In the Ad Bowl accompanying Super Bowl LII, there were some surprises this year: A car company decided it was okay to use a Martin Luther King Jr. speech to sell its trucks. Budweiser left the Clydesdales out for the first time in almost two decades, and a spate of spots touted companies’ philanthropic efforts. That’s a shift from the sharp political tone of some ads last year. But there were still celebrities aplenty – Chris Pratt, Cardi B, even Michael Jackson footage – and spots using physical comedy to try to grab viewers by their short attention spans.
Here are our rankings of the best, the worst and the so-so:
Big Detergent absolutely nails it in a spot that’s not only front-to-back engaging but also manages to co-opt all the other ads people paid $5 million or more to air. Regular-guy “Stranger Things” star David Harbour opens in a car in the McConaughey pitchman position. “Typical Super Bowl car ad?” Harbour asks. No. Suddenly he’s in a bar as a bottle crashes to the floor: “Hilarious beer ad?” Nope. “It’s a Tide ad,” we learn, because the guy working under a car has a dirty face but a clean shirt. And it goes on, false-starting a recognizable beach-based beverage ad and more. So, says Harbour, “Does this make every ad a Tide ad? Watch and see.” Note perfect.
After introducing “It’s a Tide ad,” the detergent company nails it again -- as it will continue to do in future short continuations of the concept. Here, the Old Spice guy is back on the horse, saying “Hello again, ladies.” But instead of diamonds, a Tide bottle materializes in his hand. “I”m in a Tide ad,” he says. David Harbour is on the back of his extra-long horse. “Get off my horse,” says Old Spice guy. “Tide ad,” says Harbour. The Old Spice whistle plays. Once again, note perfect.
“The Voice,” A-
NBC’s singing competition returns in late February, and it has a first-rate promotional spot to tout it. Fresh, funny and on point, celebrity coaches Blake Shelton, Alicia Keys, Adam Levine and Kelly Clarkson are terrific in a parody of country music cliches such as haybale seats and ridiculously long fabric trains in fields of grain. Between this and the Olympics ads, especially the one for Lindsey Vonn, NBC’s promo department is killing it.
Instead of going low by taking the usual shot at a rival (see Sprint’s ad), Verizon goes high. It shows a series of people calling the first responders who helped save them, and, as people who listen to podcasts and public radio know, the power of the human voice is profoundly touching. The ad steers folks to a website called allourthanks.com
There’s a tradition in Super Bowl ads of making fun of old people, often in ways that don’t reflect well on the ad makers. Here, the online trading firm stays just on the good side of the line. Finally forswearing its worn-out talking-baby spokesthing, thankyouverymuch, E-Trade shows a bunch of aged people still on the job while the line “I’m 85 and I want to go home” is the musical soundtrack. More than a third of Americans lack retirement savings, says the text. It’s a solid message, although it’s hard to argue that amateur day trading is the solution to having a nice retirement.
The hip-hop star Pras takes a risk by buying a Super Bowl ad for his new black culture site. The ad he and director Antoine Fuqua come up with is a winner, as well as arguably the most political of the night. He comes on stage blindfolded and with tape over his mouth. He removes the coverings. “A voice and a vision for Black Culture,” says the text. This, remember, is amid the championship game for a sports league that has effectively blackballed a talented quarterback who protested on behalf of fellow African Americans.
Boy, Fiat Chrysler was all over the quality map tonight. But mostly, with the spot appropriating MLK’s words and an earlier generic Jeep-in-water ad, it was on the not very good part of the map. Here, though, Jeep makes fun of other car ads, notably the trend-setting Eminem-Chrysler-Detroit one, to say that car companies call such ads, with their grand statement of purpose and such, “manifestos.” This ad shows a Jeep fording a river and then climbing up rocks. “There’s your manifesto,” says the voiceover.
Rocket Mortgage, B+
The hairstylist is saying confounding things to the young woman. But, lo, there is Keegan-MIchael Key to translate: “He’s gonna make your hair long then cut it short to make it big.” At the restaurant? “It’s a burrito filled with plants pretending to be meat.” It's all building up to the mortgage visit, where Key tells the people to use Rocket Mortgage. Pretty solid all the way through, then a great kicker, where Key says about a work of modern art, “It’s just a gray dot.”
