Ad Report Card

The Most and Least Awful Commercials of This Year’s Super Bowl

The ads were nearly as deadening as the game. At least they weren’t made with corn syrup!

Jason Bateman, Jeff Bridges, Sam Gordon, Zoë Kravitz, Michael Buble, and Andy Warhol.
Jason Bateman, Jeff Bridges, Sam Gordon, Zoë Kravitz, Michael Buble, and Andy Warhol.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Hyundai; Stella Artois; NFL; Michelob ULTRA; bubly; Burger King.

The Super Bowl is usually a terrible football game. Not in 2017 and 2018, though: Those games were unusually great! This year, however, the Super Bowl reverted to form—and it had a forgettable half-time show and largely forgettable ads to match. Were the commercials more entertaining than the game itself? Yes, but only by default. The ads this year were largely risk-averse, save for a weird Burger King ad featuring Andy Warhol and a spot for the NFL itself featuring a very large cake. A notable number of ads featuring robots deployed gallows humor in the face of our automated future—a depressing theme for a depressing game.

Why did so few brands manage to make something truly hilarious, poignant, or otherwise transcendent? Perhaps because the stakes are too high to take a leap: Super Bowl ads this year cost a reported $5.2 million per 30 seconds of air time. That price serves to box out smaller, less-established companies that might be eager to raise their profiles by airing a risky ad while encouraging larger companies to stick to familiar terrain: celebrity cameos, treacly sentiments, well-worn catchphrases. The post-Kaepernick P.R. problems of the NFL, too, might have sapped brands’ enthusiasm for making too big a ripple on game day.

Still, whatever caused this vanilla spate of ads, not all of them were flavorless. Here are my picks for the best, worst, and most confounding commercials of Super Bowl LIII.

First Quarter

The very first commercial of the game’s very first quarter—we were so young and innocent then—was the first-ever Super Bowl spot for Bon and Viv Spiked Seltzer, a new brand in the rapidly growing “so you find beer too bitter, eh?” segment of the malt beverage marketplace. Who are Bonnie and Vivian, you ask? Two sexy mermaids-cum-seltzer entrepreneurs whose wiles are such that they can tame sharks and other monsters of the deep. In other words: They’re a crisper, more entertaining version of Aquaman.

M&M’s are back for another Super Bowl, with another mediocre ad that nevertheless is effective in apprising viewers of the facts that a) M&Ms still exist, and b) they come in candy-bar form these days. This year’s celebrity spokesperson is Christina Applegate, who slow-burns while driving an SUV as unseen children bicker in the back seat. Finally, in a scene that will ring true to parents everywhere, she slams the brakes and threatens to eat her brood alive if they don’t shut up. The reveal: Anthropomorphic M&Ms are the occupants of the back seat, and now they’ve been mashed into a chocolate bar by gravitational forces. The moral of this story is either that children should stay quiet lest Christina Applegate eat them, or that your favorite candy products really ought to wear a seat belt.

Serena Williams stars in a good ad for the dating app Bumble, where only women can make the first move. “Don’t wait to be given power, because here’s what they won’t tell you: We already have it,” says Williams, equating her inspirational life story with the power Bumble users have to avoid unwanted interactions with dudes wearing cargo shorts (or worse!). A minor quibble: Though the spot briefly features a photograph of Williams and her husband, fellow rich person Alexis Ohanian, Williams did not encounter Ohanian on Bumble; rather they first met at one of the fanciest hotels in Rome because, after all, they are both rich.
Money: more powerful than an app!

Hyundai’s witty ad, one of the night’s best, featured Jason Bateman as an elevator operator in a building where each floor represents an unpleasant experience: a root canal, jury duty, a vegan dinner party—OK, that was kind of rude—and, worst of all, shopping for a car. “No thank you, we’re getting a Hyundai,” said the two shoppers whom Bateman attempted to deposit on that lowest floor, explaining they used Hyundai’s Shopper Assurance program, which purportedly takes the pain out of car shopping. “Hyundai,” said Bateman. “Going up.” For a fairly high-concept spot, this was nevertheless legible and effective in its acknowledgement that shopping for a car is worse than dental surgery and sequestration combined (true!). Being an elevator guy, how could I not have been charmed?

Every Super Bowl seems to feature at least one commercial that insists you visit some website to see the full, unexpurgated ad, and every year millions of Americans lean back in their chairs and say, “Meh.” While I appreciated this Turkish Airlines ad—an excerpt of a six-minute short directed by Ridley Scott that implied flying on the carrier was sort of like being in a Bourne movie—I will never, ever watch the complete film when this ad should’ve done the full job. Didn’t they teach you about concision and economy in directing school, Ridley Scott?

Corn syrup. Thanks, Bud Light!

Second Quarter

Pepsi got the second quarter started with a star-studded ad featuring Steve Carell, Lil Jon, and Cardi B. The ad presents a situation any soda-swilling restaurant-goer knows very well: When you order a Coke only to be asked, “Is Pepsi OK?” Enter Steve Carell, who obnoxiously insists that Pepsi is “more than OK,” that it is in fact comparable to the laughter of a small child.

