Ad Report Card

The Most and Least Impressive Super Bowl Commercials

Winners: Jason Momoa, the Snickers ditch, and everyone’s Boston accent. Losers: Donald Trump and hummus.

Collage of stills of Tom Brady, Jason Momoa, Lil Nas X, Rachel Dratch, Bill Murray, and Winona Ryder in their respective Super Bowl ads.
Tom Brady, Jason Momoa, Lil Nas X, Rachel Dratch, Bill Murray, and Winona Ryder.
Screengrabs from YouTube

Another year, another Super Bowl Sunday, that magical night when America’s thirstiest brands throw tons of money at negligibly entertaining commercials in the hope that you are also thirsty: for light beer, for energy drinks, for home loans, and for T-Pain. And other things, too! This year’s game was a relatively good one, probably something like the 15th or 16th best Super Bowl of all time, though I’m not quite ready to proclaim where it falls in my definitive ranking. But the ads, barring a few standouts, struck me as broadly unimpressive.

Since it’s an election year, we got ads from President Donald Trump as well as from one of his Democratic challengers, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and I think we were all unhappy to see them. Or maybe it was just me? I’m not a keep-politics-out-of-sports guy—professional sports are inherently political—but I am a the-Super-Bowl-is-for-funny-ads-about-candy-bars guy. The Trump and Bloomberg ads just seemed out of place, like Martin Scorsese at a costume party. As for Scorsese, his turn opposite Jonah Hill in a commercial for Coca-Cola Energy seemed out of place, too: a pairing that no one was really excited to see, sort of like the Chiefs and the 49ers.

Unlike during Super Bowls past, it was hard to detect overarching themes stretching across Sunday’s ads. Either there is less zeitgeist for Madison Avenue to tap into this year, or the zeitgeist is especially terrible. These are fractured times, and even these eight-figure commercials strained to bless us with monocultural joy. They, like us, were scattered. Which ones were the best? Which ones were not? Pop a Coca-Cola Energy or MTN DEW Zero Sugar and read on.

First Quarter

The first ad that has nothing to do with The Fast and the Furious is for Quibi, a soon-to-launch streaming service featuring videos that last 10 minutes or less. To underscore that you’ll always have time for its programs, Quibi shows us the aftermath of a bank heist, with masked thieves wondering where their getaway car is. As it turns out, the driver—“Greg”—is off somewhere watching a Quibi video, because he presumes there’s plenty of time to do so and also drive his criminal pals to safety. Bad move, Greg! As the ad wraps up, sirens ring in the background. Quibi will give you very short Punk’d episodes, and will also put your robber friends behind bars.

President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign hits the Super Bowl with an ad featuring Alice Johnson, a 64-year-old woman who spent 21 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense before Trump commuted her sentence, at the behest of Kim Kardashian, in 2018. The spot intercuts footage of Johnson on the day of her release with statements like “Thanks to President Trump, people like Alice are getting a second chance” and “Politicians talk about criminal justice reform. President Trump got it done.” It was ambitious of this ad to spotlight two of the very few unequivocally good things that Trump has done since taking office—both commuting Johnson’s sentence and signing the First Step Act of 2019, which pushed through needed criminal justice reforms—insofar as Trump’s campaign wants the ad to appeal to voters beyond the president’s base. That said, I do not think that anyone who is not already a MAGA chud will watch this ad, think to themselves Hmm, maybe I got this Trump fellow all wrong, and then proceed to forget about everything else that has happened over these last three excruciating years. The ad was a leap. I guess we’ll see if it was effective.

When I went to church on Sunday morning, the priest began his homily with a Super Bowl riff that referenced “commercials of such cunning and comedy that we barely know what they’re selling.” After watching this muddled commercial from Walmart, I think I understand what Father Punchline was talking about. Though ostensibly meant to promote Walmart Pickup, the retailer’s curbside pickup service, the ad gets lost in an endless parade of space-themed movie references and character cameos. Look, it’s the Enterprise! And Bill from Bill and Ted! And the aliens from Mars Attacks! And, uh, that weird ovular spaceship from Arrival? Hey, and R2-D2 and C-3P0, but it sounds like it’s someone else doing C-3P0’s voice, but maybe it’s the same guy as usual? What was this ad supposed to be for again?

