The 2023 Super Bowl was a great game for football fans and a terrible night for people just watching for the commercials—which is a weird thing to do, but here you are, reading this article. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the ads weren’t good this year! Some of them were fine, some of them were awful, but most of them just came and went without leaving much of an impression at all. We are light-years away from 1984.
What happened? For one thing, the ongoing tech and crypto downturn kept a lot of new and reckless money out of the game this year. Many of the most memorable commercials often come from youngish companies that are trying to make a statement and/or persuade you to invest your life savings in fake internet money. If those companies keep their checkbooks closed (or if those companies have collapsed spectacularly), then the Super Bowl ad space is basically consigned to legacy brands, who will only ever push the envelope so far. They’ll make frogs talk about beer, for example, but they’ll never make those frogs say anything about ethereum.
And so this year we ended up with a bunch of predictable commercials for beer, cars, chips, and Jesus, who gets us; we saw a bunch of familiar celebrities riff on their famous roles or public images; we saw multiple spots premised on the notion that people from Boston are irritating and abrasive. Standard stuff! The commercials that stood out were the ones that tried something a little different—or found entirely new ways to be creepy. Grab your PopCorners and we’ll run through them.
I’ll raise a cold one to Bud Light’s unexpectedly mellow spot this year, in which actor Miles Teller and his real-life wife, Keleigh Sperry Teller, popped open some beers and danced like goofs to the sound of hold music while waiting on an interminable customer service call. The ad was sweet, funny, and true to life, insofar as being put on hold for endless stretches of time often makes me want to drink in the middle of the afternoon too.
I have to hand it to Crown Royal—you know, that Canadian whisky that comes in a purple bag for some reason—for successfully executing that rarest of cultural products: an actually educational Super Bowl commercial. The spot featured Foo Fighter Dave Grohl sitting in a recording studio and spouting random facts about Canada. Did you know that the egg carton, the battery, and the whoopee cushion were all (allegedly!) invented in Canada? I do now! The idea is to remind you that a lot of great things come out of Canada, and Crown Royal is one of them. Dave Grohl, however, is from Ohio, the home of canned chili dumped on top of noodles.
PopCorners hired Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul to reprise their Breaking Bad characters in a spot that implied that the company’s weird popcorny chip snacks might be as addictive and flavorful as crystal meth. Hrm. But it’s been just long enough that it was gratifying to see Cranston and Paul back together again, and their morally dubious ad was pretty successful too. Nobody really cares about PopCorners, but lots of people care about Breaking Bad, and the goal was clearly to get viewers to associate the thing they don’t care about (weird, popcorny chip snacks) with something they do care about (a prestige television show from a decade ago). I bet they pair well with a frosty mug of Schraderbräu.
Quick: Name a streaming service. It probably wasn’t Tubi, right? Of course it wasn’t; no one says “Tubi” when asked to name a streaming service. The goal for this third-tier streamer’s Super Bowl ads, then, was to get people to sit up and pay attention to the fact that it exists. Its ads—one of which deployed Super Bowl announcers Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen in a funny fakeout, and another in which giant rabbits kidnapped people from their homes and then threw them down into holes, thus literalizing the idea of “falling down a rabbit hole”—were striking and memorable. I am now aware that Tubi exists, and what’s more, I’m sort of terrified of it too.
To promote its new membership product Uber One, which apparently unites Uber and Uber Eats in one smooth interface, Uber ran a good spot in which Sean “Diddy” Combs is asked to write a jingle that would be a hit. “One hit?” muses Combs, before proceeding to audition a bunch of real-life former hitmakers—Montell Jordan, Donna Lewis, Kelis (!), Ylvis (?), Haddaway (!!)—all of whom offer terrible jingles centered on the notion that Uber One saves you money. The ad was a bit cringey (one-hit wonders pitching Uber One—get it?), but so were most of those artists’ big singles. Besides, it had one point to communicate, and it did so consistently and memorably. Funny and effective, this might have been the best ad of the night.
I liked the ad from Workday, a company that provides cloud-based personnel management solutions for businesses, in which a bunch of aging rock stars—Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and Kiss’ Paul Stanley, plus rocker of more recent vintage Gary Clark Jr.—argue that the term rock star is overused in popular parlance, and that it should never, ever be used when referring to someone like “Ted in finance” or “Liz in HR.” I’m with the Kiss guy on this one: Ted in finance sucks. Not sure how I feel about Workday’s personnel-management solutions, but at least a cloud-computing product will never corner you in the break room to bore you with golf anecdotes.
