Whether the year’s crop of Super Bowl ads is wonderful, awful, or, like this year, utterly meh-inducing, they always speak to larger trends. This is not only true in advertising, but also in pop culture and society in general. This year’s bunch was especially ripe in that respect.
On the refreshing side, this year we were subjected to far fewer ads aimed at the “typical male viewer.” There was far less of a focus on how chicks are totally lame, dude, because they like shopping and have periods (with the exception of the Pepsi Max ads, which seemed to proceed from precisely this premise to the point of face-palm).
Another aspect of this year’s commercials that felt different from other years was the ubiquity of ads that incorporated sci-fi and fantasy elements. The night’s most anticipated trailers were mostly comic book or extra-terrestrial related, and commercials for non-nerd-specific products also used the tropes and iconography of science fiction. On the night of the most quintessentially masculine event our culture has to offer, it was clear: What was formerly the province of the geeks bullied by the guys on the field is now celebrated by the mainstream.
On to the ads themselves! Because this year was pretty mediocre, rather than a list of the eleven best ads, this list will include the most notable ads — good, bad, and otherwise interesting.
11. Groupon’s Tibet ad
This one belongs firmly in the bad category. With the number of people a commercial has to go through before it gets to air, it’s shocking that one in such bad taste could be produced. It almost makes you respect Groupon for their nerve. Of course, there’s no way everyone in the company was dumb enough to think that no one would be outraged by this ad. My guess is that they wanted to offend people so they could get more publicity, especially since this is one of their first commercials ever. And, of course, I’m feeding into that by writing about it, so I guess it worked.
10. Stella Artois’ Adrien Brody ad
Featuring a fairly good Serge Gainsbourg impression and 1960s Parisian production design, this ad is stylish, sexy and unlike any other shown last night. It especially stands out as an example of a beer commercial, which are generally all about partying and getting the ladies. This one is about those things, but the seduction and the celebration are of a different caliber. The costumes alone are enough to land it on the best-of list, but it’s visually and aurally splendid top to bottom.
9-6. Trailers for Thor, Captain America, Cowboys and Aliens, Super 8, etc.
It’s unfair to rank trailers among other forms of television advertising, because they have an inherent advantage: People actually want to see them. Also, the audience gets to experience parts of the actual product in the same way they would if they were to purchase the product. If you watch a Stella Artois commercial, you still don’t know what the beer is going to taste like — you just get a sense of what type of person might drink the beer, at best. With a trailer, you have a much better idea of what kind of product you’re going to get. That said, these previews are fairly unremarkable unless you already have an interest in the film or the people associated with it. The one for Cowboys and Aliens is good example of what most of these trailers aim to do. Basically, it lets you know that there’s a movie that includes a) cowboys, b) aliens, and c) Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde. No one-liners, no bravura effects, just that basic information — wait for the next trailer if it intrigues.
5. Audi’s “Luxury has progressed” ad
This ad mostly makes this list for two reasons: It’s visually interesting and it blatantly caters to the obscenely wealthy. Rarely do you see a commercial aimed at galvanizing the rich to release their inner less-elderly adult. It simultaneously pokes fun at the wealthy and appeals to them, attempting, I suppose, to bully them into changing. In any case, it’s an odd tactic to use in an era in which many commercials make reference to hard times and saving money. It seems like this ad belongs to another time. It was also pretty funny to see Lhasa Apsos go after people.
4. The various Budweiser and Bud Light ads
These ads are most interesting for the trend they represent rather than for anything in their content. This year, Budweiser, like Doritos and many other companies, opted to make many short, mildly amusing ads rather than one long ambitious ad. Some companies were less successful, but Budweiser’s ads are actually good for a chuckle or two each — and that’s all they go for. My personal favorite was the commercial featuring a tough cowboy who breaks into “Tiny Dancer” after having a sip of Budweiser. Who doesn’t love that song after a few drinks?
3. Bridgestone’s “Reply All” ad
This ad is entertaining for one reason only: It perfectly captures that moment of sheer unfathomable panic one has after doing something embarrassing on the internet — and the ultimate futility of trying to correct such a mistake. It doesn’t really make me want their tires, but it does make me feel the horror.
2. Chrysler’s Detroit ad
One of two ads featuring Eminem last night (with the other being, ironically, about how hard it is to get Eminem to be in an ad), this was probably the most ambitious commercial of the evening. This ad isn’t just selling a car, it’s selling a city — and doing a pretty good job of it, too. It takes the public perception of Detroit as an almost apocalyptic nightmare and uses it to its advantage. Eminem’s presence isn’t even necessary to put this ad in the top two — its remarkable qualities have nothing to do with celebrity.
1. Volkswagen’s “The Force” ad
This adorable commercial is, of course, number one in my book just like everyone else’s. Volkswagen’s had a history of great advertising going back to the “Lemon” ad that so disgusted Don Draper, so it’s no surprise they turned out this little gem. It needs no explanation –- it’s just a perfect blend of entertainment and advertising.