Noel: Scott, as we reconvene to consider the best and worst of this year’s Super Bowl commercials and whatever contemporary advertising trends they may or may not represent, one thought keeps popping into my head: Doesn’t this all feel a little familiar? I don’t mean this annual Crosstalk; I mean the commercials themselves, which for the most part didn’t just trot out the usual crude jokes and cheap titillation, but also brought back characters and concepts, in an at-times-desperate attempt to remind the TV audience of how much fun we’ve all had with popular culture in the past. Remember that movie we liked back in the ’80s? Remember those toys we used to play with? Remember the Coca-Cola polar bears? The world may seem like a cold, cruel place right now, but at least Snoopy is still shilling for MetLife, and just look at all the cartoon pals he’s brought with him!
Even the celebrity pitchmen this year felt like holdovers from happier times. Deion Sanders popped up in two different ad campaigns. Regis Philbin un-retired long enough to pimp for Pepsi Max. And Jerry Seinfeld—whose American Express commercials used to be Super Bowl highlights—appeared in an ad in which he offered an ordinary schmoe a slew of awesome incentives in exchange for Jerry being the first customer to drive the new Acura NSX. (The Seinfeld Acura spot also represented two sub-trends in this year’s commercials: ads that threw around dozens of gags in hopes that at least one or two will land, and ads that existed both in 30-second TV form and in much longer form online. More on those sub-trends later.)
By the end of halftime, the nostalgia pile-up became so heavy that we were asked to reflect fondly on commercials we watched last year. Volkswagen ran a fairly cute spot about an overweight dog who whips himself into shape so that he can catch a car, and then at the end, the scene switches abruptly to the Star Wars Cantina, where freaky aliens debate whether the dog commercial was funnier than last year’s Darth Vader Kid. It’s almost as if the publicity department at VW panicked that the dog gag wasn’t special enough for the Super Bowl, and threw in a reference to last year’s hit commercial as buzz insurance.
Also, Eminem apparently failed to save Detroit single-handedly last year with his rousing Chrysler ad, because this year Chrysler repeated the routine with Clint Eastwood, who emerged from the shadows to growl out a message that it’s “halftime in America,” and that although we’ve been getting the shit kicked out of us lately, there’s still a lot of football left to play. In this analogy, the cruddy economy is the Patriots, putting points on the board and taking the lead just before the half, while the U.S.A. is the Giants, keeping their heads down and coming back. I preferred the Eminem version, but the Eastwood one worked too. After all, we Americans do love a comeback, be it on the gridiron or in our TV commercials.
Scott: In a Super Bowl ad year rife with callbacks and nostalgia, no one commercial drew anything like the attention given to “Matthew’s Day Off,” the Honda spot that returned Matthew Broderick to the role that made him famous 25 years ago. And true to its ’80s theme, this was the “Thriller” video of ads, a commercial turned television event, premiering earlier in the week in an extended clip nearly five times as long as the usual 30-second allotment. Surely, Honda must be pleased with the press this ungainly beast has gotten and the 12 million-plus plays it’s received on YouTube alone. And the likes and dislikes on YouTube at this time—33,257 likes, 2,924 dislike—suggest it was a hit with viewers, too, though it stands to reason that those predisposed to be excited about a Ferris Bueller ad might be the ones scurrying to YouTube and clicking the “Thumbs Up” sign.
But, to pilfer my favorite Nina Garcia catchphrase on Project Runway: “It’s aesthetically not pleasing.” I’m a patient man, but extending a thin, one-joke concept to two-and-a-half minutes felt like more of an eternity to me than the 154 minutes I spend this weekend watching a Hungarian movie about an old farmer eating boiled potatoes with his fingers. In converting the ’86 Ferris Bueller to 2012 Matthew Broderick, director Todd Phillips and company lean too heavily on nostalgia to carry the day; there’s no twist or commentary or reinvention, but a few mild tweaks to suit Broderick’s life in Hollywood (which he doesn’t even have, since the actual Broderick resides in New York). The product-related thought that kept occurring to me was this: The Honda CR-V is so far from the fantasy ride of the Ferrari 250GT California—it’s not going to peel rubber or catch air or seduce the valet into taking a joyride—that we’re left feeling the sharp distinction between the young, carefree Bueller who drove the Ferrari and the sad, middle-aged guy who probably needs something practical to cart his kids to soccer practice. The shorter, Super Bowl cut gets the point across better—the CR-V is a fun car—but after searching for it online for these purposes, I gave up trying. The “Thriller” cut lives on.
The Super Bowl commercials seemed to live online this year anyway, with extended cuts for those excited to check them out early. (Every year, the commercials themselves mostly punish viewers for their anticipation, but the mystique of Super Bowl ads only seems to grow.) For its part, Doritos sponsored a “Crash The Super Bowl” customer ad contest, with the top two ads getting 30-second slots, and then three ads competing for prize money ($1 million, $600,000, and $400,000) and a chance to work with The Lonely Island. The two that ultimately won are not particularly inspired—one is a confusing, macabre bit about a dog who bribes his owner with Doritos after killing the neighbor’s cat, the other is a CGI nightmare about a “sling baby” grabbing a bag away from his taunting brother—but both are good examples of ad-makers knowing their client. These are extreme Doritos commercials, as loud as the jackhammer crunch on their soundtracks.
