Erik Adams: John, let’s begin with the question that’s on everyone’s lips this morning. No, not “Wait, is that Bryan Cranston?”: “What is Internet, anyway?”
With an ad inspired by a Today outtake from the dawn of the Information Superhighway, BMW re-entered the Super Bowl fray in 2015, promoting its i3 model, the electric car that sounds like a several-generations-old Apple product. But I think it neatly sums up the act of waiting until Super Bowl Sunday to watch Super Bowl ads, too: The commercials that don’t “leak” online prior to the game are now the exceptions to the rule. Pregame was the game this year, to the point that the spot from reliable lightning rod GoDaddy worked up the nation’s collective lather five whole days before kickoff.
With the Internet leading the hype charge heading into the game, the smart money—more than $360 million of which was spent on Super Bowl advertising, according to the Los Angeles Times’ estimate—is on making ads that could easily pass as Internet content. T-Mobile’s Kim Kardashian spot spoofed the star’s social-networking ubiquity. Coca-Cola encouraged Internet users to weed out trolls and cyberbullies by pouring soda on our smart devices.
The ads-within-the-ad for web-developer Wix.com are the star-studded stuff of a big-budget Funny Or Die parody. Loctite put out a non sequitur of a commercial that might as well have been bankrolled by Cinco. Liam Neeson introduced his Clash Of Clans screen name: AngryNeeson52. Screaming goats made more than one appearance. Even Keyboard Cat snuck into the NFL’s multi-part promo. In 2015!
These ads might look like naked grasps at relevance, but there’s some forward-looking savvy at play here, too. The lifespan of a Super Bowl ad is no longer defined by the length of its campaign: Viewers might be watching BMW’s Katie Couric-Bryant Gumbel spot before, during, and months after the game. I wasn’t a huge fan of Super Bowl XLV’s big winner, “The Force,” but the 61 million YouTube views it’s racked up since its debut speak to the skill and foresight with which Deutsch and Volkswagen crafted the ad. It’s timeless, it’s inspired, and it plays just as well as a minute-long YouTube video as it does a car commercial. (Though I’d argue that what it’s really selling is a billion-dollar science-fiction property…)
John, you and I were discussing “The Force” the other day, and you mentioned that the ad holds up because it tells a story, and it tells it well, in a short amount of time. Did you feel like any of this year’s ads achieved that? Did we see the debut of any future YouTube sensations last night? Did any ad set out to tell a story and fall flat on its face?
John Teti: You and your questions! The shameful truth is that on account of all-consuming football interests, the conversation you and I had the other day represents the extent of thought I’ve given lately to the craft of what happens during the commercials. (And look at the insightful gem I came up with: “Storytelling matters.” I earned my pay with that one.) Since you’ve done a fine job of setting the stage here, and since my single, lame talking point has already been exhausted, I’m going to ignore the first two queries in your interrogation and focus on the last one, which boils down to “Were there any ads last night that sucked?” And the answer is yes.
Here’s a cynical minute of dick-swellery from Mercedes-Benz. It’s entitled “Fable,” in keeping with our focus on story. It retells the tale of the tortoise and the hare. Mercedes has been hyping this ad something fierce—there have been ads on NFL Network all week with faux sportscasters wondering aloud, “Who will win?” This ad was conceived by Merkley + Partners, an agency whose homepage boasts that it operates “without boundaries” and furthermore notes that “When different disciplines merge, great ideas emerge.” Given a zillion-dollar budget for this spot, the interdisciplinary types at Merkley emerged with this: “What if we did ‘The Tortoise And The Hare,’ except the tortoise has a car this time?”
The emblematic moment of the commercial comes at the finish line. At first it looks like Yertle The Turtle runs over the hare. The car’s coming up on the poor rabbit, and then there’s a bump. Maybe the hare dies in the original script. But here, rather than turning his opponent into roadkill, the tortoise’s ride vaults into the air, and then we get a closer shot of the cockpit, where the lady bunny brings her head up and giggles. (Please note that Mercedes-Benz recommends high-speed cuckolding only when wearing your safety belt.)
Here’s what baffles me most about this ad: In the original fable, the tortoise wins. He doesn’t need a car. So the only benefit provided by the Mercedes AMG GT XP NT is that it allows the turtle to be an asshole. I commend the honesty, at least.
Continuing the thread from 2014’s “Puppy Love” ad, Budweiser premiered “Lost Dog,” in which a puppy gets lost, comes home, is almost murdered by a wolf, and is rescued by Budweiser’s Clydesdale mascots. The moral of this story appears to be that Bud-swilling bros shouldn’t be allowed to care for animals. First, the puppy gets lost because nobody pays attention to a loose puppy frolicking around large motor vehicles. Then the Clydesdales escape to scare off the wolf because luckily, Stubble Boy didn’t build the stalls well enough to contain horses (which is the only function of a horse stall). Sometimes two acts of negligence do make a right.