Rocket Mortgage’s memorable spot, featuring Jason Momoa, begins as the Aquaman star drives past a pack of paparazzi on his way home. “What does home mean to me?” Momoa says. “It’s my sanctuary,” the one place on earth where he can truly be himself. But the real Jason Momoa, according to the ad’s reveal, is a balding, shriveled weakling who wears a wig, elevator shoes, fake arms, and a prosthetic torso out in public. “Home is where you feel the most comfortable. And Rocket Mortgage helps you feel comfortable financing that home,” says a narrator as the now scrawny and balding Momoa strums out a tune on a Hawaiian lap steel guitar. My mom deemed this commercial “an odd one,” and I’ll admit that CGI-shrinking Momoa into the uncanny valley is definitely creepy. But the twist was just disarming and funny enough to make an ad from a mortgage company feel notable. Plus, I now feel confident I could beat up Jason Momoa if I needed to.

In this musical ad—a parody of Coca-Cola’s classic 1971 “Hilltop” commercialSnickers announces that the world is in trouble: grown men are riding scooters on the sidewalk, new parents are giving their children dumb names, the surveillance state continues to invade all corners of our lives. In the absence of any other good strategies for combating these ills, Snickers posits that we might as well put faith in an objectively dumb idea: dig a big hole in a clearing and drop an enormous Snickers bar inside. This was one of my favorite ads of this year’s crop—in part because it was actually funny, in part because it was very simple. Snickers knows that you know what Snickers is and feels no burden to explain it. It also knows that you know that you can probably save the world by tossing a Snickers into a giant ditch.

In the lead-up to the Super Bowl, 42-year-old New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tweeted a plaintive, black-and-white photo of himself standing in a stadium tunnel, staring at an empty field. “Oh, my gosh, Tom Brady is retiring!” was most people’s initial reaction. Of course, because Tom Brady is a corny tool, the photo was actually a teaser for this aggravating Hulu ad. “They say all good things must come to an end,” Brady intones at the top of the spot. “So to my teammates, my family, and my fans, you deserve to hear this from me: Hulu doesn’t just have live sports.” It also has lots of other program options, none of which I will watch now, because my least favorite ads are ones in which Tom Brady tries to trick you. “So say goodbye to TV as you know it,” Brady says. “But me? I’m not going anywhere.” Oh, good grief. Maybe we can get someone to push him into that big Snickers hole?

Second Quarter

Mountain Dew, the unofficial drink of couch potatoes in tracksuits, runs a parody of The Shining in which Bryan Cranston assumes the Jack Torrance role, sauntering menacingly through a house with an axe in one hand and a bottle of MTN DEW Zero Sugar in the other. (Don’t blame me—that’s how the brand spells it.) “Come out, come out, wherever you are! I’ve got new Mountain Dew Zero Sugar!” Cranston sings out, before chopping through a bathroom door and handing a bottle of soda to the terrified woman on the other side. The message here is quite clear: Drink MTN DEW Zero Sugar or Bryan Cranston will murder you in the bathroom. Extreme!

I’m not sure that I actually liked this spot for Squarespace, which featured Winona Ryder building a website while lying in the snow in the outskirts of Winona, Minnesota, but I did find it effective. It represents a common variety of Super Bowl commercial: the ad intended to raise awareness of a specific brand in a field where consumers might not know or care much about specific brands. The sort of person who only just now in 2020 is coming around to the notion that businesses should have a website is totally the sort of person who would choose their plug-and-play homepage solution based on a Super Bowl ad. That said, it is generally a bad idea to bring your laptop out in the snow.

This charming spot for the Hyundai Sonata introduces the car’s new “smart park” feature—although the ad doesn’t exactly call it that. In it, Massachusetts natives Rachel Dratch, Chris Evans, and John Krasinski adopt exaggerated Boston accents to demonstrate “smaht pahk”: Click a button and the car parks itself, everywhere from Swampscott to Saugus. I admit I laughed a lot at the gag, though I do take issue with how the ad incorrectly used the word wicked to directly modify the noun car. As any good Masshole knows, wicked is an amplifier; you would say “wicked good car” or “wicked bad car,” but never “wicked car.” Or is Hyundai trying to tell us that the new Sonata is, in fact, a wicked car, its smart park feature powered by dark magic? That is the only logical conclusion.

