The politics, puppies, and penises of this year’s Super Bowl ads
Stephen Colbert

The politics, puppies, and penises of this year’s Super Bowl ads

John Teti: For companies seeking to leave a lasting impression during the Super Bowl, it can be wise to conceive the commercial breaks as something other than commercial breaks. Some advertisers imagine the country’s collective big-screen TVs as a massive theater, presenting short films with cinematic production value. This has been an established template since Apple’s “1984” spot set the standard for theatrical-quality ads 30 years ago.

And there are always a handful of daring (or foolhardy) outfits that treat their time slot as a sort of talent-show stage. They acknowledge the artifice and expectations of a “Super Bowl commercial,” and then they attempt to do something novel with it. I always like this approach because it makes use of a specific moment, creating a performative energy. The best of the novelty acts this year was Wonderful Pistachios’ one-two punch with Stephen Colbert. Taken on its own, the first Wonderful commercial was a startlingly calm and straightforward pitch that acted as meta-commentary on Super Bowl ads: While everybody else has flash, bombast, and CGI, Wonderful Pistachios is content to tell you it makes a quality product.

Not only did the second Wonderful ad achieve that rarity in Super Bowl ads—true surprise—but it also added another layer of meta to the mix. “Folks, evidently, sales of pistachios have not skyrocketed in the last 30 seconds,” Colbert intones. This double fake-out only works because Colbert sells the first part so beautifully—there’s not a trace of a wink in the first spot, so you’re not likely to guess the second one’s coming. It’s an idea that fits the talent, as nobody is better at staying in character than Colbert.

Ford also mustered a double ad for its moment on the Super Bowl stage, which came right before kickoff. “Nearly Double” focuses on the semi-convincing claim that a Ford Fusion Hybrid gets “nearly double the fuel economy of the average vehicle.” Rob Riggle introduces the novel conceit: After airing one ad for the car, Ford is going to come right back with another one that’s double the length. The highlight here is James Franco’s smirking intro to the second part, which lavishly enhances every detail of the first. The two-act structure is a savvy way for Ford to present the Fusion both on a suburban street and on the grounds of a stately mansion—the “practicality meets luxury” is subtextual yet hard to miss. But the details in the Franco ad aren’t as much fun as they could be. Franco blowing petals off a rose, for instance, is a pretty tame one-up of Riggle blowing on a dandelion. And the ending is a clunker, as Riggle can’t match Franco’s stage presence.

The lamest talent-show shtick came from GoDaddy, the domain-name registrar known for Super Bowl high jinks. In “Puppet Master,” a machine engineer named Gwen quits her job to start a puppet-show business. Why? Because with GoDaddy, she’ll have a website, which is all you need to succeed in America. (That’s why The A.V. Club is a website: It’s practically impossible not to make money when you have one.) I understand the thinking behind John Turturro’s low-key delivery—the ad’s creators want to maintain a down-to-earth vibe and emphasize that Gwen is a Real Person Just Like You. But it ends up making the ad feel like a non-event, and some more fireworks might have been in order. Then again, maybe not: The other dissonant aspect of “Puppet Master” is that the employment market is still struggling to recover from the 2008 financial crisis, so it’s an odd time to celebrate someone for quitting a steady job (even though I do wish her success).

It’s hard to pull off high-concept novelty in a Super Bowl ad, because you’ve got to sell both the idea and the product. Sonia, how did you feel about the commercials that took a more sweeping cinematic approach?

Sonia Saraiya: I’m conflicted. What struck me immediately about the ads in this Super Bowl is how sincere so many of them were. The commercials are always well-produced, but perhaps more than usual, they felt slow and contemplative. And there was a whole subset of ads—almost all of them car ads—that looked like they could have been the opening trailers for films. Each one was like a breath of fresh air—the riot of noise and action that was the football game yielded to a sudden silence as the screen offered a panorama of a Western landscape or a crashing wave in the ocean.

But in thinking about it more, it’s not that they’re showing us sweeping cinematography or plucky heroines—it’s that the ads are offering these without even a hint of irony. Many of the ads you mentioned, John, were my favorite, and what I liked about them is that they had a smart edge to them. (Even the GoDaddy ones did okay.) We’ve grown accustomed to advertisements that clue you in to what they’re doing—they’re selling something, you know they’re selling something, and they know you know. So much of what we see has been with a little bit of a wink. But it looks a little like those ironic, knowing ads are dated.

