The cost was daunting: With well over 100 million viewers expected to tune in this year, NBC charged just over $5 million for each 30 second spot. So advertisers were careful about which messages they showcased on the biggest TV platform of the year.
Even so, many of the spots felt handcuffed or held back — so cautious about drawing a laugh or provoking viewers that the primary reaction was just, well, disappointment.
Last year, we saw nods to the nobility of immigration or gender equality or civil rights. Not this year. Perhaps because of fatigue over real-life political battles, marketers this year seemed to tone down the snark and avoid anything with a whiff of a political statement, beyond the idea that it’s a good thing to deliver clean water to people in developing nations and communities ravaged by hurricanes.
With that in mind, here’s my take on the best — and worst — of what I saw in between the big plays in Sunday’s game:
Best Use Of Celebrities: Doritos Blaze Vs. Mountain Dew Ice
If there’s anything cooler than watching Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage strutting through a sitting room on fire while lip-syncing lyrics by Busta Rhymes, it might be seeing Hollywood’s favorite version of God, Morgan Freeman, bringing the chill while miming Missy Elliott. The spot featuring two snack food items is a joyful minute of pop culture craziness, complete with cameos from Rhymes and Elliott and a too-cute moment when Dinklage and Freeman face off. Totally cool, totally hot and totally fun all at once — a rare hat trick for Super Bowl ad makers, who are often too intimidated by the Big Stage to let their hair down and produce something that feels really fun.
Best Use Of A Running Gag: Tide’s Commercials With David Harbour
A few advertisers tried a head fake with viewers, presenting commercials that looked like one kind of ad when they were really something else. Tide’s spots with Harbour pulled this off best, starting out like a car ad or a beer ad and then revealing the Stranger Things star saying, “It’s a Tide ad.” Later in the game, Harbour crashed what looked like an Old Spice ad and a Mr. Clean commercial. This stuff was meta in the most wonderful way, playing with our notions of what a typical Super Bowl ad might look like while coming up with a wholly unique way to sell something as pedestrian as laundry detergent.
Second Best Use Of Celebrities: Alexa Loses Her Voice
As addicting as Alexa can be, how much cooler would it be if the personal assistant’s voice was replaced by Anthony Hopkins, Rebel Wilson or Cardi B? That was the scenario raised by Amazon’s commercial, which features Alexa catching a cold and bowing out for a bit. Awesome as I find the thought of Hopkins delivering weather quotes while feeding peacocks, it was also cool to see one of the world’s richest people, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, get a little screen time, too. A perfect way to use famous names with an attitude.
Worst Use Of A Civil Rights Giant: Ram Trucks
It’s never a good move to make a civil rights leader look like he’s shilling for trucks from beyond the grave. Unfortunately, nobody told that to Ram Trucks, which took audio from a speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave 50 years ago and used it for an ad. The images in the ad aren’t so bad, though I wonder what a man who championed nonviolent protest would think of the footage of soldiers marching in one scene. But the idea that a speech from one of history’s greatest activists would be used to prop up the image of a pickup truck drew lots of backlash online. And it probably didn’t promote the goodwill that the company intended.
Weirdest, Almost-Cool Use Of A Celebrity, Part I: Danny DeVito For M&M’s
Danny DeVito has always looked like a human version of those animated M&M’s, so I suppose it was just a matter of time before the candy company put him in an ad. But once DeVito pops up — after the animated red M&M uses a lucky penny to wish he was human — the ad doesn’t know what to do with him. There’s the obvious gag where the actor asks people, “Do you want to eat me?” Then he gets hit by a passing truck. It takes the already weird notion of making characters out of pieces of candy and blows it up into a bizarre display.
Weirdest, Almost-Cool Use Of A Celebrity, Part II: Tiffany Haddish For Groupon
Tiffany Haddish landed her spokesperson gig after telling a side-splitting story on Jimmy Kimmel Live! about taking Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith on a swamp tour using Groupon. So how does the company feature her in its ad? By having her introduce a sketch where a guy gets hit in the naughty bits by a football. I’m sorry, but that’s not how you feature a red-hot, up-and-coming star who called herself one of the biggest Groupon fans on the planet.
Best Reference To A Bathroom Break: Febreze’s “The Only Man Whose Bleep Don’t Stink”
I dinged Febreze in the past for needlessly reminding us what happens in bathrooms between the halftime whistle and halftime show. So it’s only fair to give them some props for finding a cleverer way to pitch using their air freshener during the Big Game. It features the friends and family of a guy whose “bleep” doesn’t stink. (Turning it into the hashtag #bleepdontstink almost ruins it, though). Of course, it seems a little late to run an ad about freshening your bathroom for the Super Bowl once the game starts — but I guess people can make a last-minute run to the store in a crisis.
Best Announcement For A TV show: Amazon Studios’ “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”
Amazon devoted its first Prime Video Super Bowl ad to a show widely assumed to be an attempt to create a popular hit to boost its original TV series offerings. The ad itself is what you would expect from a high-quality adventure series — shots of star John Krasinski with a gun drawn leading a team of soldiers while explosions flare and a moody version of “All Along the Watchtower” plays in the background. It’s more interesting as a signal to football fans that a meat-and-potatoes action adventure series will soon be available on the home of Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle.
Best Announcement Of A Movie Premiere: Netflix’s “The Cloverfield Paradox”
One of the most frustrating things about movie ads in the Super Bowl is they often hype films that won’t open for months. Netflix solved that problem by debuting the latest film in J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield franchise right after the Super Bowl ended Sunday — just a few hours after the commercial aired. The tactic also neatly stole a bit of thunder from Amazon’s Jack Ryan ad, allowing subscribers to see the movie they’re promoting the second the game ended. Well played, Netflix. Well played, indeed.
Most Oddly Complicated Charity Appeal: Matt Damon’s Stella Artois Chalice
Damon ends a pretty compelling ad about delivering drinking water to developing countries with an odd proposition: If 1 percent of those watching the ad buy a glass chalice with the Stella Artois label, Water.org can bring clean water to 1 million people over five years. Never mind that the math can make your head spin; the Web address to make the purchase appears so quickly you’ll need to pause your DVR to read it. Once you follow the link, you’ll find the chalices cost $13 each, with $3.13 going toward the water effort. It’s a wonderful goal that I hope they reach, but I couldn’t help wondering if there was a slightly less complicated way to drum up viewer dollars.