Coke’s ad for its new energy drink, Coca-Cola Energy—try not to think too hard about the fact that regular Coca-Cola is already an energy drink—is middling, even though it features both Martin Scorsese and Jonah Hill, who in the world of this commercial are buddies who attend parties together. In it, Hill falls asleep on his couch and leaves Scorsese floundering at a party they were supposed to attend together; not until he swigs some Coca-Cola Energy does Hill muster the endurance necessary to go meet up with his septuagenarian pal. Sure, whatever. If I were Jonah Hill, I would absolutely think long and hard about ditching Martin Scorsese, who might be a wonderful director but also seems like a real nightmare of a party guest, considering that he 1) wore a suit to what was clearly a costume party; 2) stood like a wallflower in the middle of the dance floor (just dance, Marty!); 3) hid in his phone instead of trying to talk to the friendly people who were waving at him; and 4) got mad at being mistaken for a waiter even though he very much looked like a waiter, given that he wore a suit to a costume party.

“America, how do you ’mmus?” Ric Flair yells at the top of this grating spot for Sabra Hummus that tries and fails to make eating hummus seem awesomely outrageous. Though I appreciated that it featured a broad variety of personalities—T-Pain, the drag queens Miz Cracker and Kim Chi, some YouTube and TikTok stars, and Chester Cheetah for some reason—I wish it hadn’t made them all use the annoying corporate neologism “ ’mmus,” and not only because half the time it sounded like they were talking about Don Imus. The visuals were jarring, too: The commercial took place in a series of garish and stressful red, orange, and yellow rooms, an extremely un-hummuslike palette. I admit that I laughed over the juxtaposition with the preceding ad, in which a sad old man asked Google to help him remember his dead wife. Less crying, more ’mussing, old man! But mostly this struck me as the sort of spot you might encounter in aversion therapy.

WeatherTech spent the entirety of its Super Bowl ad this year praising the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, which saved the life of the dog of the owner of WeatherTech. Indeed, this dog certainly looks healthy now! The ad encourages viewers to donate money to the veterinary school by visiting a special “Donate” page on WeatherTech’s website. As always with these sorts of ads—the ones in which brands hope to win your loyalty by affiliating themselves with some charitable act or noble sentiment—I have mixed emotions. Sure, it’s a nice sentiment, and, sure, I hope that the ad ends up raising a lot of money for the dog hospital. But if supporting this sort of research is the goal, why wouldn’t WeatherTech just take the money it spent on this ad and instead donate it directly to the vet school?

Halftime

I was already inclined to think kindly of password manager Dashlane, thanks to its recent sponsorship of top sports news website Unnamed Temporary Sports Blog. That goodwill was validated by the company’s good Super Bowl ad this year, in which a presumably deceased soul being ferried across a murky river is stopped short of eternal paradise by his inability to recall the password to enter as well as the answers to his password recovery questions. If this fellow had only used Dashlane, he would be partying in heaven at this very moment, instead of fruitlessly remonstrating with a wraith in the middle of a scary river.

Halftime at the Super Bowl is when the regional commercials come out to party, so I want to note just how happy I am that, here in the Chicago area, Victory Auto Wreckers somehow secured a brief spot. For decades, Victory Auto Wreckers ran the same dumb ad on local stations, in which a grimy dude accidentally yanks the door off of his crappy old car, only to have Victory Auto Wreckers save the day by towing the car and paying him $60, which he likely spent immediately on light beer and a Dokken tape. The ad that ran at this year’s Super Bowl wasn’t the same spot, but it was just as janky and unpolished as the one I remember so fondly. Never change, Victory Auto Wreckers!