Who actually likes the E-Trade babies? Anyone? My sense is that the online brokerage’s irritating mascots—they’re babies who walk like adults, talk like adults, and day-trade stocks online like adults—are renowned not because they’re entertaining or beloved but because they just won’t go away. E-Trade’s Super Bowl spots featuring said babies never get any funnier—this year’s ad, featuring babies at a wedding, was typically grating—but I suppose that these babies are allowed to keep throwing tantrums, insofar as they remind me annually that E-Trade still exists.
The Fanduel ad, in which amiable lunkhead Rob Gronkowski attempted to kick a field goal live on the air—he shanked it—failed to live up to its hype for a few reasons. First and foremost, the stunt was inherently uninteresting. “Can Gronk kick a field goal?” has never been a subject of heated barroom debate, not even in Boston, where they like the guy so much they recently named a playground after him. America doesn’t want to see Gronk kick a field goal in the dark in the desert somewhere—they want to see him catch touchdown passes in an actual NFL game or, barring that, pounding Jello shots on reality television somewhere, preferably with one or more of his amiable lunkhead brothers.
Look, I like Will Ferrell as much as the next guy, but I’d be fine if he just took a break from appearing in any more commercials for a few years. Ferrell’s “loud, enthusiastic, and out of place” persona is predictable at this point, which means that the material needs to be good in order for Ferrell’s shtick to feel fresh. The material wasn’t very good in his spot for General Motors and Netflix, in which he drove an electric vehicle through a bunch of popular shows from the streamer in order to spotlight its commitment to putting more electric vehicles on the small screen. Big deal! What do they want, a medal?
The best thing that can be said for the approximately 15-second ad for the Fox News late-night program Gutfeld! is that it was approximately 59 minutes and 45 seconds shorter than a typical episode of Gutfeld. Next!
This year’s spot for M&M’s was shrouded in controversy, thanks to Tucker Carlson, who spent part of January yelling about how M&M’s are too woke now. This interesting commentary, in turn, led the candymaker to dump its anthropomorphic spokescandies and instead hire Maya Rudolph as the new face of the brand—or so it seemed. The ensuing Super Bowl spot was deliberately terrible—instead of shilling for M&M’s, Rudolph touted something called “Maya Rudolph’s candy-covered clam bites”—which in turn caused M&M’s to later announce that it was restoring its spokescandies to their previous position. There is far too much 2023 happening with this whole ad campaign.
You can tell that the ad for the upcoming Ram 1500 Rev electric truck was trying to be clever by mimicking the tone and style of an erectile dysfunction ad, but to me it just came across as tasteless. The notion of “premature electrification”—which the ad basically defines as the prospect of buying an electric vehicle at a moment in time when its battery life is insufficient to get you where you want to go—is a fair topic for an ad, and even a fair topic for a funny ad. The problem was that this ad wasn’t funny.
The Ambiguously Evil
I was unnerved by the ad for the Google Pixel phone, which touted a new feature that will allegedly allow users to effortlessly remove unwanted visual elements from their photos. On one hand, as a horrible photographer myself, I can see how a robust photo-retouching feature might be very useful. On the other hand, there is something dystopian about Google making it easy for people to turn their photos into lies and pretend that someone who was there actually wasn’t. It’s hard enough to tell what is and isn’t real these days without Google giving people the tools to turn every photograph into a deepfake by excision.
He Gets Us wants to make Jesus Christ “cool” again by running a ton of ads reminding people that the son of God is just like us and that we, in turn, should perhaps strive to be more like Him. The Super Bowl spots this year urged viewers to love your enemies—Jesus did—and to be more childlike, which, not actually sure how that one relates to the Bible. Look, it’s a free country, guys, and you can spend your money however you like, but I’m pretty sure that if Jesus had $10 million, he would just give it to the poor instead of wasting it on bland Super Bowl commercials.
Limit Break followed the “show, don’t tell” philosophy with its ad this year by displaying a big QR code on the screen underneath the words “SCAN NOW,” without really bothering to tell viewers why they should do so. They eventually revealed that the code would lead to a “free digital collectible,” but, again, didn’t say anything about what that collectible was. It turns out that this is for some sort of cryptoish NFT thing, which made me nostalgic for last year’s crop of Super Bowl ads, which tried to convince people via argument to get into crypto, rather than just tricking them into scanning a code in order to win some dumbass trading card.