Like many people, I did not watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. Also like many people, I went online after it was over, and watched some of the commercials.

I love Super Bowl commercials because they add an interactive element to the holiday—if the Super Bowl were Halloween, then Super Bowl commercials would be trick-or-treating. The largest American corporations are knocking on your door, only instead of taking your candy, they’re trying to sell you something.

That’s fine; advertisers have to make a living, too. At least they’re entertaining. Super Bowl commercials, probably because the stakes are so high, are usually the best and funniest commercials of the year—so without further ado, here are the best of the best.

My absolute favorite commercial, and the one I watched first, was the Colgate toothpaste ad. It was an ad for water conservation as much as it was an ad for toothpaste, and maybe I have a soft spot because I’m from California, but that’s the kind of ad that works on me. It’s easy, once in a properly cynical state of mind, to dismiss the ads that try to appeal to your desire to be cool or sexy, or to drive a fast car. Those I can brush off in an instant, but an ad that appeals to my better nature and asks me to consider the future of the planet? Well, that’s harder to shake. There’s a place now in my bleeding, environmentalist heart for a toothpaste company, damn it. Chalk one up for Colgate.

Another ad I really liked was actress Helen Mirren’s commercial for Budweiser, in which Mirren sits alone in a restaurant and delivers a diatribe against drunk drivers. One thing I liked about this ad was that it didn’t require me to know anything about Mirren, because the ad begins with her saying “Hello, I’m Helen Mirren, a notoriously frank and uncensored British lady.” She goes on to sling insults at drunk drivers, calling them “human pollution.” Part public service announcement and part beer commercial, the ad is honest, simple, and funny. (Funniest line: “If your brain was donated to science, science would return it.”) It won’t do anything to curb drunk driving, but at least its heart was in the right place.

Budweiser’s other ad was a ham-handed and exuberant visit to the opposite end of the advertising spectrum—there are no quiet British actors here, just clips of tough folks brewing and drinking Budweiser over a whooping and bass-crunching soundtrack. “Not a hobby,” the overlaid text asserts. “Not small. Not sipped. Not soft.” It’s not as gritty or ridiculous as your average truck commercial, but there’s certainly no sign of finesse. Perhaps the Helen Mirren ad was aimed at the non–drunk driving segment of Budweiser customers, and this ad is meant for the other half. You have to reach your whole audience somehow.

Back to commercials I liked. With the exception of the elusive, environmentally-conscious toothpaste commercial, I’m most partial to ads that make me laugh. Steven Tyler was kind-of funny in the ad for Skittles, in which he coaches a larger-than-life, talking mosaic of himself (made out of Skittles, naturally) to sing higher and higher until it explodes. The ad itself is dumb, but I have to admit laughing at Tyler’s line as he enters: “All right, let’s do this. I’ve got minds to twist and values to warp.”

Also funny was the commercial for Apartments.com, featuring Jeff Goldblum, which starts out absurd and only gets stranger from there. Goldblum, channelling Steve Jobs, is hoisted into the sky on a grand piano, playing and singing “Movin’ On Up.” Members of a gospel choir sing along as they help move people into the apartment building. At the end of the one-minute commercial, almost before you register what’s happening, we get to the top floor of the building, where George Washington and Lil Wayne are grilling burgers and beans. Get it? Me neither, but I laughed anyway.

I’m always mildly impressed by the polished absurdity of the best television commercials. To catch viewers’ attention, an ad has to be wacky and loud; to fit into a 30- or 60-second spot, it has to be frantic and fast-paced; to sell the product, it has to be familiar and bland. The best Super Bowl ads balance these goals in a clever way. The worst and the weirdest try to go for a touchdown on all three fields and end up creeping people out. To take one example, there’s the Mountain Dew commercial featuring “PuppyMonkeyBaby,” an unsettling genetic hybrid, evidently CRISPR’d into existence in a top-secret Mountain Dew research facility. They bill this as the best of three worlds, when in fact it’s the worst possible outcome: the sad homunculus has the distorted face of a pug, the terrifying upper body strength of an ape, and the worst-in-class ambulatory skills of a human infant. It’s stuff like this that really reaffirms my distaste for the Mountain Dew brand.

The other ad that really made me laugh was the commercial for Bai (some manner of electrolyte beverage, which I hadn’t heard of). The ad stars a team of eight cheerleaders, and here’s the gimmick: the drink tastes good, but it’s also good for you. Completely incongruous, says the narrator, just like “cheerleaders who aren’t actually cheerful.” Their cheer goes like this: “First you’re born (clap clap clap) then there’s work (clap clap clap) then you die (clap clap clap) thaaat’s it! When I say life, you say meaningless!”

There were a few other commercials I liked: the PayPal “New Money” commercial was catchy, and the ad for Axe products was a cut above their usual output. For the sake of conserving words and paper, I won’t describe them here—they’re on YouTube, anyhow.

Finally, a dishonorable mention to the one commercial I really hated.

It’s hard to articulate why I hated the Audi commercial so much. Here’s the pitch: an elderly astronaut, in his waning years, is losing his love of life. He’s not eating, and he’s spending all his time hunched over in an armchair. Clearly, he needs an emotional boost—to pep him up, his son hands him the keys to an Audi. As the old man drives away, he smiles, a David Bowie song plays, and the astronaut feels like he’s flying once more.

So what’s wrong with it? What I hate is this: The emotion of the ad, its bittersweet nostalgia, and its charming message all feel like they just rolled off an assembly line. You can still read the serial numbers and see the scratches where human feelings were shoehorned into the corporate cage. “Space,” the ad whispers to you, “the final frontier. We can go there again. We can revive our flagging space program and return to the stars.” Then, right when it’s getting fun: “Made you look! Stay here on Earth instead, and buy an Audi. It’s Almost As Good.”

Maybe I’m just mad because it’s another freaking car commercial.

Tagged: NFL


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