There’s no real surprise to Super Bowl advertising anymore. The biggest, most star-studded commercials debut online days before Super Bowl Sunday, the result of an accelerated hype machine and the declining fortunes of broadcast TV. By kickoff last night, you could already stream Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman’s synergistic PepsiCo rap battle or get a glimpse at Danny McBride’s fake, Australian-tourism-funded Crocodile Dundee reboot.
Then along comes a game like Super Bowl LII, in which the mighty New England Patriots dynasty faltered, the underdog Philadelphia Eagles triumphed thanks to a handful of clutch plays, Netflix dropped a monster out of the sky with no prior warning, and Ram showed that its pickups can haul more tastelessness than any other vehicles in their class. The impact of these pricey pitches is overstated—in articles just like this one!—but just like the game they surround, it’s hard to deny the power of something that can get millions of people to laugh, gasp, or jeer in unison. (And if that allure has passed you by, congratulations—and nobody cares.) We will soon forget the ads that did and didn’t surprise us last night, but before we do, here’s a look at some of my favorite and least favorites from Super Bowl LII.
Winner: The Jurassic Park franchise
The franchise-driven mindset of Hollywood circa 2018 was in full effect throughout the evening, with sneak peeks at the newest entries in the Star Wars and Cloverfield series, and a requisite helping of Marvel superheroes. But the blockbuster stars leaving the most tracks across the telecast were ones who’ve stumbled into franchise-dom rather haphazardly, like a double-crossing computer programmer attempting to escape a high-tech island theme park in the middle of a downpour. In addition to a full-on trailer for the next Jurassic Park movie, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Michael Crichton’s novel of science and tourism run amok also formed the premise for one of the game’s multiple Jeep ads. “Jeep Jurassic” lacks a screaming Laura Dern and the riveting tension of the Jurassic Park chase it references (and borrows some footage from, lest anyone get confused about which “Jeff Goldblum chased by dinosaurs in a Jeep Wrangler” movie is the source material here), but it does have a relatively subdued Goldblum, who calls the T. rex “my friend” in a way that’s both mocking and affectionate. The unyielding logic of Dr. Ian Malcolm (who’s in Fallen Kingdom, but doesn’t show up in the Super Bowl trailer) probably warns against it, but I can see Goldblum and the tyrannosaurus forging a deep and lasting bond, spending idle weekends gorging on goat, bugging the sales associates at their local Jeep dealer, and suppressing their innate urge to destroy one another.
Peyton Manning, too, assumes a potentially dangerous level of familiarity with a product of the InGen laboratories, taunting an animatronic velociraptor as part of his retirement duties as “Vacation Quarterback.” The raptor’s cameo is meant to represent the type of experience that can be had only at the Universal Orlando Resort—who’s Disney going to get to boss your family around the Magic Kingdom? Tony Danza in The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon?—while bringing the premise of Fallen Kingdom into the real world. No matter where you go, no matter where you vacation, the products of John Hammond’s desire to play god will be there to terrify your family.
Jeep aired its final commercial late in the game, a spartan number with self-aware narration consisting of a red Wrangler crossing a river and climbing a small waterfall over the course of a single, unbroken shot. This tandem show-off routine helped “Anti-Manifesto” grab my attention at a point in the game where I was eager to get back to the action—but it also grabbed my attention by being a car commercial that was actually about the car. A Wrangler had already been upstaged by a CGI dinosaur, as was the Kia that Steven Tyler drove backward to a time when he looked like a dermabrasioned Jim Morrison; Black Panther totally overshadowed the Lexus LS 500, the name of which I did not know until looking the ad up just now. Ram touted towing capabilities and Toyota hyped cab capacity, but each had their own, less-auto-intensive ads lined up for the night. Toyota emphasized all of its work in moving people around, while Ram tried to move an audience, in all the wrong ways.
