Scott: Hello, Noel. It’s time again for our discussion of Super Bowl commercials—an annual tradition, est. 2010—and I want to set the scene for you, Brent Musburger-style. You’re Bud Light, a leading purveyor of beer-flavored swill, and you’ve just been given the pimp slot at the Super Bowl—the first commercial break after the kickoff, when you know everyone will be watching. You have a reputation for delivering good-natured but sophomoric spots about how far people—okay, men—will go to exalt a beverage that in the real world inspires no passion whatsoever. This is for all the Tostitos, which you will wash down with your alcohol-infused, vaguely metallic-tasting stinkwater. Boom:
I’d say Auburn University still retains most of the Tostitos at this point, no? My first reaction: It’s surprising that Bud Light would open the year’s premier commercial showcase with a joke so feeble and small-scaled, when the occasion called for something grander. My second reaction: C’est Bud Light. I complained last year about the quartet of jokey, sometimes sexist, always lame Bud Light ads, and they haven’t really tweaked the formula much. This may be a case where they’ve got the graphs and pie charts to show that these commercials work, and that sustaining a Bud Light sensibility will solidify brand loyalty, or some such nonsense.
Bud Light aired a pair of other ads, one that adhered to the “Wooooooo!” vibe of its “Here We Go” campaign, and another that at least tried something different. The former, about dogs that serve their sitter’s Bud Light-choked party, gets an automatic “F” from me for featuring computer-enhanced canines doing things that ordinary canines cannot do. The latter riffs on product placement—not the freshest topic, given that Wayne’s World deconstructed it in a similar way nearly 20 years ago—but it’s agreeably silly and unexpected, so hooray for lowered expectations.
So what about you, Noel? Any ads making you thirsty this year?
Noel: Well, sticking with the fine line of Anheuser-Busch products, it does seem like the company moved its dollars away from Bud Light and toward other brands. Not only did this year’s Budweiser ad feature a lavish Wild West theme, it also has Peter Stormare as a surly gunman calmed by a late-arriving Clydesdale shipment of Bud and a big sing-along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” which can’t have been cheap to license.
And then A-B’s Stella Artois commercial has Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody crooning a jazzy love ballad to a glass of beer, thus making all the ladies weak with lust. Both ads have a lot of cinematic atmosphere, and are different from the usual “beer good, women bad” vibe of the Bud Light spots. (Well, sort of. Like I said, Brody seems a lot more interested in the booze than the broads in his ad. But at least he looks like the kind of romantic dude that a real woman might be attracted to, unlike most beer-ad schlubs.)
On the whole, though, it was strange to see Anheuser-Busch get out-appalling-ed by a soda-pop company. All three Pepsi Max ads were whiffs, ranging from the blandly vulgar (’80s snob gets whacked in the nuts by flying soda can) to the blandly sexist (gals think about appearances, guys think about sex, both think about Pepsi) to the outright questionable (woman beats up her man for cheating on his diet, then accidentally clobbers another woman whom he leers at). I suppose Pepsi Max is trying to position itself as the diet soft drink for guys, so it’s cultivating a very beery demeanor. But I shudder to think what will happen when car-insurance companies or cereal manufacturers decide to follow suit. (“Take off that skirt and eat your Honey Nut Cheerios!”)
Scott: Well, Noel, you can take those cans of Pepsi Max and stick them in the cup-holders of the million cars that were advertised this year. Now that the industry is surging and climate-change legislation is so dead it doesn’t warrant a mention in the State Of The Union address, we were hit hard by pitches to buy gas-guzzlers of every variety. The first pitch went to Audi, which is looking to go after those who want a luxury car, but don’t want it repossessed because they can’t make the payments. And they made that point as confusingly and as Kenny G-laden as possible in this one-minute spot in the first break:
I’ve watched that commercial twice now, and it still took me a little research to pin down the storyline: The setting is a “luxury prison”—a metaphor that isn’t immediately graspable—and two men are making their escape, inspiring the warden to “release the hounds” (cue fluffy show dogs) and subdue the inmates with the sweet sounds of Kenny G. One of the inmates chooses Mercedes, the other Audi; only the latter escapes. “Escape the confines of old luxury,” goes the tagline, which strikes me as a solid appeal to buyers who are looking past the ossified likes of Mercedes and BMW, but the tagline does more for me than the commercial. And who wants to listen to Kenny G, even in a jokey context?