Diet Coke, B+
The inaugural Coke without sugar is rebranding itself with a skinny can and a bunch of flavors that seem more like -- let’s say it -- La Croix. If you’re losing market share to ‘em, I guess, join ‘em. That said, this first DC Super Bowl spot in more than two decades is a winner. Actor Hayley Magnus (“The Dressmaker”) does a geeky charm thing, dancing uncomfortably as she pitches Diet Coke Mango flavor. It’s awkward. But it goes on and becomes endearing. “Still going,” Magnus says. “Maybe slowin’ it down. Maybe it’s gettin’ sexier. I don’t know. Mango does.”
Doritos and Mountain Dew, B+
At first, hurried viewing, I didn’t think there was much to praise in this tribute to high-schoolers’ food choices. Peter Dinklage (Tyrion, in “Game of Thrones”) lip-syncs a Busta Rhymes rap for Doritos Blaze, yet another tortilla chip topped with spicy powder. Then Morgan Freeman (God, in just about everything) lip-syncs Missy Elliott for Mtn Dew Ice, a new lemon-lime sugar-water from the company that can no longer be bothered to spell out “mountain.”
Watching celebs mouth lyrics didn’t seem that interesting or innovative. But on a second, closer look, this joint spot really gains pop -- and crunch. The fire-and-ice theme is carried through to perfection, while still working as a subtle nod to “Game of Thrones,” derived from the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
Another nod: The little, dragonesque breath of fire Dinklage emits as his song ends. The eternally dignified Freeman delivering a tune called “Get Ur Freak On” will never not be funny. And the cameos by Rhymes and Elliott add depth. Doritos ‘n’ Dew may not be the best thing to put in your body, but in the diet of Super Bowl advertising, this is pretty nourishing stuff.
NBC Olympics, B+
NBC celebrates the best part of the quadrennial sporting events in a series of promotions for its upcoming Winter Olympics coverage. Set aside all the stuff about doping bans and evil team doctors and organizational complicity (a story NBC should have led the way in reporting), and you can celebrate these as superb ads. They ignore systemic problems to spotlight, beautifully, the journeys of individual American athletes in a campaign called “The Best of U.S.” And I’m enough of a homer and a sports fan to think it is still possible to root for individuals while wringing your hands over the system.
Since so much of Super Bowl advertising through the ages has leaned on potty humor, the air-re-odorizing company has apparently decided that it has a right -- nay, a duty! -- to be there, too. Last year, Febreze made sport of what can happen to your smallest room during Super Bowl parties -- and how the Procter & Gamble product can mask that. This year, it posits a lad whose “bleep don’t stink” and his charmed journey through life (which does raise questions about why more than a few people would know). The sell? That guy won’t be at your party so be ready with Febreze.
Cell-service ads are almost always a pitch to switch. This one delivers that proposition with panache. In an artificial intelligence lab similar to the one in "Westworld," a scientist dictates notes on his progress. A text message hits his phone, and suddenly his prime robot subject wakes up — and urges him to save money by dumping Verizon for Sprint. The other, well-imagined robots and robot heads join in the chorus of logic and mockery, including one that looks a lot like it was patterned after the “South Park” animation style.
Last year’s Super Bowl ads followed Donald Trump’s election to the presidency and saw some overt politics on display, 84 Lumber’s spot about the border wall and Budweiser’s homage to immigrant founder Adolphus Busch, in particular. This year, the message is more muted.
Case in point: This “One Team” spot from Toyota, which sounds like it originated with a retelling of old jokes. In this one, a rabbi, a priest, a Buddshist monk and an imam get into a Toyota Tundra. And they go to a football game together in a kind of metaphor for the way the world ought to work (although I’d put Richard Dawkins in that truck, too, and maybe have them heading for a non-concussive sport). The selling message, I suppose, is that Toyota welcomes all faiths and its pickup easily seats four men. But once the setup is established, the guys’ japery could be sharper, and the nuns berating them at the game for being late falls a little flat as a punchline. Still, it’s a solid effort.
Avocados from Mexico, B+
The farmers of the green mushy fruit have been reliably entertaining advertisers for, now, four years running, partly by taking chances with its ad concepts, partly by making sure those concepts keep a focus on selling the product. This year’s spot imagines people locked in a biodome with all the good things, including, of course, avocados. But the chips are spotted on the outside, and rioting breaks out. Wait!, says Biodome Lady, avocados are good for other things, such as -- winking pop-culture reference-- toast. The people calm down. And then the wifi goes out.
Feel-good ads are a thing in 2018, and this Paralympics-themed spot is one of the feel-goodest. A girl is born with incomplete legs, and an onscreen ticker starts registering her long odds of winning a gold medal. As scenes from her life play out, the girl becomes eight-time Canadian gold-medal skier Lauren Woolstencroft, and the odds change to even.
