Commentary: It’s time we stop caring about Super Bowl ads. For now, we’ll always have Cookie Monster
I write this on Super Bowl Sunday, a day known for football, a halftime show, and — for purposes of the present discussion — television commercials. On Wednesday, the Golden Globe nominations were announced, and the reason I mention this is that the Globes perform a similar sort of trick, wherein a promotional dog wags a journalistic tail, making a news story out of a commercial strategy. Chosen by 90 variously active members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the Globes are by any real critical or sociological standard meaningless, except as an expression of what those 90 people are thinking or not thinking. And yet the press, which both creates and feeds off public interest in these things, rose early, as it does every year, to note the nominations as they were announced and hunt up the nominees for reactions and think about what it has to say about Life and Art and Hollywood. We are here to farm the clicks, just like everyone else.
One thing I do know about football, besides that a touchdown is worth six points and the quarterback is the handsome one with the girls, is that there is a lot of money around it, and money draws money. (It costs upwards of $5 million to buy the time for a 30-second spot.) The unparalleled size of the Super Bowl audience ensures that companies that can afford to be there will be there — although a few regulars, including Coca-Cola and Budweiser (though not Bud Lite) are sitting out a year when stepping back from the promotional orgy can seem like a positive public relations move — and that some that maybe can’t quite afford it but are hoping to imprint their brand on the national cortex will be as well. (Perhaps yours will be the ad they will talk about the way they are still talking about Apple’s “1984" ad, from 1984, which announced the Macintosh computer.
And you can be assured they will come with bells on. Checkbooks come out to fund polished mini-movies with exotic locations or special effects, starring A-list (or culturally potent) celebrities, who might go on talk shows (as Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey did for their “Wayne’s World” reunion Uber Eats spot) to promote the commercial as if it were a new film they had out. As with the Golden Globes, star power makes the event important, whatever its actual substance or purpose — here, it is to sell you a car, a service, a drink, a chip, a soap.
Ordinarily, and like many of you, I live in a world without television commercials (and also, unlike many of you, football). As a critic, I watch screeners and subscribe to streamers, and there is a button on a remote control that allows me to skip through the ads on anything I’ve recorded off commercial television. I watch TV in “real time” only when, as on this Super Bowl Sunday, I need to cover a live broadcast — though, oddly enough (and sensibly enough), I had seen most of the big-ticket Super Bowl ads before kickoff, since nowadays they are “leaked” ahead of the date, and sometimes preceded by teasers, and followed by “extended versions” for which the aired commercials can themselves serve as teasers. Each stage in this system contributes to a self-reinforcing news cycle, with more eyes drawn to the report and, in turn, the reported upon.
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Of course, television commercials can be art — or artistic anyway. They can be witty or provocative, and impressive on their own terms, considered apart from the product they’re flogging. Usually they are something short of that, and sometimes they are so bad one marvels to think at the money and time spent to bring them into being. (They may, of course, have tested well with focus groups.) The cultural filing cabinet of my mind has folders filled with old jingles and slogans learned in the days when television commercials were impossible to avoid and which for all I know will be the mental soundtrack to my final minutes in this advertising economy. The Super Bowl ads, despite the attention paid them, run a qualitative gamut; even some star-studded spots just leave you feeling, “Eh, that happened” with no memory of what they were selling.
Classic themes included Friendship, America, Fun, Regular People Who Love Their Work (“I’m proud to tell people I work at WeatherTech”). Sex and power, those Madison Avenue standbys, were not much on display, except as comedy — as a woman imagines Michael B. Jordan as the human embodiment of Amazon’s Alexa, much to the distress of her husband. The domestic hotness of couple Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis was, along with Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me,” the primary interest of their Cheetos Crunch Pop Mix, in which Ashton accuses Mila of stealing his junk food. (Neither looks like they eat much junk food.)