Then there’s this atrocity, from Mini Cooper:
“Cram It In The Boot!” There’s an ass-sex-themed catchphrase that’s certain to catch fire in bedrooms across the country. “Cram it in the boot,” the wives of America will surely say, referring to the surprisingly roomy backend of a tiny car not known for hauling things. This commercial is in such bad taste that it made me laugh harder than any other commercial on the broadcast; much like those Pepsi Max spots, it’s so flagrantly distasteful that it hardly seems real. (Though it yielded an amusing tweet from Danica McKellar, who played “Winnie Cooper” on The Wonder Years: “Feeling somehow personally scandalized by Superbowl Mini Cooper ‘Cram it in the Boot!’ ad.”)
Noel: Like you say, the auto ads were out in force for this year’s AdBowl, perhaps as a way of showing the football-watching world that car manufacturers at home and abroad are moving on from talk of recession and bailouts and recalls and are ready to compete in a robust marketplace again. In fact, that feeling of pride and progress was a major factor in several ads, from BMW’s “even though we’re German, we’re really American” commercial to the Chevy Volt’s “electric things are cool” pitch.
Chevy was responsible for a few of my least-favorite ads of the night, including one where people at an old-folks home can’t understand the Chevy Cruze commercial they’re watching, and one where a young man uses his OnStar to hear his date’s Facebook status read aloud. (Though I would like to see this “talking car reads Facebook to you” feature in the real world. I’m picturing a lot of drivers quietly fuming as their friends post videos they can’t see, links they can’t click, and spurious political opinions they can’t refute.) But Chevy was also responsible for a fairly cool commercial in which two guys free-associate about what their ideal car commercial would look like. The company also produced one of my favorite ads of the night: a Silverado spot that riffed on Lassie. The latter was fast-paced and spectacle-riffic, with a few good visual gags. (Love the hot-air balloon.)
Volkswagen had two winning commercials too, including one that was the hit of the Internet last week, with a cute little kid in a Darth Vader outfit trying to move objects with his mind. I liked that one even in the truncated form that aired during the game, but I also liked the commercial introducing the new VW Beetle by showing an actual beetle roaring through the insect kingdom to the bitchin’ sounds of “Black Betty.” To me, one of the hallmarks of a good Super Bowl ad is if I can imagine myself still enjoying it when I see it during sporting events for the next three months—and I definitely think I could watch those two VW ads a few more times before I get sick of them.
I’d also like to see the Kia Optima “epic ride” ad more. It’s ludicrously over the top, with supervillains and ancient gods and space aliens all warring over the control of a car, but the special effects are pretty stunning, and when Poseidon grasps the Optima in his watery hand… well, that’s a good kind of nuts.
And before we leave the world of automobiles, I should mention one of the longest and most stirring spots of the night: Chrysler’s “hooray for Detroit” ad, featuring Eminem. It’s a little overdone—really, a gospel choir?—but it perfectly encapsulates what I’m saying about the energy of the car commercials this year. There was a cockiness about them.
Scott: A good night for Eminem altogether, it seems, because I liked his Brisk commercial, too. Seems like only yesterday that Eminem took up the Marilyn Manson/early Snoop Dogg mantle of scandalizing suburban parents, but now his hardcore posturing is literally reduced to the harmless cartoon it always was. I’m generally wary of self-reflexivity in commercials, but Eminem’s Claymation tour through his own 30-second spot has a pleasing flow even when the jokes themselves (about his sour attitude and expletive-filled lyrics) are a little predictable.
I’d be negligent if I didn’t talk about the latest round of Doritos ads, since they bought another three spots this year and have become such a Super Bowl mainstay that our sister publication’s TV show, Onion SportsDome, recently ran a piece with the headline “NFL Delays Super Bowl To Give Doritos Time To Finish Its Commercial.” True to form, Doritos stuck with lowbrow humor of the Bud Light variety, with a little extra edginess stemming from its “extreme” flavors. (I’m worried Doritos has become too exciting a snack for me, now that I’ve creeped past the target demographic. So it’s pita chips dusted with sea salt for me!) Of the three spots—one about a negligent housesitter, another about a pug prank gone wrong, the third about a Doritos fetishist—I could only abide the housesitter commercial, in which our hero uses Doritos crumbs to bring a dead goldfish, a dead plant, and, finally, the ashes of a dead grandfather back to life. The fetishist will get the most attention, though, but for the wrong reasons. I’m not convinced that licking the cheese off another man’s fingers is the most appetizing image available.