Take, for instance, the ad with the aforementioned Western panorama—a Chevrolet commercial about cancer (yes, really):

I’ll give credit where credit is due: It’s a gorgeous commercial—a little haunting, beautifully shot, and even well-acted. The cause is worthwhile, and Chevrolet handles its own product placement with enough grace that it doesn’t overshadow the charity.

But also… cancer? It’s admittedly a cynical question, but what, exactly, is being sold here? A car company doesn’t spend more than $4 million on a minute-long ad just because of feels. More than moved, I felt the cloying touch of smarm. As heartfelt as the ad is, it’s using a feeling we have about death to sell cars. Very Freudian. (Mad Men’s Pete Campbell would recognize it.)

This isn’t really new for commercials, which are happy to appropriate any and all things in the pursuit of the sale. But I thought we, as a country, had grown out of such sincerity. Maybe we haven’t. Perhaps what struck me as interesting this year is less the efforts toward sincerity and more how well-formed and far-reaching and blatant these efforts were. Chevrolet isn’t even pretending to do anything except use cancer to sell cars, but the pretty production offers a veneer of sophistication to the proceedings.

Still, that ad was far more successful than the commercial that began with the crashing wave, which was similarly sincere and similarly for an automobile—this time, Maserati.

This is a much sloppier commercial than Chevy’s. If I had to guess, I would say it was both more expensive to produce and far less successful. The sincerity was laid on a little too thickly here, with too many different stories. I have no argument with anything that employs Quvenzahne Wallis—which means, naturally, that this ad worked for me, especially for the first minute, when I didn’t know what the ad was selling. Wallis narrates the commercial with copy about “striking back” against “giants.” Wallis’ character is intercut with a ballet dancer, sailors, and engineers. The sense of a struggle against the powerful is palpable; the world depicted in the commercial feels dystopian and monolithic.

And then it turns out to be an ad about a car—a luxury car, at that. It’s not surprising, but it is a letdown. And this gets into the pitfalls of sincerity, especially with commercials: There’s nothing truly sincere about them, so attempts to manufacture it have to be well-calibrated. During the game, the writer Teju Cole tweeted out a little parody of what he imagined the subtext of these ads was, and I found that it hit the nail on the head.

Late in the evening, Fox aired Axe’s Super Bowl commercial, which I found to be the best twist on sincerity for the evening.

Axe managed to anticipate the treacly sincerity of the previous two ads (which aired earlier in the game) and offered something sincere, yet funny: an ad for a body spray that makes men smell good, situated as a tool for world peace. “Make love, not war,” the commercial exhorts us at the end. If we must have sincerity, I prefer the kind with a little bite.

JT: I was surprised by the relatively low “bro” factor in that Axe commercial. It was even sort of sweet in a “dictators employ the power of their repressive regimes to enlist the people in displays of affection for their lovers/concubines” kind of way. But even if Axe de-emphasized the Y chromosome, football is still a game of dudes, by dudes, mostly for dudes. And accordingly, Super Bowl advertisers had the usual Salute To Penises! lined up for the game’s viewers.

Society has not degraded to the point where companies can show actual phalluses during the Super Bowl—after all, the accidental revelation of a nipple a few years ago nearly tore the nation apart—but advertisers are free to place the idea of a penis in people’s heads, and Volkswagen took advantage. Their “Wings” spot gives every pair of magical 100,000-mile wings to male engineers; the only female engineer in the commercial exists solely to look pretty and to be spanked. The penile highlight comes when two men stand at a bank of urinals: One engineer has small wings (probably having worked on a womanly VW like the Cabrio), and the other has a huge pair. The less amply endowed engineer meekly stands at the urinal, and you can see him realizing why he never pleased his wife. Meanwhile, the other engineer spreads his legs wide, such is the girth of his German-engineered manhood.

Perhaps the most explicit float in this year’s penis parade was “The Spill,” an ad for Dannon Oikos Greek Yogurt. When John Stamos spills a drop of white, oozing substance (yogurt) all over his tight pants, he and his female companion naturally assume that she will proceed to give him a lively blowjob. But before Generic Attractive Woman can take Stamos’ throbbing member between her pouty lips, Bob Saget and Dave Coulier appear with cleaning supplies (because Saget’s character was a clean freak on the ABC situation comedy Full House, a family program like the Super Bowl). With the neurotic Saget obsessively scrubbing a stain that he knows he will never be able to make clean again, Stamos asks his would-be fellationist not to leave him with the other two men, presumably because he is worried that he will be perceived as gay.