Mountain Dew and Doritos this year offer a sort of rap battle between Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage. From another realm comes this beef beef initiated by the smiling-redhead hamburger chain. Wendy’s takes dead aim at rival McDonald’s for serving — gasp — “flash frozen” burgers. Skip the “Frozen Arches” for the fresh stuff at Wendy’s, says this simple and effective message.
Australian tourism, B
It’s a misdirection ad like the Tide ad, but not as good. Danny McBride and Chris Hemsworth seem to be in a summer movie, but instead, McBride realizes, “This isn’t a movie. It’s a tourism ad for Australia.” Loser of the coveted Misdirection Award (the "Misdie"), but easy winner of the Best Super Bowl Ad from a Place Where They Play Football By Their Own Set of Rules (see Yellow Tail Wine, later).
Intuit Turbo Tax, B
In the tax-prep company’s spot that featured an on-screen countdown clock, we’ll award points for 15 seconds. Points for acknowledging we all need time to do our taxes. Points for self-awareness. Demerits for using all of that to do the absolute minimum. Other spots with a monster under the bed and a ghost in the attic are solid representations of the irrational fear people have about doing taxes.
What is going on with America’s cell phone companies this year? Now T-Mobile is seizing high ground, too, with a lovely video of multicultural babies. A Kerry Washington voiceover tells them things like “you’ll love who you want” and “you’ll demand fair and equal pay.” The tagline is “Change starts now,” the only thing even suggesting a sales pitch.
The floor-mat company in west suburban Chicago once again gets the job done with a meat-and-potatoes spot. This time, we see, simply, footage of construction, a Weathertech plant going up. “We built our new factory right here in America,” says the text. “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?” Some people saw this ad, with its images of factory walls being built, as pro-Trump. But Weathertech has been making simple, made-in-America Super Bowl ads for years. This ad seems more a part of that history than of current politics.
Good spot -- until the generic, cartoon-esque conclusion. Red M&M wishes he were human so noone would want to eat him, finds a lucky penny -- and turns into Danny DeVito. Now nobody wants to ingest him. As Red Danny celebrates his good fortune, a truck plows into him with enough pace to send him flying. There were so many clever ways to deliver comeuppance to a candy-turned-person. The ol’ mallet to the head -- or, in this case, truck to the body -- seems like almost literally the least of them. The short follow-up spot followed the same pattern.
In the bible, Jesus turns water into wine. In Super Bowl advertising, Budweiser turns beer into water. That’s the action in this 60-second ad spotlighting the mega-brewer’s disaster relief efforts, as an apparent actual Bud plant manager is shown guiding a factory’s quick conversion from canning beer to canning water for donation after last year’s spate of natural disasters. This is good-spirited stuff so set aside your jokes about how much Bud might already taste like H2O. Still, I have questions, like: How efficient and helpful is it, really, to put water into 12-oz. cans? On balance, though, I’m happy to see this instead of another ad about the Clydesdales improbably saving a puppy; this spot, reportedly, is what Bud chose to go with in deciding to leave its equine mascots out of the NFL championship telecast for the first time since 2001.
Universal Parks & Resorts, B
This is a good ad, putting retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning in a series of amusing scenes at Universal Parks that show off the Harry Potter attractions, the dinosaurs and the food. “Interception,” says a little girl, stealing a churro Manning is about to hand off to a companion. “That was a cheap shot,” says Manning. This is also an ad that depends on you buying the proposition that Peyton Manning is ingratiating. Most of America, seemingly, does, so this will probably do well in the post-game ad polls.
Michelob Ultra, B
This Chris Pratt-focused spot is the better of the two from Anheuser-Busch’s “fitness beer.” It’s all about Pratt, who goes into training for a Mich Ultra ad, appears shirtless, literally executes the old beer joke by doing 12-oz. curls -- and then finds out he’s only been invited to audition for the ad. This is how you leverage a charming celebrity; Groupon, which fritters away Tiffany Haddish this year, should take note.
Bud Light, B
A-B introduces a new character here, the Bud Knight, in a continuation of its medieval advertising theme. The joke is on the besieged warriors of the “Dilly Dilly” king, however, as Bud Knight is just passing through the battlefield to grab some brewskis for a buddy’s birthday party. It’s not devastatingly good, but it’s an engaging 60 seconds, and until “Game of Thrones” returns, it’ll have to do. The earlier spot that stars the battle is equally OK.
