Two years ago, I watched every single Super Bowl, so I can say with absolute certainty that, for whatever reason, America’s most-watched sports event is usually a terrible football game. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why Americans have come to care so much about Super Bowl ads: They know that while the game will probably fall short of its hype, at least they’ll see a few entertaining commercials.
Last year’s Super Bowl reversed that trend, with a great game surrounded by a bunch of lackluster ads. This year’s Super Bowl followed suit. While the game itself was an all-time classic—easily top 10, maybe even top five—this year’s ads were a poor crop. For every humorous or striking one, there were at least three others that were boastful, cloying, cringeworthy, or misguided. I blame Trump, personally. A lot of companies worked too hard to imply or outright shout their high-mindedness in the face of the president’s churlishness; others took the opposite approach, and produced spots that were excessively braggadocious and aggressive. Let’s sort out the good, the bad, and the ridiculous. I couldn’t recap all of this year’s ads—sorry if I omitted one of your favorites—but these are the ones that stood out the most to me. To the commercials!
Toyota leads off its Super Bowl ad buy with a spot featuring Paralympic skier Lauren Woolstencroft, who has won eight gold medals. I’m glad the carmaker gave Woolstencroft some publicity—her perseverance and determination are indeed inspiring—but it makes me cringe when stories like hers are used to, well, sell cars. It doesn’t take any perseverance or determination to buy a Toyota. It takes approximately $20,000 to $40,000, or somewhere between $199 and $399 per month for a series of months.
I’m a sucker for commercials featuring sassy robots, and so I liked the Sprint ad in which a room of hyperintelligent androids mock their creator for sticking with Verizon even though Sprint’s network is allegedly almost as good and half as expensive. It then takes him to a cellphone store where he meets the creepiest robot of all: the Can You Hear Me Now Guy.
M&Ms presents a high-concept commercial in which a red M&M magically transforms into Danny DeVito, asks a bunch of confused strangers if they want to eat him, and then gets hit by a truck. Not sure if I’m remembering correctly, but I think this was basically the plot of Throw Momma From the Train.
Wendy’s—unofficial corporate motto: “Our Food Is Meh, but at Least We’re Jerks on Twitter”—takes a direct shot at McDonald’s for using frozen beef. “The iceberg that sank the Titanic was frozen, too,” says the ad. In your face, McDonald’s!! While I love a good fast-food feud as much as anyone, I feel like Wendy’s would do well to mind that old proverb: “Restaurants that sell weird square hamburgers shouldn’t throw stones.”
Peter Dinklage lip-dubs a Busta Rhymes song in an ad for Doritos, and then is immediately followed by Morgan Freeman lip-dubbing a Missy Elliott* song in an ad for Mountain Dew. These ads seemed lazy to me, but I guess I’m not their demographic: I don’t like chips, Mountain Dew, or lip dubs. Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman I can take or leave.
I didn’t watch much football this year, so I completely missed the rise of the Bud Light “Dilly Dilly” phenomenon, a medieval-themed series of commercials featuring the nonsensical catchphrase “Dilly Dilly.” The beer’s Super Bowl spot concludes the Dilly Dilly saga by introducing a new character—the Bud Knight—who wields a magical sword and always brings enough beer for everyone. An insubstantial yet inexplicably popular spot for an insubstantial yet inexplicably popular beer.
E-Trade presents its version of those terrible Fox News ads that encourage the gullible to invest their retirement savings in commemorative coins. The ad shows a bunch of senior citizens being forced to work well past the expected retirement age—and being forced to listen to a bad parody of “The Banana Boat Song”—because they didn’t save enough money during their prime working years. Yes, our fraying safety net and disappearing pensions mean we’ll all be working into our golden years. No, opening an account at an online stock brokerage is not the way to solve our retirement woes.
Avocados From Mexico continues its entertaining run of Super Bowl spots with an ad in which members of a white-robed guacamole cult seal themselves away in a desert dome that’s stockpiled with “everything [they’ve] always wanted”—only for chaos to ensue when they realize they forgot the tortilla chips. Big points for a very funny Chris Elliott cameo, and for the implication that guacamole eaters are functionally indistinguishable from Heaven’s Gate cultists.
Diet Coke: It’s not just for your colleagues in accounting anymore! The diet soft-drink brand puts a dictionary-definition millennial in front of a yellow brick wall to hold a can of Diet Coke Twisted Mango, dance awkwardly, and mumble to herself. I didn’t really get this ad, but I also think that “off-putting” might have been what the ad agency was going for. Regardless, I am now fully aware that Diet Coke comes in mango. Mission accomplished!