This Newcastle beer ad, meanwhile, doesn’t try to tell much of a story. Instead, it leans on a zany observation: “Did you ever notice how many brands there are in Super Bowl commercials?” From this premise Newcastle constructs a fanciful reality, a Super Bowl commercial with more brands than usual in it. Even as Super Bowl satire goes, this one was pretty toothless, half-assedly sending up some vague idea of brands without ever besmirching the precious brands themselves.
More generally, I’ve soured on the tactic of “going meta”—using your ad time to point out that you’re making a Super Bowl commercial. The worst example of this angle might be last year’s effort from Samsung, which somehow turned three talented comic actors into despicably unfunny catchphrase machines. Erik, do you think it’s still possible for companies to go meta for the Super Bowl and pull it off? And did you see any ads last night that managed the feat? And what did you eat during the game? And who killed Laura Palmer? And where were you born? And what’s your social security number?
Erik: Isn’t asking a series of arbitrary questions in a spoof of Crosstalk prompts its own form of going meta, John? I don’t think your stance on this topic is as staunch as you claim it is. (In the cherrypicking tradition of the feature, here’s one answer to one of those questions: I wish I ate chicken wings during the game, but the blizzard that hit Chicago on Sunday made wing delivery and wing pickup virtual impossibilities.)
I was actually charmed by the cheeky approach of Newcastle’s spot, if only because it reminded me of the George Saunders short stories “In Persuasion Nation” and “Brad Carrigan, American.” (Or, even closer to what Newcastle’s going for: the McSweeney’s Short Imagined Monologue “I’m The Cool Wife In A Snack Dip Commercial”) It’s a clever way of reflecting the reality that’s set up in these commercials: “We’re characters whose only purpose is the hard sell—gaze upon the ever-repeating, always-resetting 60-second hellscape The Creator, Peggy Olson, hath wrought for us.”
At the very least, it’s more inventive than the Kia Sorento spot, in which Pierce Brosnan occupies the hot seat Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd were in last year. Brosnan is my third-favorite James Bond (after Sean Connery and Roger Moore), but this is my least-favorite approach to self-aware advertising. At least this variation on the theme doesn’t cram Brosnan’s mouth with a meaningless tagline—but it does operate under the false assumption that there’s something inherently fascinating about the creation of The Thing You’re Currently Watching. The strategy is sound—the Sorento is strong enough for a Remington Steele reunion, but made for everyday driving—it’s just the execution that comes up short. “The Perfect Getaway” is a twist too far: I wouldn’t be surprised if a 30-second version of this ad exists that’s just Brosnan in the car, mistaking owls for snipers and George Lazenby for a legitimate 007.
The meta angle is so played out that it almost makes me yearn for a more earnest, straightforward era of advertising—the sort of thing McDonald’s is aiming to recapture in “Pay With Lovin’.” Unfortunately, this ad is rolling out at a time when the purveyor of the McDLT and the Arch Deluxe is under fire for, essentially, paying its hourly employees with love. I believe the customer reactions in the ad are 100 percent authentic, though, because even basic expressions of warmth and compassion are still too much to ask in exchange for McDonald’s.
I think that’s why the pull of the meta ad is still so strong: It might be hard to make a good ad that’s about making good ads, but it’s harder to make sincerity work. Just ask Nationwide, which had the unmitigated disaster of the night with “Make Safe Happen.” GoDaddy had to pull its ad due to the suggestion of canine endangerment; Nationwide killed an imaginative child with a bright future by dropping a fucking flatscreen TV on him. Or knocking him out a window, or poisoning him, or drowning him in the bathtub—the ad isn’t clear about what household dangers will befall your children. It’s only clear that something terrible will happen to your kids, because you’re too busy watching football on the device that’s itching to squash little Jimmy.
Nationwide’s blunder was just one drop in a wave of weirdly dreary ads airing during the game: John, which non-tortoise-and-the-hare ad bummed you out the most? When was the last time a TV commercial made you cry? And don’t you deserve a break today? Or maybe you just wish you could have an Arch Deluxe?
John: You’re right—it’s impossible not to go meta, so I shouldn’t point fingers. But as you say, it is tougher for Super Bowl advertisers to play it straight, so I admire the courage of going for a sincere appeal to America. But yikes, there were some swing-and-a-miss efforts tonight. I’m with you on McDonald’s, whose “our cashiers invade your personal affairs!” idea ensured that lines for an Egg McMuffin would be extra-short Monday morning. And the Nationwide fear-mongering ad was indeed vile. We wonder why parents are so neurotic.
Even an obvious appeal to tenderness can be effective if you’re in the right mindset, though. Take Dove’s “Calls For Dad,” which is just that: a montage of kids calling out for their dads. Re-watching this now, it’s sweet enough, fairly routine. But amid the excitement of the game, it landed with me. This was the first Patriots Super Bowl I didn’t watch with my dad, and I got nostalgic. Dove was savvy enough to know that a lot of guys would be feeling that sort of soft spot in the moment. They played off the “big game” as a family moment rather than a national moment.