Amazon Alexa, B-
The leading cloud-based personal assistant losing her voice is a bright idea for an ad. And cranky celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay as one of the replacement voices sparkles: “You’re 32 years old, and you don’t know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich? Its name is the recipe!” But the substitute-voice bits featuring Cardi B, Rebel Wilson and Anthony Hopkins are less good, and 90 seconds is practically a novel. There is a competent, early tough-boss appearance by Jeff Bezos, who owns a newspaper (subscribe to one today!) and, oh yeah, Amazon.
The headphones company, which I first knew as an audio cable company, gives us a kid on the subway, a young engineer, who hears a singer and is inspired to make new headphones. The result is a lot of people wearing Monster headphones and -- in an image audiophiles will savor -- a lot of earbud wires tossed away, left to dangle over railings.
Kinda weird. It seems as if Hyundai pulled out of Super Bowl entry lines people who revealed Hyundai key fobs at the metal detectors. Then in a back room they showed them videos of good work the company does. There were tears and hugs. But it seems like a forced thing taking the time of people who probably didn’t ask to be bothered.
Bill Hader is inherently funny. The idea of stacking differently flavored Pringles chips to make new flavors is clever (confession: I do a version of this flavor hack sometimes at the soup counter). So why doesn’t the ad work better? Mostly because Hader and the white-guy film-set people marveling over this discovery by saying “Wow” over and over is almost dead air. Nonetheless, like a high proportion of people who see this ad, I will probably attempt the stacking trick in coming weeks. But I will not, I promise, say “wow.”
Last year, the website creation company went all-in, hiring Jason Statham and Gal Godot to star in a narrative spot about a chef, some explosions and, tangentially, his website. It stands as one of the better action-movie paeans advertisers have come up with. This year, the company is boasting about getting into the game on the cheap, saying NBC offered it a last-minute deal it couldn’t pass up. The resulting ad looks it. Wix hired Internet comics (that’s a thing) Rhett & Link to sit in front of a screen and show what Wix can do. They’re pleasant enough company and the spot will probably generate sales, but the creative needle barely moves in response to this quickie.
Apparently Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler is now guaranteed an annual role in Super Bowl advertising. Last year, it was for Skittles; here, he helps pitch the Korean automaker. On an empty track, the wizened rocker gets into a Kia Stinger. He starts driving backward, fast, and, as an instrumental version of “Dream On” plays, Tyler sheds the years. When he exits the vehicle, he looks (a little) like the Tyler who first came to fame. And somehow, the track infield is now filled with throngs of 1970s people. This would all make more sense if driving backward were actually an important car feature for anything but jokes about saving money on a vehicle rental. But the car, I’ll grant you, is pretty good-looking, and it all goes down a lot easier than last year’s rendition of Tyler in Skittles.
I could have been behind this ad, Kraft. You solicited Americans to send in social media images of their families. You melded them together into a winning montage of that essential social unit and all the ways Americans define it. But your text. Your voiceover text insists on trying to make “family” a verb. “Do what you do. Family how you family.” Can you feel me shuddering through the screen? The term I might be searching for is, yes, "cheesy."
Here’s the mandatory Jeff Goldblum ad slot. Reprising his “Jurassic Park” work, Goldblum drives a Jeep, chased by a T. rex. But no, he’s in a dealership and he’s just imagining it. Pretty basic stuff, but now the science is wrong. The latest work suggests T. rexes were too heavy to be able to run effectively.
Persil ProClean, C+
This standard ad -- ProClean spokesguy reaches through the TV to tell Super Bowl partygoer how to get his shirt clean -- won’t cost the brand any customers. But it’s so ordinary, you sort of wonder why they bother.
While Pepsi flops by going retro, rival Coke doesn’t do much better by opting for an original poem. The sugar water’s message of global inclusion — and drink quaffing — is delivered with visual elegance, but the backing poem sounds a little Dr. Suessian: “To act the same would be mundane/ What a boring thing to do …/ But there is a Coke for we and us/ And there is a Coke for you.” The best thing I can say for Coke, the product, is that its taste has a little bite to it.So did its global inclusion Super Bowl ad from four years back, which featured people singing “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages (and was read as controversial by some on the political right). This ad, while thoroughly professional, is de-fanged.
Where the carmaker’s spot with Paralympian Lauren Woolstencroft is specific and stirring, this one, titled “Mobility Anthem,” delivers a more generic message: that providing mobility for all is a positive value. True enough, but how is Toyota proposing to achieve this? And what, exactly, is that vehicle the ad shows?