As it happens, I enjoyed two of the three other finalists a great deal more than the ones that aired. “Dog Park” had humans doing stupid animal tricks to get a Dorito, and the best by far, “Bird Of Prey,” extended that same concept into an amusingly daffy sketch about a businessman who turns into a bird of prey whenever he craves Doritos. The actor who plays Gary The Businessman commits to the bit so thoroughly, with the caws and the yips and the painful-looking bounces and pratfalls, that it’s hard not to be charmed.
Noel: Along the same lines, almost as soon as the frustratingly brief Avengers commercial aired, fans of superheroes, blockbuster movies, and Buffyverse mastermind Joss Whedon alike all took to the Internet to reassure skeptics that there’ll be more to the movie than just 360-degree shots of characters from the last few summers’ Marvel properties. The minute-long Avengers trailer online includes snippets of kinetic action sequences, and a few pithy, Whedon-esque quips—enough, I hope, to generate some positive feelings among the fan tribe.
Then again, I don’t always know what the tribe is looking for. I keep reading derisive comments on Twitter about Disney’s John Carter, but judging by its eye-popping minute-long online trailer—and my faith that Pixar animator Andrew Stanton won’t have lost his ability to tell a good story now that he’s switched to live-action—this has become one of my most anticipated movies of the summer. I’d much rather people save their snark for that other Taylor Kitsch vehicle, Battleship, which is apparently going to convert a simple seafaring logic puzzle into a rehash of Transformers and Independence Day. (Then again, Battleship was directed by Peter Berg, and it features Liam Neeson kicking ass, so it does have promise, however generic its advertising.)
Beyond the realm of cinema, I found myself confused by the messages of some of the ads this year. Samsung seems to think that the game-changing breakthrough in smartphone and tablet technology will be… the stylus? That doohickey that can already be purchased for any handheld device? That thingamabob that customers always lose within days? Of course, going by its commercial for the Galaxy Note, Samsung also thinks that early-’00s kitsch-rock band The Darkness is still hip, so… sure, okay. The stylus. Rock on, brother.
Meanwhile, the NFL put together a 60-second spot hailing everybody’s favorite thing about football: the rules! And the safety equipment!
And Pepsi allowed pop royalty Elton John to get bested by… Melanie Amaro? Who is that again? Ah yes, the shriek-y winner of one of those televised talent shows. Sure to be a durable star, just like Lee DeWyze, Lukas Rossi, and Kevin Skinner.
Scott: The hype surrounding Super Bowl commercials brought us the meta-phenomenon of Chevy airing a commercial touting its team-up with video wizards OK Go for a minute-long Chevy Sonic ad spot. Much as it seems proper to chide OK Go the musicians for servicing video concepts with songs rather than the other way around, they have been responsible for some really inventive videos, and it was no surprise to find the Chevy “Anthem” spot to be one of few truly inspired Super Bowl ads this year. The “Anthem” ad throws that Ferris Bueller business in sharp relief: Which is the more exciting car, the behemoth that Matthew Broderick and the valet pretends is a Ferrari or the fleet Chevy that zips into a slow-motion barrel roll as the lyric “tonight, we are young” plays over the soundtrack? There’s no contest.
Chevy also did well with its “Mayan Apocalypse” ad, which converts the bleak premise of a world reduced to rubble to a one-joke bit about the Chevy Silverado (and its owners) being the only cockroach to survive. Apocalyptic scenarios always make me uncomfortable—I’ve said elsewhere that the trailer for the movie 2012 is more disturbing and offensive than the most vile “torture porn” movies—but this “2012” is undeniably well-executed. It also slings mud at a rival (“Dave didn’t drive the longest-lasting, most dependable car on the road. Dave drove a Ford.”), meaning that good, old-fashioned, bare-fisted American capitalism is back and thriving again.
Other car commercials got their messages across effectively, too. I’m not sure multiple viewings will do much to enhance the Hyundai “Cheetah” spot, but the simple twist of having a cheetah give up on chasing a Hyundai and turn on its handler instead pokes a clean hole in a cliché found in more austere car commercials. Better still was the Audi “Vampire Party” ad, which is given the narrow assignment of pushing LED headlights and finds a creative and funny way to do it. Maybe the joke goes stale on that one quickly, too, but the prospect of a nation hearing “The Killing Moon” over and over again makes me hopeful that it’ll introduce many to Echo & The Bunnymen in much the same way VW’s “Pink Moon” ad introduced the masses to Nick Drake.