Pringles brings us behind the scenes of a fictitious Bill Hader film as two crew members linger at craft services and stack different flavors of Pringles atop each other to create new flavor combinations, like “barbecue pizza,” and “spicy barbecue pizza.” Funny commercial, but I feel like Pringle-stacking would not be as wow-worthy in real life as it looks on TV. You know what a barbecue Pringle paired with a pizza pringle tastes like? A Pringle.
Febreze gives us a brief faux-documentary about Dave, the only man in the world whose “bleep” doesn’t stink. The reason why Dave’s waste is miraculously odor-free? The spot doesn’t say, but I can only attribute it to midichlorians. The point of the ad: Since Dave won’t be at your Super Bowl party, but everyone else will, you should probably buy some Febreze to deodorize your bathroom after your gluttonous friends destroy it. I’m not typically big on bathroom humor, but I liked this spot for its attention to detail. Well-directed, well-produced.
I loved the Squarespace spot featuring Keanu Reeves talking to himself as he stands atop a motorcycle that he is riding through the desert. Not sure what else to say about this one. Keanu Reeves. Talking to himself. On a motorcycle. In the desert. I fully believe that this is what the John Wick character does in his spare time.
“I have a dream that one day a recording of a speech I gave about redefining greatness as a function of your readiness to serve your fellow man will be licensed by my descendants for Ram to use in an offensive truck commercial.” Remember when Martin Luther King Jr. said that? Oh, wait, he didn’t. Oh, well, some of his descendants licensed the recording to Dodge all the same, and the result was the night’s most tone-deaf and abhorrent ad, in which one of the greatest moral leaders of the 20th century is made to shill for Dodge.
So a priest, a rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist get in a pickup truck and drive to a football game together. It’s the setup to a bad joke, and it’s also the premise of a Toyota commercial that is much better than it ought to be, thanks to good and funny performances by its lead actors. I want to know more about this unlikely group of friends. What do they do when it’s not football season? Do they ever go on road trips together? And how do the crabby nuns who sit near them at the game affect their friend dynamic? I would watch at least half an episode of this sitcom, if it were a sitcom instead of a dubiously effective Toyota ad.
Pepsi runs a self-mythologizing ad featuring Kyrie Irving’s “Uncle Drew” character, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Cindy Crawford, and a bunch of other people who at one point or another have been paid to pretend that they like Pepsi. “Pepsi is everywhere in every timeline” is the gist of the ad. “This is the Pepsi for every generation,” the ad concludes, before abruptly cutting to Jimmy Fallon drinking a Pepsi, apparently sitting high above the ground in the curl of the “S” on a “Pepsi-Cola” billboard. “And this is the Pepsi that brings you the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show!” Fallon chirps. I am sad to report that, as far as I know, Fallon did not fall off of the billboard.
Amazon Prime runs an ad for the new, allegedly action-packed Jack Ryan TV series, starring John Krasinski, aka Jim from The Office, who is trying very hard to make people believe he is a credible action star, perhaps so that they will stop calling him “Jim from The Office.” The ad also features an awful cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” In conclusion, while this ad did not make me excited to watch the Jack Ryan show, I am looking forward to revisiting Season 2 of The Office very soon. Stay in your lane, Jim from The Office!
Mercedes Benz runs a car ad that is plainly and simply a car ad. It just features a bunch of vehicles—a motorcycle, a hot rod, a sports car, a rocket car, a truck of some sort, and, of course, a Mercedes AMG E63 S Sedan—revving their engines at a stoplight in preparation for a drag race. The winner? The Benz, of course, because the Benz can accelerate from zero to 60 in 3.3 seconds.
Budweiser gives itself a back-pat with a minute-long spot explaining how the company uses its canning infrastructure to provide clean water to disaster zones. Good for Budweiser! Giving needy people cans of water is certainly better than giving them cans of its gross beer.
After Super Bowl season comes tax season, and it’s always been thus, which is why I’m a little surprised that this is the first Super Bowl to count Intuit—maker of TurboTax and QuickBooks—as an advertiser. The 15-second spot makes much of its own brevity—“time is money,” after all—and features a large robot helping a frustrated TV viewer push a “Skip Ad” button. I’m not sure the conceit works, since the Super Bowl is literally the one time of year when people don’t want to skip the ads.
Kia puts an astoundingly haggard Steven Tyler behind the wheel of one of its cars and sends him speeding around a racetrack in reverse. When he gets out, he has apparently traveled back through time, as he looks a good 40 years younger and is immediately beset by groupies. “Feel Something Again,” Kia implores, as “Dream On” plays. This was probably an effective spot for Kia, if only because I feel like “Eagles fans” and “people who still think Aerosmith is cool” are basically the same demographic.