Chevrolet added a new wrinkle by focusing on bestial dick. “Romance” makes the argument that the 2015 Chevy Silverado is the best truck on the market for those who want to sexually frustrate a bull. This 60-second spot is a tour de force of bovine humiliation. When the bull spots its manly handler sharing a moment of physical contact, for instance, the voiceover guy is quick to note that the bull’s libido is so inflamed that he can barely breathe.

Not all the ads were so heteronormative. One Honda ad, “#hugfest,” featured Fred Armisen sharing a long embrace with Bruce Willis. This was one of the night’s bigger wastes of time and money. Armisen gamely attempts to sell the moment, but it’s hard to generate much comedy when the only joke is “one guy hugs another guy—for a rather long while.”

SS: I liked that one, but it’s entirely because of the direction. At first it’s a weird ad with Bruce Willis, and then it becomes an ad with someone with big eyebrows hugging Willis, and then it’s Fred Armisen with a goofy grin, hooray! You can all go home now. But you’re definitely right that Willis and Armisen are metatextually going after the penis parade.

After all, this ad game is all about demographics. And watching these ads, it’s sort of terrifying to see exactly who corporations think are the important demographics to be selling to. Also frightening is what they’re selling: The main takeaways of the night for me were “buy cars,” “eat yogurt,” “drink some variety of fizzy beverage.”

I suspect Coca-Cola’s “America The Beautiful” advertisement was flagrantly designed to appeal to liberals, speaking of demographics. All night, there was a lot of flag-waving and/or multicultural handholding—fitting in with that sincerity I discussed earlier. Coke’s multi-lingual spot offered a montage of Americans of many different stripes singing “America The Beautiful” in several different languages.

The advertisement did something Coke ads have done for a long time: They try to capture a certain feeling or definition of what it means to be American, and then pop a logo on the end, just to wrap everything up nicely. Coke has one of the most interesting corporate histories in America, precisely because it has aligned itself with American foreign policy for so long—during the Cold War, Coke would not sell its products beyond the Iron Curtain (Pepsi did so, and heartily). When the Berlin Wall came down, East Germans were greeted with bouquets and bottles of Coca-Cola. (This is all from Tom Standage’s A History Of The World In Six Glasses, by the way.) If American politicians weren’t selling the idea of America as a multicultural melting pot, Coke wouldn’t be invested in it. But they are, and it looks nice, doesn’t it?

But really, what Coke is doing with aplomb is selling a certain vision of America—the liberal one, more or less. The commercial speaks to the core assumptions liberals want to believe about their country, and it has the added benefit of drawing out all the suckers that complain about America’s “changing national identity” in ways that make us feel self-righteous. Though the ad sure does lay it on thick with the different languages, that is the thing about politics: Your party is the collection of rhetoric and grandstanding you’re least offended by.

While the Coke ad warmed the cockles of my heart, the Chrysler advertisement featuring Bob Dylan upset me. Chrysler spent a ton of money to get Bob Dylan in its two-minute spot (a long, presumably quite expensive spot) so that the music legend could exhort listeners to buy American and support Detroit. His narration is accompanied by images of nostalgic, heartwarming Americana: diners, Route 66, baseball, and Ferris wheels.

It’s easy for me to find ways to critique this ad: The opening line is tautological—“Is there anything more American than America?”—and there’s the casual ethnocentrism: “So let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.” What a disaster. How did these lines make it into a multimillion-dollar spot?

Naturally, just as Coca-Cola targeted liberal ol’ me with its immigrant kids lisping in Spanish, Chrysler is outright angling for a conservative base. People who enjoy simple pleasures, listen to classic music, and think Asia can be readily lumped together to form a single unit. I don’t agree, but it doesn’t matter what I think. I was never going to buy a Chrysler, anyway. It makes me angry that the lines are so clearly drawn in the sand, especially when I don’t agree with that other vision of America. Yet I can’t deny both Coke and Chrysler know exactly what they’re doing with their versions of patriotism.