But the Super Bowl wouldn’t be the Super Bowl without a lot of sexist smarm between the timeouts, and on that front, the Fiat Abarth commercial, “Seduction,” did its work. Because staring at a Fiat Abarth for the first time is like staring at a beautiful woman who castigates you in Italian before dripping coffee foam on her chassis. She’s small enough to parallel park in tight city spaces, though, so there’s that.
Noel: Scott, every year when we write this piece, we catch some flack from readers for our complaints about the misogyny and/or objectification in a lot of the Super Bowl ads. So just to be clear: My gripes in the past have been primarily about the unoriginality of their sexism. I’m not opposed to commercials that encourage the viewer to ogle women—or men, for that matter. I’m opposed to commercials that do so in ways I’ve seen a hundred times before. Though I legitimately do object to ads that paint all things female as airy-fairy and thus unappealing, and all things male as juvenile and thus outrageously fun. (They remind me of that great Simpsons line: “You kissed a girl? That is so gay!”)
With that in mind, I have to hand it to a few different commercials for dodging the old clichés. In Toyota’s “reinvention” ad for the Camry, there’s a moment when a schlub comes home to a “reinvented couch” that’s made out of bikini-clad women, and when we’re shown that the couch “also comes in male,” the schlub gives an “okay by me” shrug that’s kind of heartening. How far we’ve come from the gay-panic Snickers ad of a few years back. My only real beef with the Camry spot is that it’s another one of those that jumps nervously from joke to joke, uncertain of which ones will really stick. And beyond the “reinvented couch” bit, I really only laughed at the “reinvented DMV,” which we see here is just a little nicer. The clerk hands the customers ice cream, but she still scowls.
Similarly, in the Kia Optima “Sandman” commercial, a woman dreams about riding on a horse with some slab of beefcake, while her husband dreams about Mötley Crüe, giant sandwiches, and a swimsuit-clad babe—until the end of the ad, when he breaks into his wife’s dream and sweeps her away. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a husband in a commercial who wanted to spend time with his wife (outside of maybe a Cialis ad). That was a nice touch.
And we can’t rightly gripe about GoDaddy’s perennial “check out our site and we might have naked women to show you” strategy unless we also take on H&M for its commercial this year, which is little more than David Beckham in his underwear for 30 seconds. But the truth is that I’ve got no problem with the H&M spot, because again, I don’t mind objectification per se. I don’t like the GoDaddy ads because they’re dumb and gaudy. That H&M ad is stylish and sexy. Thumbs up from me.
I am a little unsure though of what to make of the Dannon Oikos commercial, in which John Stamos teases a woman by not letting her eat his yogurt, until she gets fed up and head-butts him. I suppose it’s a refreshing change from past Super Bowls that have seen women get battered in Budweiser and Snickers ads. But it’s still pretty creepy. (Plus, I prefer Chobani.)
Scott: I think we’ve found some unifying themes in this year’s commercials—the repetition of old favorites, the welcome robustness and bravado of the best car ads, the continued Hezbollah-like extremism of Doritos—but I wanted quickly to touch on a handful of talked-about ads that didn’t fit into any clear category, which is not to say they were anything special.
Budweiser worked the Prohibition theme into two commercials, one of which (“Eternal Optimism”) used the end of Prohibition as a mere jumping-off point for a near-century of partying. “Eternal Optimism” flows beautifully, but it’s a little cluttered in its mad rush from then to now. I preferred “Return Of The King” just for sticking with the end of Prohibition for the duration and treating it like Robert Redford’s triumphant blast at the end of The Natural. Particularly rousing is the cut that brings the company’s Clydesdales into the mix, clomping at great speed to the nearest watering hole. Even shipping was better back in the old days.
Let’s say the Century 21 spot worked brilliantly: How much commercial appeal does The Donald currently have after his birtherist joke of a presidential campaign? Americans might have accepted him a year ago as a self-parodying rich guy who fires people on The Apprentice, but now that he’s taken positions on issues—and been rewarded with numbers so wildly unfavorable that Mitt Romney accepting his endorsement was considered a gaffe—his celebrity has taken a sour turn. But even the goodwill currently afforded his ad-mates Deion Sanders and Apolo Anton Ohno may fade after this cluttered and brutally unfunny spot, which oversells the idea of a real-estate agent as the ultimate go-getter.
Finally, the spots for TaxACT.com (“Free To Pee”) and the Careerbuilder.com (“Business Trip”) were all too anxious to play the now traditional dot-com role of being more irreverent than your buttoned-down commercials from established brick-and-mortar operations. “Free To Pee” is focused so completely on the predicament of a little boy needing to go potty that the actual service being advertised doesn’t resonate in the slightest. Maybe pool-pissers are more inclined than most to seek out federal tax return services online; I don’t have the research in front of me. As for Careerbuilder.com, the lingering question for viewers there was not, “What can this employment operation do for me?” but rather “What was the blurred-out thing in the bag?” You thought maybe a dildo or a sex toy of some sort, but the way it was being dangled, I’m thinking it was an Academy screener for Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Unclean!