Noel: Maybe not, but what about huffing cheese dust from a co-worker’s slacks? Leave no Dorito molecule unconsumed, I say!
I was intrigued that there were two ads during the game that took on Apple in roundabout ways—even though one actually was an Apple ad of sorts. Verizon ran a spot showing loving images of an iPhone and then boasting—via their old “Can you hear me now?” spokesman—that at long last, iPhone owners can hear and be heard when they use the phone, thanks to Verizon. Technically, that’s a slam on AT&T, though it’s also a shot at Apple’s history of closed-offedness.
Along the same lines, Motorola Xoom aimed squarely at Apple in a commercial that shows a sterile world of white-clad workers in glassed-in cubicles, all sporting iPod earbuds. Then one scruffy dude with a Xoom literally thinks outside the box and impresses a woman with what he can do with a more open operating system. (Everything we see him do with his Xoom is something he could’ve done with an iPad too, but whatever.) Even though I’m a Mac diehard, I still thought this was a clever ad, both for the way it ribbed Apple’s obsession with design and for the way it nodded to the famed Macintosh “1984” commercial, which changed Super Bowl advertising history. The implication is that Apple has become what it once decried. Some bold industry criticism there.
There were a slew of movie ads this year too, as always, and some of them were pretty enticing, although the only one that had me saying “Please let me see this movie right now” was the commercial for Super 8, J.J. Abrams’ mysterious homage to Steven Spielberg’s ’70s/’80s output. The swelling music is spot-on, the small-town supernaturalia is in place, the Spielbergian shafts of light are all around, and apparently Kyle Chandler plays a part. Anticipation is high in the Murray household.
Scott: I didn’t enjoy many commercials this year, so it seems fitting that I had the most fun with a TV ad, rather than one hawking a product. The House spot, a riff on the famous Mean Joe Green Coke commercial, played effectively on the doctor’s image as a loveably cantankerous bastard. Or maybe I just enjoy watching children getting hit with canes:
Also strong was the NFL’s minute-long tribute to its dedicated fans, which this year had to endure a pretty lousy product. And there’s nothing like a Fox Super Bowl broadcast to remind you how lousy a product it can be: The battery of former NFL greats who bray like smug frat guys during the pre-game; the militaristic pomp and circumstance that calls for both “America The Beautiful” and (a botched) “Star-Spangled Banner,” screaming jetfighters, an end-zone appearance by a Medal Of Honor winner, and other trappings weightier than, you know, just a game; the always soul-sucking Joe Buck; an excessive-celebration penalty issued after a touchdown in the fucking Super Bowl; a grueling Black Eyed Peas performance; and on and on and on. Fortunately, the game itself was exciting enough to redeem the omnipresent annoyances, and the NFL was wise enough to issue a “Thank You” commercial that smartly (and yes, vainly) wove football into the fabric of American popular culture, where it certainly belongs:
Noel: We should close by talking about the website ads, which are traditionally some of the most controversial and awful. GoDaddy indulged its habit of teasing viewers with nudity, then promising us we can see even more on its site. (Naked ladies on the Internet? Who knew?) The big twist this year, though, was that one of its sexy ladies was… Joan Rivers! When the camera panned around a curvy body to reveal Rivers’ head on top of it, I half-expected to hear Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy gasping offscreen.
But HomeAway.com beat GoDaddy on the tastelessness front with a commercial in which we tour a government facility designed to test hotels. The premise is confusing, and the big sight gag—a “test baby” splattered against a glass partition—is gross. In fact, this might’ve qualified for the worst commercial of the whole night, if not for the little honey you’ve saved for last, Scott.
Scott: Just this weekend, Kenneth Cole got himself into a lot of trouble for tweeting thusly: “Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” Within a few hours, mass revulsion over Cole’s thoughtless mix of insensitivity and opportunism surged through the network, and, as usual with Twitter, manifested itself in a joke account (@KennethColePR) and some really funny parody tweets. (A couple of examples from the joke account: “Rolling through Germany? Gestapo by our new Berlin store!”; “Wardrobe got you water-BORED? GITMO of our Spring collection.”)
Now consider this Cole tweet of a commercial from Groupon:
“The people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry!” And with that, the line between a real commercial and #KennethColeTweets has been obliterated. (There’s also this tasteless deforestation bit with Elizabeth Hurley, just to confirm it isn’t a misfire.) In a tough year for Super Bowl commercials, it seems to me the backlash against the Groupon spot may legitimately harm the brand, rather than merely being not to all tastes. They really crammed it in the boot with that one.