Ad Report Card

The Best (but Mostly the Worst) Super Bowl Commercials of 2021

Weird year. Awkward ads!

Collage of stills from ads featuring Bruce Springsteen, Michael B. Jordan, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Morgan, Mike Myers, and Dolly Parton.
Bruce Springsteen, Michael B. Jordan, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Morgan, Mike Myers, and Dolly Parton (clockwise from top left). Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via YouTube.

The year between this Super Bowl and the last one was one of the worst and weirdest in modern American history. There was a pandemic. (The pandemic is still happening.) The president had an impeachment trial. (Amazingly, this is also still happening.) A bunch of violent right-wing idiots stormed the U.S. Capitol. (This literally just happened.) John Prine died. (This will probably not happen again.) Approximately 4,700 other memorably terrible things happened too, and going into Super Bowl LV, the question on my mind was how the brands of the world would respond to this awful year in the commercials they’d paid millions to air during the big game.

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They mostly didn’t. Sure, a bunch of ads referred obliquely to the past year being a rough one, though most skipped over the particulars of why it was so rough. Others offered vague calls for national unity, even as they conveniently forgot to mention exactly what it was that’s divided us. Very few of these ads sat well, because you can’t really have an effective unity or sympathy message without specifics—but then again, if you’re buying a Super Bowl ad, you also don’t want to say anything too specific, lest you offend one half or the other of this polarized nation.

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So most ads took the safe path and chose not to mention this past year at all. Instead, they posited a world in which everything is fine and has always been fine. (No pandemics here, just lots of random celebrity cameos.) There was some weird stuff and some earnest stuff and some stuff that was actually pretty funny. But in a year in which most of us no longer know what to say, America’s advertising geniuses largely proved no different. It was a rough year for Super Bowl commercials. I am almost positive that this will happen again.

First Quarter

The very first ad after kickoff was for a new M. Night Shyamalan movie, which is apparently about a spooky beach that makes you prematurely old, or something like that. The second ad after kickoff was for M&M’s, which always delivers clever, punchy Super Bowl spots that do their job of reminding you that M&M’s exist and that perhaps you should eat some. This year’s ends with Schitt’s Creek actor Dan Levy attempting to apologize to a bunch of anthropomorphic candy pieces for having consumed so many of their brethren. The twist is that Levy has yet another sentient M&M locked inside his car, trying desperately to escape before it, too, meets the same fate. The moral: Don’t trust Schitt’s Creek actor Dan Levy. Anyway, I look forward to the M. Night Shyamalan adaptation of this spooky premise sometime in 2022.

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Most Super Bowl ads offer fairly prosaic fantasies, asking viewers to picture themselves behind the wheel of a midpriced car or opening a fresh bag of chips—you know, the sorts of accomplishments that are actually within the reach of the average American couch potato. Inspiration4, a project of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, wants schlubs like you and me to dream big and imagine ourselves in outer space. “This fall, Inspiration4 launches as the first all-civilian mission to space … and you could be on board,” says the ad, directing curious souls to a website. The ad worked, insofar as I did indeed visit the website. But I’ve seen this Simpsons episode before, and it didn’t end well for anyone.

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For DoorDash, Daveed Diggs and a bunch of beloved Sesame Street puppets riff on the show’s classic “People in Your Neighborhood,” in order to explain that you can support many of the stores and restaurants in your neighborhood by having their wares delivered via DoorDash. Fair enough, but I will note that several of the restaurants in my neighborhood offer discounts to people who call and order directly, since the fees that DoorDash and other third-party delivery services charge are often so high as to consume the restaurant’s profits on the items you purchase. Keep your surcharges, you cookie monsters.

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“What if Matthew McConaughey were a terrifying two-dimensional being who repulses everybody he encounters?” isn’t just the plot of my latest piece of Matthew McConaughey fan fiction: It’s the premise of this year’s Doritos ad. This spot wasn’t funny, but it was effective insofar as Flatthew McConaughey was a striking visual sales aid for the specific chip being marketed here—Doritos 3D, which are apparently sort of like regular Doritos, but puffy. Anyway, after eating one of these 3D chips, McConaughey reinflates to his proper dimensions, whereupon he immediately finds himself trapped inside a vending machine. Funny enough, this is also how my Matthew McConaughey fan fiction story ends. Get your own ideas, Doritos!

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I liked the funny General Motors spot featuring Will Ferrell as an electric vehicle enthusiast with a bizarre grudge against Norway, because that nation “sells more electric cars per capita than the U.S.” Not for long, though, as GM intends to release 30 new electric vehicles by 2025. Eat it, Norway! The ad was coherent and clever (a rarity this year), and co-stars Awkwafina and Kenan Thompson were funny, too. I will, however, note the irony in the way this ad about energy-conserving electric vehicles featured three celebrities consuming tons of energy by taking a spontaneous and unnecessary trip to Scandinavia. I’m not sure Norway really has all that much to worry about.