Loser: Audio graverobbers
It was the biggest fumble this side of Tom Brady with 2:16 left in the fourth quarter: Ram’s tone deaf pairing of a swelling orchestra and a Whitman’s Sampler of inspiration porn with an archival recording of Martin Luther King Jr. The combination of automotive sales pitch and martyred civil rights leader is cringeworthy enough on its face, but it just gets worse and worse the more context gets placed around it. Consider, as many online were quick to, the remainder of the sermon from which this audio was pulled: In “The Drum Major Instinct,” King warns against the dangers of consumerism, using cars as a specific example. (“You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford.”) Then recall that the ad is playing at the end of an NFL season in which players’ protests against racism and police brutality were unfairly twisted by observers as disrespect to the country and to the flag, a mischaracterization that often carried strong undertones of the exact prejudices and injustices the players (and King in his day) were protesting. And still nobody at any point in the process of writing the ad, filming the ad, or delivering the ad to the network thought to step back and say, “Is this a good idea?” I look forward to the episode of Black-ish this whole thing winds up inspiring.
And all that after Justin Timberlake launched a kerfuffle over the weekend based on his supposed use of a Prince hologram during the Super Bowl LII halftime show. We cannot control how our words and work will be used or not used in the wake of our deaths, but we can at least practice a little more respect for those who’ve already relinquished that control. It’s nowhere near as weighty or fraught as those two examples, but there’s another version of this insulting approach in “Little Ones,” the T-Mobile spot that equates fighting for social justice causes with the act of changing your cellphone carrier. And in the background, a lullaby version of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” whirs away, another piece of licensed audio whose creator couldn’t give a yes or no answer to the use of their work in this manner. In “All Apologies,” Kurt Cobain provides the answer to the internal questions that should’ve been asked about co-opting someone else’s message to connect with consumers: “I don’t have the right.”
Winner: “It’s a Tide ad”
After Super Bowl XLIX, my dear, departed A.V. Club colleague John Teti and I expressed a growing weariness with post-modern Super Bowl ads, the ones that attempted to bestow upon themselves a little prestige or an air of art by taking the piss out of the very concept of being a Super Bowl ad. But there’s a fine line dividing cutesy winks at gameday conventions from the nimble, night-long dance of parody Tide did with David Harbour. Harbour’s a performer well-acquainted with tender homage and charming rug-cutting, but while he’s the likable and committed thread stringing the ambitious effort together, it’s the details that really set these spots apart. In the moves from genre to genre, there’s obvious care given to recreating the look, feel, and sound of nearly a dozen (in the extended cut, at least) recognizable styles and genres of TV advertising: the low light and chummy laughter of a “hilarious beer ad,” the canted angle and hard-rock guitar of a shaving ad, the spastic beats and imitation-influencer taste of a contemporary soft-drink ad. And then there’s the well-played reveal: You know it’s actually selling detergent because everyone’s clothes are so damn clean. As the Harbour invasion carried on throughout the night, the novelty wore a little thin (and its predecessors became more apparent), but the lead performance and premise were strong enough to prop things up. The mechanic with the grubby face and spotless uniform are as good a visual joke as any of the copycat acts.
Sniping at your competitors is a well-established advertising strategy. And for the past year or so, Wendy’s social media team has won headlines and followers by regularly asking [extremely Jon Stewart in Half Baked voice], “Have you ever sniped at your competitors… on memes”? The snarky spirit of @Wendys spilled over into primetime last night, in a text-based dig at McDonald’s beef-preservation methods that could’ve been taken right out of the Twitter account’s feed: “The iceberg that sank the Titanic was frozen, too.” The Wendy’s logo even hangs over the text, like a Twitter avatar. And thus was the freewheeling voice of The Burger Place That People Begged To Be Humiliated By fully and forever co-opted by The Man—which it was always partially co-opted by, because even when it was tweeting out its tasteful picks for 2017’s best films, it was still the social media mouthpiece for a giant fast-food chain. At least we’ll always have Nihilist Arby’s.