Maybe if my father had been more absent when I was a kid, the Nissan ad would have affected me like the Dove one did. Instead, I was confused. You’ve got “Cat’s In The Cradle” playing, which is basically Nissan commanding us to cry about dads. The thing is, it sure seems like it’s Nissan’s fault that this guy is away from his wife and son so often. Is that the message? Or does everything turn out okay because he picks the kid up at school in the end? Maybe Nissan race cars create familial strife, but regular Nissan cars heal it. Probably because of their heated seats. Heated seats of fatherly love.
Not every heartfelt spot needed to be about daddy issues. I was fond of this Always ad for giving girls something to rally around on dude-centric Super Bowl Sunday. Man, the kid with the freckles got a brutal edit, though: “Why do you hate your sister so much?” In the unreleased extended cut of this commercial, that little boy walks out of the studio and into the path of a garbage truck, all because his parents bought the wrong brand of life insurance. An avoidable accident!
And I’ll close out my sincerity sweepstakes with kudos to this Coke ad, which wasn’t subtle, but Coke rarely is. The angry-to-happy TV news interview struck a note of humor that I think could have been hit a couple more times to buoy this ad. Ending on the scared-looking bus kid only extended the evening’s child-torture theme.
I’ll bounce it back to you with this question: Did any of last night’s commercials make you laugh? I chuckled at this advertisement for Mexican avocados in the 30-second version that aired on NBC. It had a crisp rhythm, and the (shortened) polar bear gag was a fun setup for the guacamole sales pitch. The extended version embedded directly above, though, bogs down the idea with series of half-jokes. (Madagascar takes the lemur! Heh. Those animals certainly do live in that place.)
Oh, and Esurance would also like to express its fondness for that particular prestige drama’s catchphrase. Okay, Erik, play us out with the (un)funniest fare we haven’t hit on yet.
Erik: More than any one “funniest” commercial of the game, I got my Super Bowl laughs on a gag-by-gag basis.
TurboTax put their millions behind a bizarre premise—a period piece in which free tax-preparation puts the brakes on the American Revolution—but I loved the Pythonesque joke in which a Margaret Corbin-type removes her bayonet from a redcoat’s gut, apologizing by way of the ad’s exceedingly polite tag: “All right then.”
In its second celebrity-augmented spot, T-Mobile avoided the pitfalls of Samsung’s Rogen-Rudd-Odenkirk fumble, chiefly by allowing Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler to draw on their established comic personas. Along with Mindy Kaling’s star turn in the Nationwide ad that won’t make you sick and kill your children (not that it’s without its own intriguing subtext), the promo for its wi-fi calling feature made it a good night for funny ladies, peaking with the very Sarah Silverman punchline, “Sorry, it’s a boy.” (Though let’s be straight with one another, T-Mobile: We all saw the Emmys last fall. If Sarah Silverman has a hydroponic garden, she ain’t growing kale.)
John, you alluded to Bryan Cranston’s surprise appearance, which the court of public opinion swiftly accused of corrupting Breaking Bad’s legacy. In truth, the crime committed here was grand larceny: Like feeble attempts to clone Heisenberg’s “Blue Sky” formula, the “Sorta You Isn’t You” campaign is a pale imitation of Snickers’ ongoing “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” ads. The similarities could’ve gone unnoticed—if Mars hadn’t booked 60 seconds during Super Bowl XLIX to debut the latest chapter in its saga of low blood sugar and highly paid celebrities. (There’s even a Breaking Bad overlap: Let’s not forget that Danny Trejo had his own memorable part to play in season two of that show.) And maybe the majority of viewers did miss the similarities, because the younger consumers Esurance courted with Cranston and Lindsay Lohan would only recognize Marcia and Jan Brady as the stars of a recently popular series of image macros. They definitely wouldn’t recognize Steve Buscemi in the Snickers spot, despite some career-best comic acting in the role of Jan. Either way: Doubly bad form, Esurance.
That’s why I’m ready to give the night’s MVP award—the one that didn’t go to Tom Brady or the stage-right dancing shark from Katy Perry’s halftime show—to Squarespace and “Dreaming With Jeff.” There are no pop-culture references to miss here, no po-mo stunts, no penis-enlarging cars (or, as was the case with Fiat’s spotlight moment, enlarged-penis cars). Just a properly novel sense of “weird,” organically embodied by an A-list actor. And in pointing viewers to the Squarespace-created website for Jeff Bridges’ musical experiment in ambience and relaxation, Sleeping Tapes, the ad actually demonstrates the service it’s promoting. That’s what Internet is anyway, Bryant Gumbel: You don’t write to it like mail. Instead, you build an online home for an eccentric actor’s latest pet project, and filter the pay-what-you-like donations to that project to an anti-hunger charity. And then you spread the word of that service from the only platform whose reach and influence can rival that of the Internet: the Super Bowl.