SodaStream contributes a funny ad in which astronauts finally discover water on Mars and take a sample home for testing, only for some doofus on the spaceship to fizz the sample up with the ol’ SodaStream and drink it. “That was the Mars water,” a shocked astronaut says. “Oh,” the culprit says, holding an empty glass with a lime in it. “I thought it said ‘Mark’s water.’ ” Bill Nye was also in this commercial, though I don’t know why—his role was entirely superfluous. I suppose that having at least one recognizable celebrity in a big ad is important for purposes of online virality, though if SodaStream was going to pay Bill Nye to be in its ad anyway, it should have just eliminated the middleman and had him play the seltzer-drinking doofus.

One day late last year, Michael Bloomberg woke up and realized that he had too much money. To fix this problem, he decided to run for president, so that he could spend hundreds of millions of dollars of his excess cash on campaign commercials across the land. This commercial, which touts Bloomberg’s track record on gun safety and gun control, is certainly one of those!

Third Quarter

In an odd semi-homage to the Mike Figgis film Timecode, Heinz’s commercial divides the screen into four quadrants, with each featuring a separate storyline: A family approaches an all-night diner; a bouquet-toting couple arrives at what appears to be a goth dinner party; another family moves into a weird old mansion; and four hip young kids attend a rave on the moon. (Or something like that! The spot was only 30 seconds, and it was hard to tell what was happening in that last quadrant. Not a good sign!) Ominous music plays; tension builds; the curious viewer presumably wonders what common thread binds these four disparately creepy scenarios. The answer, of course, is a bottle of Heinz ketchup, the sudden appearance of which in each vignette breaks the tension and brings relief. Ah, Heinz: the preferred condiment of people who go to weird places at night but are still very basic.

I quite liked this funny spot introducing Bud Light’s new hard seltzer product that apparently doesn’t taste like Bud Light at all, which strikes me as a real selling point. The ad features the musician Post Malone, as well as the thousands of tiny men and women who apparently live inside his head and control his every thought and movement. On the hunt for a sixer of Bud Light at a convenience store, Malone spies a cooler filled with Bud Light Seltzer and cannot decide which product to buy. He finally decides to buy both—after all, he is very rich—but not before the little men in his head fling him to and fro throughout the store, destroying various shelves and racks in the process. Malone showed a real flair for physical comedy, and delivered the ad’s button line so well that I laughed out loud. Bud Light Seltzer, I am officially willing to see if you’re drinkable.

Third-tier pizza chain Little Caesars uses its first-ever Super Bowl ad to announce that its bland, doughy pies are now available for delivery. Hooray? The spot actually makes a lot of sense, given how well it matches its product—inexpensive delivery pizza—with its target audience of hungry men with low standards. Proclaiming this new delivery service to be “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” the ad stars Rainn Wilson as the CEO of “Sliced Bread, Inc,” which is put out of business by Little Caesars’ new delivery offer. The ad is funny, and Wilson is good in it, but I question the basic premise. I have actually eaten Little Caesars’ pizza before, and every single time I would have been better off eating a slice of bread.

In this year’s Doritos spot, “Old Town Road” rapper Lil Nas X rides into a dust-caked Western town—named “Cool Ranch,” naturally—to compete in a high noon–style dance-off with … Sam Elliott? Lil Nas X wins handily, which is perhaps to be expected, given that Sam Elliott is a grizzled old man who clearly didn’t even perform his own dance moves. Lil Nas X’s prize? A bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Couldn’t he have just bought them at the store and not had to humiliate Sam Elliott? The little men and women in Lil Nas X’s head are falling down on the job; at some point they should have stopped and reminded him that he, too, is very rich.

Kia’s ad, featuring Oakland Raiders running back Josh Jacobs giving advice to his younger self, was very earnest, which set it apart among this year’s crop of automotive ads. Jacobs was homeless as a youth, and apparently football helped carry him through the tough times. I am generally skeptical of people and companies who claim that football builds character, but it appears to have worked that way for Jacobs, and, anyway, if there’s one night a year when it’s OK for football to puff itself up, it’s the Super Bowl. Not sure what any of this really had to do with Kia, though!

