hand if you made a prop bet on Lloyd from Entourage meriting a Super Bowl cameo. Was not aware this character was so indelible.)

And that’s it. No doubt I left out your favorite ad, or rudely dissed it. You can let me know about it in the comments.

And that’s it until next year, ad watchers, when we’ll meet again for Super Bowl L. (They can’t really call it that, can they? Is there a Sanskrit numeral system they can switch to or something?) I’ll be eager to see if advertisers can pack the 2016 game with even more despair, ennui, and dewy-eyed dads.