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Second Quarter

The online job marketplace Indeed made its Super Bowl debut immediately after the first quarter, with one of the few spots of the night to directly address the pandemic. “You’re broken down and tired of living life on a merry-go-round,” went the background music, as the ad showed a series of sad-looking Americans sitting at home, yearning for a website—any website—that might help them procure employment. Is Indeed—which, according to its very direct tagline, “helps people get jobs”—that website? If you are in fact unemployed and watched the game, you probably at least considered navigating over to Indeed to try and find out. Not a funny or particularly entertaining spot, but I found it effective enough.

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“When did Bud Light Seltzer start making lemonade? Probably when 2020 handed us all those lemons,” begins the ad for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, which then proceeds to interpret that premise quite literally, showing lemons falling from the sky, wreaking havoc on all those who are unfortunate enough to stand in their direct path. Though I related to the general message here—namely, that the horrors of this past year are best addressed with a steady diet of fruity, low-carb malt beverages—I was also struck by the fact that none of the young, attractive attendees at this seltzer party is wearing a mask. Watch out, guys—in four to seven days, it may well start to rain lemons for you heedless seltzer-lovers once again.

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Rocket Mortgage had what for my money was the funniest ad of the evening. In it, comedian Tracy Morgan attempted to educate a family of potential homebuyers on the difference between pretty sure and certain. The ad cut between a variety of wacky scenarios—“Pretty sure these are parachutes,” said Morgan as he pushed the patriarch out of an airplane; “I’m pretty sure these hornets aren’t the murdering type,” Morgan said, as the nest he poked landed straight on the father’s head. The point here, clearly, was that homebuyers need to be certain about what they can afford when looking for a home, and also that America’s dads should stay far, far away from Tracy Morgan.

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The coveted “What the Hell Was That?” award for 2021 goes to Oatly, purveyor of oat milk and oat milk–related products. The spot put CEO Toni Petersson out in a random field on a cloudy day, playing a keyboard and singing, poorly, a song about how oat milk is “like milk, but made for humans.” Yeah, for weird humans. This ad smacked of the sort of inauthentic weirdness that just ends up reading as smug. While I enjoy Oatly’s products, I confess to not getting or liking the company’s schtick of producing ads that very self-consciously and deliberately choose to waste the space that they’ve purchased.

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Tide nearly gave Oatly a run for its weirdness money with the tale of a hooded sweatshirt featuring a grotesquely oversized photo of Jason Alexander’s face, worn by a teenager who clearly hadn’t washed the hoodie for weeks. The ad was scored to “The Theme From The Greatest American Hero,” otherwise known as the building block of George Costanza’s answering machine music. The kid should’ve skated to it.

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Halftime

“Football is a microcosm of America,” begins this house ad from the NFL, which runs through a bunch of social justice–themed b-roll in the process of noting that the league “is committing $250 million to help end systemic racism.” If you say so, guys! You’re still the league that blackballed Colin Kaepernick, has to bribe its teams to hire Black head coaches, and ran a bubble-free regular season in the midst of a pandemic, which played a part in hundreds of players and staffers testing positive for COVID.

Third Quarter

In yet another example of a meal delivery service deploying nostalgia in order to make itself seem nice and friendly, Uber Eats trots out a haggard-looking Mike Myers and Dana Carvey to reprise their characters from Wayne’s World. Almost 30 years later, the near-geriatric Wayne and Garth are still broadcasting from the basement, except now they’re shilling for Uber Eats. Cardi B is there too, for some reason. It wasn’t funny. This ad was bad in the way that many Super Bowl ads are bad: It spent big bucks to re-create certain aspects of a beloved cultural touchstone while neglecting the things that made that cultural touchstone beloved in the first place, like heart, and good humor, and Tia Carrere.

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The website Fiverr, on which people can hire freelancers and independent workers to perform a wide variety of tasks for low wages, picked off some pretty low-hanging fruit with its crowd-pleasing ad set at Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Yes, that Four Seasons Total Landscaping. The ad starred the Philadelphia company’s real-life owner, Marie Siravo, who walked viewers through her farcical attempts to reimagine her company as “Four Seasons Total Landscaping and Press Venue”—with the help of freelancers from Fiverr, of course. Siravo was a winning spokesperson and the ad was funny and clever, but, really, Fiverr could’ve just pointed its camera at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping sign for 30 seconds and it would’ve had a hit. Some beloved cultural touchstones are strong enough to stand on their own.