Turkish Airlines, C
Pretty standard stuff from the air carrier associated with the troubled nation, so often in the news these days for reasons other than being a travel option. Dr. Oz, the Turkish-American MD, talk-show host and pitchman sits on a plane, touting the wonders of our senses, which you can presumably activate by taking a flight somewhere TA goes. “Widen your world,” says the slogan. One potential bit of controversy and/or confusion? Oz gives the body’s ability to withstand heat in centigrade, at “60 degrees.” Hey, Turkish Airlines, we are American! We rejected alternative measuring systems years ago.
Vikings ride in a Ram truck. Vikings' Ram trucks tows a Viking ship. A Viking ship tows a Ram truck. The Ram truck, filled with Vikings, heads into Minneapolis. The nav screen says “Tonight’s game.” The Vikings turn around. Apparently, they realize the Minnesota Vikings are not in the game, although that is less than blazingly clear. Then the ad says you’re supposed to go online for the “full story.” Yeah, maybe, but you haven’t told me enough to make me want to make the effort.
Yellow Tail Wine, C-
And the loser of the Australian ad category? This one, which once again features tacky Australian host guy in a yellow suit and a kangaroo forced to mug for the camera. In something of a warning, the on-screen tags asserts that Yellow Tail is “America’s #1 Imported Wine.”
Pretty generic stuff here. Aerial shots of a road, voiceover about the road being disappointing. Then we see the 2019 Jeep Cherokee driving through a stream.
In pitching its new LS500, an $80,000 sports car, the luxury carmaker opted for a tie-in with the upcoming “Black Panther” movie. In other words, this is about as pro forma as a Super Bowl ad idea gets. That said, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at the car.
Michelob Ultra, C-
“I like beer” say the words to the 1970s country tune repurposed for this spot, which shows athletes and other celebs working out. But the disconnect between the lyrics they chant and the thin taste of this low-cal beer, touted for its sports friendliness, is so profound as to destroy the message. If you actually like beer, you ain’t drinking Mich Ultra.
Stella Artois, C-
So once again, Matt Damon is on hand to push the charitable efforts for relief organization water.org by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the parent of Stella. Buy a limited-edition Stella-branded chalice, he says, and help provide water to the developing world. But reading the fine print reveals a flaw in the logic. Damon says if just “one percent of you watching” buys the goblet, “we could give clean water to 1 million people for five years.” Freeze-frame reveals the actual deal: Stella will only donate $3.13 to water.org for each chalice sold this year ($13 at Amazon) UP TO 300,000 CHALICES. And it takes $3.13 to get one person clean water for five years. So, despite the 1 million people Damon mentions, Stella is only on the hook to help 300,000 (at a price tag to the company of $940,000). There is value, of course, in publicizing charity work because it might inspire others, but in this case you really wonder if AB InBev wouldn’t do a lot more good by simply giving water.org the $940,000 plus the $5 million-plus it costs to run the spot. By the ad’s math, that would provide five years of clean water to almost 2 million people.
“So let’s get Keanu Reeves and have him stand on a moving motorcycle speaking feel-good bromides.” “Yeah, great! Then what?” “Well, the budget kind of runs out after that. But people will be so intrigued they’ll go to the website.” Or maybe they won’t. And maybe the web services company will decide to stick to its forte, podcast advertising.
It’s tough to advertise soda these days. La Croix-swilling consumers are increasingly hip to the notion that a big glass of fizzy sugar water won’t do much for you. Pepsi’s solution? Pretend it’s the past by revisiting Pepsi ads of yore, offering glimpses of Britney Spears, Cindy Crawford, Michael Jackson and the “Back to the Future” DeLorean. A company dreams of simpler times.
Returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since it mocked charitable intentions in 2011, the Chicago discount company has the bright idea of using hypercharming “Girls Trip” star Tiffany Haddish, an avowed Groupon user. But instead of letting her make the pitch, Groupon forces in some dumb physical “comedy,” a football to the gut of a rich guy who hates local businesses. Just let Tiffany be Tiffany.
Too soon? Yes, it is absolutely too soon, and maybe always will be, to enlist a Martin Luther King Jr. speech in service to selling trucks. But Ram does it anyway, backing a series of all-American images (plus trucks) with a King speech from “50 years ago today.”
“If you want to be important, wonderful,” says King, “but recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be a servant.” Ram absolutely does not save the misappropriation that is this ad with the tagline, “Built to serve. Ram.”