JT: The opener to that Chrysler ad was hilarious. I saw “Is there anything more American than America?” as a self-parodying distillation of every epic “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Super Bowl car ad in history. It’s a zen koan of flag-humping. (By the way, in case you were wondering, the correct answer is “Yes: two Americas.”)

So we’ve got dueling visions of patriotism, a running theme of sincerity, and plenty of strongly implied cock: This year’s Super Bowl ads really had everything. Let me clean out my notebook with a few of the other commercials that stood out to me. I’m of two minds on Heinz’s “Hum.” I like that it’s a nostalgia play that speaks to a common American experience. But it doesn’t play up Heinz’s slow-pouring bottle with nearly as much charm as the old “Good things come to those who wait” ads. Plus, as Heinz’s own website will tell you, the best place to slap the bottle is not on the bottom but on the “57” mark that adorns the neck. So not only does this ad dramatize the most miserable part of the Heinz-eating experience, but it also offers an ineffective remedy. I can practically feel the bruise on my palm every time the actors slap their bottles.

The best car ad of the night for me was “Rendezvous,” the Jaguar spot that casts the brand as the choice of archetypal British villains. I like the decision to dispense with sweeping, uplifting narratives and instead give the car a specific character. I don’t quite understand what’s happening at the end once all the evil fellows arrive at the same spot, but the execution to that point is funny and crisp, with all the observations about British movie villainy ringing true.

Squarespace’s “A Better Web Awaits” made a very effective pitch for their web-publishing platform. I’m amazed by how many deplorable online trends Squarespace manages to reference in its little man-vs.-zombies story—they include relentless banner-ad snake-oil pitches, the empty desperation of Facebook “likes,” insipid photo memes, and product recommendation bots. It truly makes the web feel like a vast, overwhelming shithole, and the last few seconds do a good job of positioning Squarespace as the antidote to all that BS. My favorite characters here are the generic cheerful people with the “iStockPhoto” watermarks in front of their heads. (Watch for them around the 10-second mark.) Great attention to detail.

With 60 seconds to work with, Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” should have been able to tell its story more coherently. As it is, the editing is choppy, and I had to watch the ad a few times to figure out the whole sequence of events. (Yes, this is how I spent my evening: teasing out the narrative intricacies of a beer commercial in which a dog falls in love with a horse.) Whether you follow every plot point or not, there’s a puppy and horses, so Budweiser probably doesn’t care if the commercial makes sense. Still, fewer characters and longer shots would have done this little story some good.

My award for worst animal CGI of the night goes to Audi’s dreadful “Doberhuahua.” The mediocre computer animation has a tenuous connection to the product, even by the low standards of Super Bowl commercials. The idea, you see, is that we have an imaginary dog with a large head, and Audi’s A3 automobile is quite unlike that pretend dog-monster thing, apparently. How many marketing executives wake up on Super Bowl Monday and ask themselves, “Wait a minute, what the hell did we pitch to the country last night?” Probably not as many as I’d imagine.

SS: I also adored the Squarespace ad. It improves with rewatching—and does that rare Super Bowl feat of introducing me to a company I’d previously never heard of. I wonder if they’ll give The A.V. Club a good rate if we switch? (We could be using it now, and I would have no idea. None.)

Fox did a great job of promoting their in-house stuff. They still have to work toward establishing that familial feeling that NBC mastered with Must See TV, but packaging their many successful shows during the Super Bowl felt like a real coming-of-age for the network. It made me want to watch The Following. That is a feat in itself. Plus, the return of 24 was confusing but intriguing, and it looks great in high-def.

Terry Crews’ Toyota commercial with the Muppets was probably the commercial I was most excited to see—any occurrence of Muppets is the best occurrence of Muppets, and Terry Crews is so funny. That said, it wasn’t particularly well-executed. Maybe the singing was just one step too far, or too much happened in the spot. A little less, and it would have been fantastic.

Jason Statham’s Xfinity commercial similarly excited me, and that one came together a little better—particularly because the Downton Abbey theme scores the spot. The entire gag is that Jason Statham watches Downton Abbey. How adorable.

The RadioShack ad probably should have excited me a little more. It was sort of perfect for me, but somehow I didn’t quite love it. It was really well done, though. Similarly, I felt like the Ellen DeGeneres commercial for Beats Audio should have been great, but was just lukewarm. My loudest laugh of the night came from the Cheerios girl asking for a puppy. Unlike you, John, I am a sucker for puppies.