Super Bowl is the one time of the year Americans can focus on TV commercials and not feel guilty. Those ads, typically the most expensive and high-profile of the broadcast season, set the tone for the entire year. What will we be buying? What will we be watching? What have they done to our soda now?
This year’s Super Bowl LV offered sufficient cheer material for Tom Brady boosters, but a generally lopsided game for football for the rest of us. The halftime show was similarly underwhelming, allowing The Weeknd to put a neon-saturated cherry atop the year he spent pretending he had been punched in the face for reasons I never bothered to Google. On the commercial front, advertisers found themselves humbled and financially strapped after a year under the worldwide COVID pandemic. Bombastic, wildly expensive and self-congratulatory commercials were given the boot in favor of more socially conscious efforts. Traditional heavy hitters like Coke and Budweiser chose to sit it out entirely. And pretty much everyone else got the memo to stick to the tried-and-true formulas.
We’re All In This Together
Many corporations chose to take the “high road”—or at least what they hoped would be perceived as such. They eschewed the usual “Buy Now!” mentality and ceded their expensive (around $5.5 million per 30-second spot) time to saluting doctors and nurses and generally cheering on American unity. Donald Trump Jr. even took notice, tweeting during the very first commercial break that this year’s advertisements represented the dawn of a left-wing “Woketopia.” (Relax, dude. Americans drunk on alcoholic seltzer cheering football is not a terrifying downgrade from Americans drunk on lite beer cheering football.)
The apotheosis of this trend was Jeep’s “The Middle” commercial, featuring no less than Bruce Springsteen talking about how, “Fear has never been who we are.” Downplaying the company’s automotive line (which was still well displayed), the commercial shined a light on tiny Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the United States. In a trademark gruff voice-over, Bruce exhorted us, as a country, to abandon partisanship and “meet in the middle.” It’s a nice sentiment but sounds weird coming from a corporation that spent 10 times what most Americans will earn in their entire lifetimes to deliver it. How deeply this commercial hit you depended largely on how convinced you are that America needs unification. It does, of course. But should that unity come at the expense of failing to hold accountable those who tried to violently overthrow our government and the will of the American voters? You tell me, Bruce.
When it came to promoting product, Madison Ave. advised its clients to stick with what they know works: Celebrity endorsements and lots of them. An overwhelming percentage of Super Bowl commercials featured a dizzying array of random movie, TV and sports stars for hire. Nick Jonas harangued us about diabetes. Will Ferrell bagged on Norway. Amy Schumer unwisely transformed into a “fairy god mayo.” A CGI Sam Jackson hawked Verizon 5G (earning him a spot in the Overused Celebrity Spokesperson Hall of Fame next to Martha Stewart, Snoop Dogg and John Cena).
Parmount+ (the newly renamed CBS All Access) gave us a whole welter of guest stars, hiking up a mountaintop (Patrick Stewart, SpongeBob Squarepants, Snooki from “Jersey Shore,” Thomas Lennon reprising his “RENO 911” character, PGA golfer Bryson DeChambeau, lots of people from various “Star Trek” shows). But that made a certain kind of sense, as they are all united now as programming on Paramount’s rebranded streaming service. Later on, Michelob Ultra poked fun at the whole celebrity trend by loading in its “All-Star” ad featuring Christopher Walken, Sylvester Stallone, Don Cheadle, Serena Williams, Megan Fox, Usher, Lucy Liu and others. The punchline, though, was that they were all celebrity lookalikes. Unfortunately, the joke (and the point about originality) was most likely lost on viewers who had stopped paying close attention to the broadcast by that point.
The most inexplicable cameo of the night came in the form of “Flat Matthew McConaughy.” The bizarre spot basically asked viewers to empathize with the following scenario: When you’re actor Matthew McConaughy and you find yourself inexplicably reduced to a mere two-dimensional creature, you can add depth to your width and height by consuming a bag of whatever “3D Doritos” are. Huh. They sound … delicious? The best celebrity cameo of the night, however, went to Tide for introducing us to the “Jason Alexander” hoodie, an odd (and only slightly creepy) piece of clothing that receives a great deal of unsanitary abuse. The weird/funny commercial actually drives home its advertiser’s main point, proving that clothes that look clean, aren’t always so.
Perhaps hoping to recall a time when our nation wasn’t collectively pinning our very survival on the rollout of a life-saving vaccine, a lot of advertisers fell back on nostalgia. Winona Ryder reprised her role from 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, as the now middle-aged mother of “Edgar Scissorhands” (played by Timothee Chalamet). It was an ad for Cadillac’s new “hands free” steering system. A clever connection—and now who doesn’t want to see a movie about Edward Scissorhands’ sullen teenage son!
Sadly, the lamest attempt to conjure nostalgia came from came from Uber Eats’ much-touted “Wayne’s World” reunion. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprised their popular “Saturday Night Live” characters. But the only lingering impression was how frighteningly old they look these days. And the feeling that maybe the original sketches weren’t all that funny to begin with. A far better feeling of nostalgia came from Doordash’s almost identical “eat local” ad. That food delivery company recruited the cast of “Sesame Street” and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs for a sweet reprise of “These Are the People in Your Neighborhood.” Adult you may have felt conflicted about the idea of Big Bird shilling for Madison Ave. But inner-child you was certainly singing along.