Early reports on 2018’s Super Bowl offerings predicted a decline in the type of political messaging that defined 2017’s commercials. Out with crossing the border in the name of lumber and lager, in with the feel-good sentimentality that characterizes this year’s lead-out programming. (When it’s not all wrapped up in shuffling Jack Pearson off this mortal coil, that is.) In a pair of nearly identical ads for nearly identical products, Coca-Cola and Pepsi each trotted out spots arguing that their wide range of beverages is for a wide range of people—in a divisive cultural moment, cola is one of the few things that can still bring us together. Which makes sense for the brand that once liked to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but it’s a tougher fit for Pepsi, whose most effective means of distancing itself from its rival has always been an association with youth culture. Now it wants to remind all those generations that they were essentially the same, through a hodgepodge of returning celebrities, old clips, and packaging variations? I’m not buying it. (I am, however, enjoying the overlap between the sincere Oh, The Places You’ll Go-isms of Coke’s “The Wonder Of Us” and the lyrics of Will Powers’ “Adventures In Success,” the vintage slab of satirical self-help funk that plays over Keanu Reeves’ motorcycle flight for Squarespace.)
A more successful, character-driven spin on teamwork making the dream work arrives with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr., who are spending their offseason perfecting a new touchdown celebration: The climactic Dirty Dancing lift. There’s a doofy warmth (and not a whiff of “Wait, we’re men—WHAT ARE WE DOING?!?”) to this NFL promo that pulls off its own stunning, uplifting feats, allowing it to glide over my misgivings about Manning’s stiffness (Patrick Swayze he is not) or its happy-go-lucky portrayal of the league. It’s just a sincere act of cinematic cosplay (Landon Collins is great in the Kelly Bishop role: “Just let ’em dance”) that gets at the most elementary joys of team athletics. And I swear, it’s the truth.
Loser: Hyundai’s dystopian warm fuzzies
You know what you don’t want to hear early on in your heartwarming corporate-philanthropy pat on the back? A child asking, “But what are we doing in here?” after they and their family set off a metal detector (excuse me, “hope detector”) and are ushered into a beige room to be greeted by the grim specter of death. Good news: The footage that flashes onto the screen in this mirror-and-plant-festooned holding cell features cancer survivors, who are there to greet these Hyundai owners (and/or Hyundai renters?) and thank them for contributing to the pediatric-cancer research fund Hyundai Hope On Wheels. Like the MLK spot, “Hope Detector” is a mind-boggling miscalculation, one operating by its own set of mysterious logistics. Was there only one set of hope detectors? Were they prepared for people to freak out about being taken to a secret back room? Can you believe they were going to try this stunt during the actual Super Bowl? The following tweet may contain the answers to all of these questions, and more.
Congratulations to the streaming platform on its ongoing campaign to bury the entertainment press in new content: You managed to snap my head all the way back when your logo showed up at the end of the Cloverfield Paradox trailer. In a tremendous coup for the streaming platform, it stole the thunder from the old-guard studios by announcing its acquisition of a highly anticipated genre film, which would be debuting “very soon.” “Very soon” turned out to be “immediately after the game” (thereby putting the fear of God Particle in NBC suits counting on This Is Us to retain its fair share of Super Bowl viewers), marking more new ground for Netflix to break: In an age of surprise blockbuster album releases, here was a surprise blockbuster film release. I now count down the days until Netflix does this with an entire season of TV, at which point its plot to kill me will finally be complete.
But The Cloverfield Paradox is also kind of bad? Not that lack of quality hurt Bright’s fortunes any…
Winner: Young Lando Calrissian
You ever see something in a trailer and think, “Yeah, that’ll be a GIF before too long”? Well, that confidence is one of countless feelings you can now transpose onto your first look at Donald Glover in Solo: A Star Wars Story, helpfully memorialized by internet users across the galaxy within minutes of the film’s teaser-trailer debut. Now if only the brightness of that image could be applied to the dinginess that haunts the rest of the thing.