This year’s smug commercial for Amazon’s Alexa posits a world in which rich celebrities Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi cannot remember what life was like before the virtual assistant, a product that has only existed for about five years. The ad goes on to take viewers on a trip back through time, stopping in various time periods only long enough to reinforce that relying on human beings to complete simple tasks for you is wildly inferior to outsourcing your life to a speaker. The intent is to highlight the wide range of ways in which Amazon Alexa can make its users lives’ easier. The real takeaway, as with previous Amazon Alexa commercials, is that rich celebrities are idiots.

Fourth Quarter

I’m not sure what to think of this year’s NFL house ad, which stars former player Anquan Boldin, who retired from the league to do charitable work two years after his cousin, Corey Jones, was shot and killed in his car by a plainclothes cop. On the one hand, the ad is unequivocal in its depiction and description of an unjust police shooting—the officer who shot Jones is currently serving a long prison sentence—on a night when a critical mass of Blue Lives Matter voters were surely watching the game, and it is good to see a commercial that might serve to challenge some of their governing assumptions. On the other hand, as noble as Boldin’s post-football career choices surely are, the takeaway for me was that NFL players must leave the league in order to advocate for social justice, because if they try to do so too loudly while they are still active players, the NFL will blackball them. “The best way to inspire change is to be it,” Boldin says at the end of the ad, but the sentiment is undercut when you realize that the NFL is holding Boldin’s brand of advocacy up against the methods practiced by Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, and others. Kaepernick’s method of inspiring change scares the NFL so much that no team will sign him. Who’s to say which method is more effective?

Look, if I had been the man charged with making this promo spot for the upcoming reboot of the XFL, I probably wouldn’t have centered the ad on a fake doctor’s farcical explanation of how football affects your brain. I probably would have stayed very far away from any reference to how football affects the brain, given that all available evidence suggests that football is very bad for the brain, and basic decency makes it clear that there’s nothing funny about football-related brain injuries. But, then again, I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time trying to promote an offseason football league that nobody liked in its first iteration anyway. So I guess it doesn’t matter what I think!

T-Mobile had a funny ad this year! It featured the actor Anthony Anderson and his real-life mother, who torments her son by calling him incessantly to inform him, in real time, of all the places where she can get 5G service on her T-Mobile phone: at the aquarium, at the beach, in the club. This ad worked for me because it tacitly addressed the fact that T-Mobile is known for having bad coverage. If its 5G coverage really is top of the line, I want to know about it! I’m not going to switch my carrier, but, still, it’s good to stay on top of the news.

Microsoft’s spot spotlights San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers, the first female NFL coach in history, who in addition to being an inspirational person also apparently uses a Microsoft Surface tablet to diagram plays and such, which is ostensibly what qualifies her to appear in a Microsoft commercial. This tasteful ad is a function of Microsoft not really having to run a Super Bowl ad—it’s not as if the company desperately needs to introduce the world to Microsoft Hard Seltzer or anything—but still having so much money that the cost of running an ad amounts to a rounding error, and figuring it might as well use the ad to celebrate some inspirational person while giving the very soft sell to a random Microsoft product. Idea for next year: a heartwarming commercial about an online journalist and longtime Word user whose goal is to be the last Slate writer to file his Super Bowl piece. What a story!

Somehow, Jeep’s homage to the 1993 film Groundhog Day was a big success. Not only did it not sully the memory and legacy of this great movie—this was not at all a given—it also worked well as a straight-up car commercial. It opens on Bill Murray in bed, woken by the sound of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” blaring from an ancient clock radio. “Oh, no,” Murray moans, and, sure enough, he’s stuck in the same old Groundhog Day time loop again. Ned Ryerson is there, as obnoxious as ever. Brian Doyle-Murray is there, too, as is the groundhog. But wait: There’s a bright orange Jeep Gladiator parked on the street. “Oh, that’s different,” says Murray, and he grabs the groundhog and drives off in the car. Next morning he leaps out of bed, eager to rush downtown and steal that cool Jeep again, and so on, and so on. “No day is the same in a Jeep Gladiator,” the commercial says at the end, and it might have been the best tagline of the whole evening. The commercial is good enough to compensate for the fact that the Gladiator is an incredibly ugly car.