Next, a striking ad featuring the rapper and musician Pras Michel, gagged and blindfolded, on stage in a vast and empty theater. As music begins to play, he removes the tape that had been covering his mouth. Then he removes the blindfold, gives the empty room a look, and leaves the stage. “Be celebrated, not tolerated” appears on screen. This is an ad for Blacture, a (seemingly very well-funded) website on black culture, which Pras plans to launch in two months. Good ad. I’m intrigued!
We see a bunch of babies writhing on a gray sheet as a narrator coos a message of tolerance and equality. What is this an ad for? “Some people may see your differences and be threatened by them. But you are unstoppable,” the narrator continues, as the camera pans across more cute babies. Seriously, what is this an ad for? “You will be heard, not dismissed. You will be connected, not alone,” she says, as the shot slowly fades to pink. Oh. Oh, no. It’s a T-Mobile commercial. Hey, if you can’t compete on cost or quality, you might as well dump a bunch of babies on a bed and make like you’re UNICEF instead of a lesser cellular service provider.
Eli Manning dances to “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” with Odell Beckham Jr. in a Dirty Dancing parody for the NFL. Why does this ad exist? I cannot say, but Eli Manning seems to be enjoying himself and I guess I’m glad that he’s keeping busy.
After a long layoff, Groupon is back in the Super Bowl. This year’s ad features Tiffany Haddish singing the praises of shopping local, plus a miserable old plutocrat opening the door of his mansion to be greeted with a football in the groin. All together now: Football! In! The! Groin! Come the revolution, we can clearly count Groupon as an ally.
Amazon posits a world in which its Alexa voice-activated assistant loses its voice, forcing the company to cycle through a slew of celebrity replacements. None is satisfactory—Gordon Ramsay berates a hapless man who asks Alexa for a grilled cheese sandwich recipe (“Its name is the recipe!”); Cardi B does not know the distance from Earth to Mars; Rebel Wilson ruins a yuppie’s wine-and-cheese party by lasciviously misinterpreting his request to “set the mood”; Anthony Hopkins feeds a peacock while insinuating he has kidnapped a woman’s lover. Funny ad, but my main takeaway here was less Alexa is a useful service and more Celebrities are idiots.
In 1971, Coca-Cola put a bunch of jolly hippies on a hilltop and had them sing about world peace and sugary soda in one of the most iconic commercials in history. The company’s Super Bowl spot Sunday night tried to hit similar themes, showing us people of all sorts enjoying Coke all over the world. I didn’t love the ad, which felt like a bunch of incoherently combined stock footage. Coca-Cola should have just re-aired “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Plus, “there’s a different Coke for all of us” is a fine motif, but it isn’t really true, is it? Some diet and regional variations notwithstanding, there’s only one Coke. It’s called “Coke.”
No joke: I think Peyton Manning is a first-rate commercial actor. I enjoy his doofy TV persona; I am actually always excited to watch his ads. And so it truly pains me to say that the Universal Parks and Resorts spot really misused Manning’s comedic talents. “Peyton Manning: Vacation Quarterback” is a great premise, but his lame interactions with the child actors and Universal characters and attractions all fell flat to me. Call me when Universal launches “Chicken Parm: The Ride.”
Hyundai runs a self-congratulatory ad in which Hyundai owners are whisked away from the security line at the NFL Super Bowl Experience and made to watch videos in which pediatric cancer patients and their families praise Hyundai for donating money to children’s cancer research. Next, the Hyundai owners are forced into in-person meetings with the people on the videos, who dole out hugs and say things like “I just want to thank you for owning a Hyundai.” You’re welcome? I felt bad for the Hyundai owners who were apparently ambushed into appearing in this commercial.
Stella Artois enlists Matt Damon to offer socially conscious viewers a sort of trade: Purchase a limited-edition Stella Artois–branded beer glass online and the beer company will donate money to Damon’s charity water.org, which works to improve clean-water access in developing nations. “If just 1 percent of you watching this buys one, we could give clean water to 1 million people for five years,” says Damon. This sort of pitch always makes me upset. Anheuser-Busch InBev, Stella’s parent company, is a multibillion-dollar corporation that could just donate money to clean-water charities anyway without guilting us into buying a dumb beer glass. Super Bowl ads this year cost around $5 million per 30-second spot. How much clean water could Stella have bought the developing world with $5 million?
Speaking of water, we next see a Jeep Wrangler driving through a swamp of some sort. The Jeep is red, the water is brown. “How many car ads have you seen with grandiose speeches over the years?” asks the narrator as the Jeep proceeds to drive up a rocky waterfall. Too many! (I’m talking to you, Toyota and Hyundai.) “Companies call these commercials … ‘manifestos,’ ” the narrator continues, as the Jeep drives out of sight. “There’s your manifesto.” A Jeep is a car that can drive over rocks and through water is a manifesto I can get behind.
*Correction, Feb. 6, 2018: This article originally misspelled Missy Elliott’s last name.