Super Bowl ads go lighter, starrier (Serena! Joni!) and boozier as the pandemic fades

Billy Idol in a scene from the Workday 2023 Super Bowl commercial.
Billy Idol in a scene from the Workday 2023 Super Bowl commercial.
(Workday / Associated Press)

The celebration of organized mayhem, unbridled capitalism and mass food consumption known as Super Bowl Sunday has, like Santa Claus, made its annual visit, leaving in its wake a football score and, thanks to an estimated $7 million per 30 seconds of commercial air time, several hundred million dollars in Fox’s pocketbook.

And like Christmas, it’s a season more than just a day, with ads teased for weeks on television and online, sometimes ending with a portentous, cliffhanging “2.12.23,” the date the teasing pays off. (Though some were “leaked” in advance.) Super Bowl ads aren’t just for Sunday anymore; indeed, if you watched only the game, you missed part of the campaigns.

They are a Thing Unto Themselves, these ads, an art almost irrelevant to the products they flog — sometimes barely mentioned, often easy to forget. Yet the gods of accountancy must have determined that whatever they cost to make and show, they’re worth the effort and expense.


In its way the Super Bowl of Commercials is as much a competition as the game itself, as agencies vie for the biggest, starriest, funniest, most memorable, most meme-able, most flagrantly expensive spot. For some of us, it’s also much more entertaining than the game itself, which might be regarded as interrupting the actual show of comedians, stars and stuff. Not to mention the big musical production in the middle.

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Feb. 12, 2023

The last time I drew this assignment, in 2021, before America had convinced itself that the COVID-19 pandemic was over, the mood was a little more serious, invested in the idea that a highly rated sports event was a place where a divided country could put aside its differences.

Three men talk in a scene from the Frito-Lay PopCorners 2023 Super Bowl spot.
Aaron Paul, left, Bryan Cranston and Raymond Cruz in a scene from the Frito-Lay PopCorners 2023 Super Bowl spot.
(Frito-Lay / Associated Press)

Now, with salutes to front-line workers a thing of the past and illusions of national unity in the face of a common crisis gone with the wind, we are united instead by beer, as per a “six degrees of Budweiser” ad, narrated, of course, by Kevin Bacon; by the fact that anyone, from a surgeon to a bowler to Meghan Trainor to, yes, a fetus can get their hand stuck in a can of Pringles; and, according to Maya Rudolph in an M&M’s teaser, by our love for Maya Rudolph. (In the broadcast itself, her spoof brand Ma & Ya’s produced a clam-flavored candy, but the talking M&M’s returned in a post-game spot to address having been “put on pause,” culminating what now seems like a long-play publicity stunt.) This year, comedy, which is easier (because more pleasant) to remember and more likely to be rewatched and shared, ruled the day.

The cultural import of these promotions is now so accepted that big stars who once, jealous of their reputations, would shill only overseas do not hesitate to say yes. (It’s a bit of a throwback to an older Hollywood, when Lucy and Desi would flog cigarettes during “I Love Lucy” and John Wayne would appear in print ads for Camels, Elizabeth Taylor for Lux soap, Barbara Stanwyck for RC Cola and Doris Day for Lustre-Cream shampoo.)

Trailers for ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,’ ‘Scream VI’ and other films aired during the Super Bowl.

Feb. 12, 2023

So here are Steve Martin and Ben Stiller on behalf of Pepsi, “Great Acting or Great Taste?” Each has a solo spot in which he demonstrates his ability to feign emotion — ads earlier teased by their doing a sort of Steve Martin and Martin Short smiling-insults routine (Martin: “Ben is acting right now like he’s not intimidated standing next to me”; Stiller: “And Steve’s acting like he’s not lucky to be here.”) It’s a gambit that allows them to only seem like they’re promoting a product; insincerity is its subtext.