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I wasn’t sure what to make of this weird ad from Cheetos in which Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, and Shaggy traded off lines in a Cheetos-themed version of Shaggy’s 2000 hit “It Wasn’t Me.” “Just tell him it wasn’t you,” Shaggy advised Kunis when Kutcher accused her of stealing his Cheetos, and off we went into what was definitely the best Cheetos-themed song parody of the evening, although at times it sounded like Kutcher was trying to do a “Jamaican voice” as he sang, which was, um, unfortunate. While the ad’s premise—that Cheetos are so delicious that wealthy celebrities want to steal them—is a familiar one, it also made me unreasonably upset. This premise only works when we are talking about animated characters and sugary breakfast cereal, because animated characters do not have any money and thus must steal to survive. But Mila Kunis can clearly afford to purchase her own bag of Cheetos. Ashton Kutcher can clearly afford to purchase his own bag of Cheetos, if his first bag is stolen by his wife. And while I’ve always pegged Shaggy as a Funyuns guy, he can certainly afford to buy his own Cheetos, too. In conclusion, Cheetos are disgusting.

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Off-the-shelf website maker Squarespace brings us a parched-sounding Dolly Parton with a reworked version of her 40-year-old hit “9 to 5.” This new version is called “5 to 9,” and it commemorates those off-the-clock hours when corporate cogs are free to leave their cubicles and work on their side hustles, such as dance fitness and topiary design. The idea is that these extracurriculars are more easily pursued with a Squarespace website. I’ll buy it! That said, the weeknight entrepreneurs shown in the ad were all side-hustling inside their cubicles even though the workday had ended, implying that, no matter what website provider they use, they will remain tethered to their day jobs until they die. Pretty grim stuff, Squarespace!

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Fourth Quarter

Take that, Budweiser! Samuel Adams begins its Super Bowl spot by having “your cousin from Boston”—the brand’s Masshole pitchman—unyoke a suspiciously familiar team of Clydesdales from their harnesses so that they can rampage through the streets terrorizing everyone they encounter. I guess it’s a potent metaphor for the way that American macrobrew conglomerates attempt to run roughshod over slightly smaller American macrobrew conglomerates? I don’t know. I enjoyed the fake-out at the beginning of the ad—if I hadn’t already known that Budweiser wasn’t advertising at this year’s game, I would have totally fallen for the trick—and I liked it better than many of the other beer ads this year, insofar as I didn’t have to play a 45-second guessing game with myself to figure out that it was a beer ad, but I guess I’m also not sure when or why, exactly, Sam Adams decided to rebrand itself as the preferred beer of loud, dumb guys from Saugus.

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Timothée Chalamet is Edgar Scissorhands—Edgar, not Edward, get it?—and Winona Ryder is his mother in an ad for the Cadillac Lyriq, an electric car that features a hands-free steering feature of some sort. Or something like that? This was one of those spots where the let’s-reference-a-’90s-movie part of the ad—which was very enjoyable!—sort of overshadowed the let’s-sell-you-on-this-car part of the ad. That’s a problem when it’s trying to promote a very specific feature, as this one was, rather than just, say, cars in general, as most car ads are. Still, I’m sure that if you show up at your local Cadillac dealer and ask them to tell you about the Scissorhands car, they’d be happy to help you out.

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Speaking of ads that traffic in generalities, Anheuser-Busch spent millions of dollars to run a spot promoting … the concept of beer? This sentimental spot sought to depict and clarify the situations in which it is appropriate to ask someone to grab a beer with you. The answer, according to the ad, is, basically, all of the situations. From having snow on your car to concluding an orchestral performance to working in a restaurant kitchen, there are no situations in life that can and should not be improved by drinking with others around you. Though the ad was well produced, it also struck me as a bit superfluous, as my strong sense is that you don’t need to convince anyone who has chosen to watch the Super Bowl that drinking beer with friends can be a bonding experience.

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I guess I get what Jeep was going for in its very long and preachy ad featuring Bruce Springsteen poking around some random church in Kansas while rambling on about the need for American unity, but I don’t get why the carmaker thought that this particular message was the one that America needed to hear from them, instead of, say, a message about cars. “The middle has been a hard place to get to lately,” said Springsteen, who apparently spends his days these days wandering the Heartland in an open-top Jeep. “Between red and blue … between our freedom and our fear.” Well, OK. But there’s nothing inherently virtuous about the middle, and you cannot effectively advocate for unity while completely eliding the reasons our nation is divided. Also, the Jeep in the ad had no roof and Bruce Springsteen looked very cold. Rough ad, did not enjoy.

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Have you ever wanted to cheat on your partner with a virtual assistant? Well, if so, then has Amazon Alexa got a Super Bowl ad for you! This year’s Amazon Alexa ad—I always hate these Alexa ads for what strikes me as their smug superficiality, and I’m not sure if that says more about me or about these ads themselves—envisions Alexa taking corporeal form as the actor Michael B. Jordan, who is forced to perform a bunch of sultry tasks by the woman who controls him, much to her husband’s chagrin. The ad ends with the woman moaning in pleasure as she presses her body up against a window, lost in erotic fantasy: a preview of a harrowing future in which all human sexual pleasure is mediated through Amazon robots.

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