The pandemic year was a presence and not a presence; the only really straightforward address was Ford’s “Hold the Line” (“Let’s look out for each other, we are so close”), in which images of hospital workers and normally careful citizens give way to images of people enjoying a dancing class, an amusement park, a rodeo. Apart from that, I can’t recall seeing a single mask worn in any ad. Of course, the Super Bowl itself has the potential to be a superspreader event among careless citizens who imagine they need to watch football among households not their own.
Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade built its spot from it having been a “lemon of a year,” with lemons falling ruinously from the sky, but the actors remembering that year are all socializing in pre-pandemic fashion. A Guinness spot featuring Joe Montana in an empty stadium (“It’s about how you come back from a bad play or the hardest year ever”) looks forward to images of people drinking in bars. M&M’s flirted smartly with more or less current events in a spot built around apologies that included references to “Karen,” mansplaining and a gender reveal gone wrong (not so funny here in Southern California, where one sparked a massive brush fire), before we got to Dan Levy (who hosted the latest “Saturday Night Live”) promising to those giant anthropomorphic M&M’s never to eat any of their friends again, even as he had one trapped in his car.
There are the feel-good — or this year feel-better — ads that ask you to look ahead, dream big, be better. Here was Bruce Springsteen, somewhat surprisingly, as star, narrator and I would guess copywriter for Jeep, roaming the wintry heartland in a moody disquisition on the theme of “the middle” and a Re-United States of America: “There’s a chapel in Kansas standing on the exact center of the Lower 48. It never closes. All are more than welcome to come meet here — in the middle.” Like Toyota’s authentically moving, surrealist biographical salute to Paralympics swimmer Jessica Long; a non-starry Chipotle ad in which a child imagines better methods of food production while (for humorous balance) his sister calls him weird; and a Jon Hamm-narrated spot for Bass Pro Shops that suggests it might be nice “in these trying times” to get out in nature, the Jeep/Springsteen collaboration is one of those ads where the product appears only after the pitch. This might be thought of as the classy approach.
The Weeknd’s Super Bowl set was a fast-moving medley of some of the irresistible, crushingly pessimistic hits that have made him one of pop’s biggest stars.
What else? Dolly Parton (offscreen except for a magazine cover) delivered a rewrite of her own “9 to 5" in a dance-musical spot called “5 to 9,” for the website-hosting Squarespace, that suggests that your side hustle/passion might become your main hustle/job if you work after work. Directed by Damien “La La Land” Chazelle, framed in cinematic wide screen, it was well executed and … well executed. Winona Ryder and Timothée Chalemet appeared in a clever Son of Edward Scissorhands spot to advertise a Cadillac self-driving car. Amy Schumer appeared for Hellman’s mayonnaise, Lil Nas X for Logitech, Nick Jonas for Dexcom (a glucose monitoring system for diabetics), Martha Stewart, John Travolta and Leslie David Baker for Scotts and Miracle-Gro. More stars than there are heaven, as MGM used to say, from Patrick Stewart to Christine Baranski to SpongeBob, were gathered digitally on a mountaintop to rebrand CBS All Access as Paramount+.
That is only a partial list.
My opening salvo aside, though, I can enjoy a commercial as much as the next target. What did I like? Will Ferrell’s energy carried a spot for GM that had him worked up over the fact that Norway sells more electric cars than we do; Tracy Morgan performed a similar service for Rocket Mortgage. A previously unannounced T-Mobile ad in which Adam Levine sets up Gwen Stefani with Blake Shelton because of a bad phone connection sold its one joke well. Doritos had Matthew McConaughey flattened by life into two dimensions, like a cartoon character run over by a steam roller, until he slips inside a vending machine, eats some chips, reinflates and can’t get out; and a DoorDash ad set on Sesame Street demonstrated that you can’t go wrong with Cookie Monster and that Daveed Diggs has a future on that show if he wants it.
It’s worth pointing out that the company is pledged to donate $1 to Sesame Workshop for every Super Bowl Sunday order received, though it still is a little discomfiting to see these characters born of noncommercial television shilling for a delivery service. That’s the Super Bowl, like it or not.
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