I give Pepsi credit for acknowledging that it is rarely anyone’s first soft-drink choice, and I commend the brand for trying to confront and reverse a negative stereotype. (I do regret that Pepsi did not also acknowledge that its unpopularity is due to the fact that it tastes terrible.) Carell is a terrible spokesperson for the beverage, though, considering he’s best known for portraying a fictional buffoon with notoriously bad judgment. When Cardi B strutted into the diner in the back half of the commercial, I couldn’t help but think that the spot would have been much more fun and effective if she’d been there all along.

The second Bud Light ad of the night returns us to the rich Bud Light Cinematic Universe, as the beloved Bud Knight prepares to joust with an opponent who is not sponsored by a beer company. Things go awry: The Bud Knight is unseated and apparently murdered in cold blood by his foe; the skies darken; a dragon appears and sets the stadium on fire. Wait, what? It turns out that this is a crossover ad touting the impending final season of Game of Thrones on HBO. I have to say I found this ad very weird and confusing. Does this mean that they serve Bud Light in Westeros? Is “Dilly Dilly” going to be a plot point this year? Will the Bud Knight end up winning the throne game? What kind of unholy magic caused these two worlds to enmesh? Stay in your lane, Bud Light Cinematic Universe!

Just as Oscar Mayer has the Wienermobile, Planters has the Nutmobile, a real vehicle that is apparently registered in the state of Wisconsin. In Planters’ Super Bowl ad, Mr. Peanut unsafely drives the Nutmobile through a small city in order to save Alex Rodriguez from the ignominy of eating kale chips. Hrm. Why was Alex Rodriguez in this at all? Charlie Sheen’s cameo, I understand: He’s one of Hollywood’s most notorious “nuts,” and therefore a natural fit for a peanut commercial. But Alex Rodriguez is neither particularly beloved nor a noted peanut guy. I guess they sell peanuts at baseball games? But the Super Bowl is a football game! My guess is that Rodriguez lives close to the soundstage or something.

Congratulations to TurboTax for winning the “Ad Least Likely to Make Me Want to Use TurboTax” award with its creepy spot featuring a dead-eyed child robot that some dude made in his garage. “What do you wanna be when you grow up?” the dude asks his hideous electro-progeny. “I would like to be a TurboTax Live CPA,” Robochild answers, only to be told that its dream is unattainable because TurboTax only employs real, live humans as its Live CPAs. The robot laughs mirthlessly upon hearing the news, perhaps envisioning the real, live CPA corpses it will leave strewn in its wake come the A.I. revolution.

Finally, the Big Lebowski/Sex and the City crossover we’ve been … huh? Sarah Jessica Parker, reprising her role as Carrie, scandalizes a restaurant by ordering a Stella Artois instead of her standard Cosmopolitan. Havoc ensues—this is apparently one of those comedy bistros that only exist in ads, children’s movies, and Three Stooges bits—and gets even more havoc-y when Jeff Bridges appears as The Dude and also orders a Stella. The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials is there, too, for some reason. Hell of a night at the ol’ comedy bistro! As crossover events go, this was worse than the Bud Light/Game of Thrones thing. Still, this commercial is much better than Stella’s preachy and cynical 2018 Super Bowl commercial that tried to guilt viewers into buying limited-edition Stella chalices in order to bring water to the developing world.

Sprint continues its run of effective Super Bowl spots by soliciting famed two-sport athlete Bo Jackson (alongside a bunch of weird robots, naturally) to connote that Sprint is also good at two things. Sprint’s ad works because it sticks to a clear message—we’re almost as good as Verizon and we’re also much cheaper—that is intriguing to anyone who has ever thought they are paying too much for cell service. I think this all the time! I freely admit that this ad inspired me to search to see how Sprint’s nationwide coverage area compares to Verizon’s. I’m still not going to switch to Sprint, but I did what the ad wanted me to do.

Halftime

The NFL got halftime started with what was easily one of the top ads of the night: a spot touting the league’s upcoming 100th anniversary celebration, in which Mike Singletary and a bunch of NFL legends get rowdy and ruin a banquet. All the old gang is there, except for O.J. Simpson, whose invitation probably got lost in the mail. Peyton Manning throws a pass! Barry Sanders runs with a football! Jim Brown sits down! As my colleague Nick Greene already noted, this commercial featured the most exciting football action of the whole evening.

Kia ran an off-putting commercial in which a Southern-accented child strongly implied that West Point, Georgia, is a crummy town filled with low-achieving people. “We’re not famous. There are no stars on the sidewalk for us. No statues in our honor,” the child narrator said. “Because we are not known for what we are, we hope to be known for what we do,” and what they do is work in an auto plant that will soon produce the new Kia Telluride—at least until President Trump’s tariffs make maintaining the plant untenable for the South Korean automaker.

PepsiCo’s Bubly sparkling water—presumed tagline: “Can’t find LaCroix? Try Bubly!”—runs an effervescent spot in which the singer Michael Bublé insists, wrongly, that the drink and his surname are identically pronounced. Not only was this ad funny, it was clarifying. I have seen Bubly at my local grocery store in recent months and due to its bland name and packaging I honestly thought it was a store brand. Not true! I sort of hate to say it, but I am probably more likely to give this drink a try now that I know Bubly is fancy enough to advertise at the Super Bowl.