Kevin Hart in a scene from the DraftKings 2023 Super Bowl spot.
(DraftKings / Associated Press)

So here is Alicia Silverstone, in her Cher Horowitz “Clueless” clothes, stumping for the cash-back service Rakuten. And here is Ben Affleck, pulling a shift at Dunkin’ Donuts, with Jennifer Lopez driving through. And Will Ferrell in a co-sponsored ad from General Motors and Netflix, popping in and out of the streamer’s shows, including “Squid Game,” “Bridgerton” and “Stranger Things,” and its zombie apocalypse film “Army of the Dead.”

And here are Brie Larson and Jon Hamm, who find themselves by virtue of weak puns as “leftovers” in a refrigerator in a surprisingly limp ad for Hellmann’s Mayonnaise before being symbolically eaten by Pete Davidson. (Hamm: “He really is everywhere”). And here is Sylvester Stallone, climbing “Paramount Mountain” to confront his own giant face in living stone — with Dora the Explorer, Anson Mount kitted for “Star Trek” and Thomas Lennon for “Reno 911” watching from below — only to be sneezed off and left making snow angels.

Not only actors are enlisted as pitchpersons, but also pop musicians and athletes — sometimes in combination. Amy Schumer, Doja Cat and Giannis Antetokounmpo pitch for the editing capabilities of Google’s Pixel smartphone; Kevin Hart, Ludacris, Tony Hawk, the Undertaker, David Ortiz, Julius Erving and others shill for DraftKings. And Ozzy Osbourne, Joan Jett, Billy Idol, Paul Stanley (in full KISS regalia) and Gary Clark Jr. show up in corporate settings where they object to office workers calling one another rock “stars” in a spot for, of all things, Workday. An ad in which Uber execs hit up Sean Combs for a song — “Diddy don’t do jingles,” but he will make a hit — features cameos from Montell Jordan,. Donna Lewis, Kelis, Ylvis (in fox costumes) and Haddaway, ringing as many generational bells as possible. These spots tend to swing for a demographic as wide as two football fields.

The pop superstar played her first show in years — and sparked immediate speculation online about her family — in her halftime performance at Super Bowl LVII.

Feb. 12, 2023

The crypto cabals that last year invested in commercial time sat it out this year, for obvious reasons. Alcohol, by contrast, made a showing as Anheuser-Busch stepped away from the contract that kept it the Super Bowl’s sole merchant of booze for 33 years. (This was directly addressed in a combo ad for corporate kin Miller Lite, Coors Light and Blue Moon.) Foo Fighter Dave Grohl‘s Crown Royal spot, tying together some puzzling teasers, paid homage to the contributions of Canada, including egg cartons, the electric wheelchair, Joni Mitchell, Catherine O’Hara, the aforementioned whiskey and football itself (“It’s true, look it up”). Serena Williams appeared in two alcohol campaigns — an elaborate “Caddyshack” homage from Michelob Ultra, which also featured “Succession” actor Brian Cox and quarterback-turned-sportscaster Tony Romo, and a Rémy Martin spot that eschewed comedy for inspiration. (Laughs work well for beer; for cognac, not so much.)

Steve Martin in a scene from the Pepsi Zero Sugar 2023 Super Bowl commercial.
(Pepsi / Associated Press)

Possibly the oddest of the night’s cleverest ads was the “Breaking Bad” campaign for Popcorners, which plays off the addictive nature of junk food and affection for that old dark TV show, swapping in chips for methamphetamine. (Bryan Cranston to Aaron Paul: “We don’t eat our own supply.”)

My personal Super Bowl of Commercials trophy goes to Doritos, whose campaign says nothing about the product past its shape: Rapper Jack Harlow goes all in on playing the triangle, much to the dismay of Missy Elliott, triggering an international obsession that extends to fashion and finance and ends with Harlow losing out to Elton John as the year’s best trianglist. Though I must say I found the NFL’s female-forward spot featuring Mexico’s flag football star Diana Flores evading a host of football stars (with a cameo from Billie Jean King) not just fun but exhilarating and moving. So let’s call that a tie, unlike the game itself.

There were a couple of ads for Jesus as well. (Slogan: “He gets us.”) They were light-handed and remarkably easy to miss.