T-Mobile ran a bunch of text-message-centric ads this game, and, thankfully, none of them featured CEO John Legere. I initially thought this third-quarter ad—in which awkwardness ensues when a “Just letting you know I’m here” text from a Lyft driver is mistaken for a declaration of emotional solidarity—was funny until I realized that it ripped off a viral tweet from December 2017. Maybe it was a coincidence. If not: Uncool, T-Mobile!

Michelob Ultra’s first ad of the night also featured a bunch of robots outdoing humans at a number of athletic tasks: racing up a hill, driving golf balls at a range, leading a hellish spinning class. But there’s one thing a robot can’t do, according to the commercial: Enjoy a post-workout Michelob Ultra with friends. Hooray, I guess? Though the specter of A.I.-induced human obsolescence haunts us all, at least we can be sure that we’ll always outdo our robot leaders at guzzling low-calorie lagers with our unemployed friends. Anyway, this commercial is silly, as I am certain that Boston Dynamics is hard at work on a beer-drinking robot even as I type this. A side note: I noticed that the shelves of the bar where this commercial’s denouement takes place are filled with bottles of Michelob Ultra, which is weird. What sort of bar stores its beers on its liquor shelves? Either the set decorators working on this commercial went a little overboard, or this bar exists inside a giant refrigerator.

“I wonder what Luke Wilson’s been up to?” is a real sentence I said last month while a friend and I were out to dinner. Apparently Luke Wilson is doing Colgate commercials now!

Fourth quarter

Microsoft’s ad touting its adaptive controllers for disabled gamers was probably the most effective dramatic ad of the game. At the very least, Microsoft showed its competitors how to make a decent “let’s make the world a better place” commercial. The key difference between this spot and one from Google is that it features a group of charismatic children who use the device in real life, and is centered around a specific Microsoft product that demonstrably improves people’s lives. Though Google’s second-quarter ad was nominally focused on its Google Translate product, it was mostly concerned with transmitting the kind of vague message of fellowship that felt like a Silicon Valley cliché five years ago.

Verizon’s Super Bowl spots this year honored first responders, which is good! The commercials aired months after the company made headlines for throttling the internet speeds of firefighters battling the California wildfires. Which was bad! The choice of subject matter feels like a “Sorry for doing that!” move from Verizon, and I’m sure that first responders appreciate the gesture, though probably not as much as they would appreciate unthrottled data during emergency situations. “First responders answer the call. Our job is to make sure they can get it,” this ad says. Let’s hope Verizon lives up to its word.

Burger King repurposed some decades-old footage of Andy Warhol loudly unwrapping one of its burgers and then trying to dump some ketchup on the wrapper. That’s it, that’s the whole ad, and it was my favorite of the night. As my colleague Matthew Dessem wrote, the footage is taken from a 1982 experimental film titled 66 Scenes from America, by the Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth. I’m a bit disappointed that Burger King did not actually reanimate the long-dead Warhol for the purposes of a Super Bowl commercial, but I guess there’s always next year!

Bob Dylan’s protest anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” is filled with powerful metaphors about a world riven by hate, war, and apathy. The song became an anthem for a generation of idealistic youth who hoped to change the world. In 2019, in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII, Budweiser used “Blowin’ in the Wind” to soundtrack a commercial announcing that America’s blandest beer is now brewed with wind power. If you think about it, this ad is itself a pretty powerful metaphor in and of itself—though not one Baby Boomers should find very gratifying. Bob Dylan, you sinewy little wordsmith, you’ve done it again!

Michelob Ultra’s second spot of the night—”A Tribute to ASMR,” let’s call it—puts Zoë Kravitz in a mountain clearing, where she whispers into two microphones, taps her nails on a beer bottle, and scrapes the bottom of the bottle across a table. “Let’s all experience something. Together,” she breathes. Sure enough, my neck hairs stood on end and I started to tingle—not from an ASMR reaction, to be clear, but out of fear that I might one day myself get stuck in the mountains with nothing to drink but a bottle of gross Michelob Ultra.

I’m still not sure how I feel about this ad from the Washington Post, perhaps because I’ve always been a bit turned off by reporters’ tendency toward self-valorization. The ad touts the virtues of journalism and the courage of the men and women who work to report the news. Go, team, I guess! Setting aside the issue of whether it was appropriate for the Post and its owner Jeff Bezos to spend approximately $10 million on a Super Bowl ad instead of, I don’t know, improving the pay and benefits of their employees, I question the broader purpose here. Yes, a lot of people out there hate journalists these days, egged on by a president who dubs the fact-based media “the enemy of the people,” and it would be great if this commercial worked to counteract the venom. It won’t, though. Right-wing ideologues will continue to disingenuously criticize the mainstream media, and they will not be thwarted by a feel-good Super Bowl ad. No one involved in the making of this spot should be blind to that. So who is this ad actually for? The only logical conclusion is that this commercial about journalism was meant for an audience of… other journalists. Journalists, man. We love to love ourselves, perhaps because no one else does.