It’s tough out there for ad agencies. If there was ever a Super Bowl when they had to hit exactly the right tone — not too “In these challenging times,” but also not too glib about a global pandemic; not pretending our country has no problems but also not purporting to solve them, like Pepsi’s infamous 2017 Kendall Jenner ad — this was the year to walk that tightrope. Plus, there was the added challenge of filming with coronavirus restrictions. A few were obviously green-screened. Tonally, many fell spectacularly flat. And overall, it was a weak year for commercials, thanks to an overreliance on bland celebrity cameos. No instant classics were born on Sunday night.
But in these challenging times (we know, we know) a handful of spots made us laugh, and one made us mist up. And only one of them referenced covid. The pandemic was inescapable, represented in the stands with the cardboard cutout fans, and it was visualized in the halftime show, with the dancers’ plague doctor-esque masks. But maybe what we wanted from our commercials was the chance to pretend that everything was normal — at least, until we can drink beer and eat chips together again.
Here are the ads that impressed us the most.
You know those ads that are so great, you don’t even skip them on YouTube when given the option? Michael B. Jordan’s good looks do the heavy lifting here, given that he plays a “beautiful vessel” for Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa. Whenever the woman asks him a question, his eyes flash blue and he answers in a slow, seductive tone: “There are 16 tablespoons in a cup.” He takes his shirt off when she asks him to dim the lights. It’s ridiculous but the concept works, even if the woman’s jealous husband would suggest otherwise. (Disclosure: Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post, and we are asking him to replace various aspects of our newsroom technology with Michael B. Jordan, as well.)
The best Super Bowl ads employ celebrities for a specific reason, and T-Mobile nailed it with a self-aware take on the weirdness of Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton’s relationship. While FaceTiming with fellow (and former) “Voice” coach and apparent cupid Adam Levine, Stefani says she’s “sick of L.A. guys. I want someone completely different, maybe from another country. And someone who is cultured and sensitive and who is not threatened by a strong, confident woman.”
But thanks to spotty service, Levine only hears “completely country,” “uncultured” and “threatened by a strong, confident woman.” Enter Shelton, Stefani’s real-life fiance. T-Mobile urges viewers, “Don’t trust your love life to just any network” (or to the lead singer of Maroon 5, apparently). Sold! Sign us up.
Matthew McConaughey took a break from all those Lincoln commercials to play Flat Stanley, or a 2D version of himself who nearly gets sucked into a Roomba, or maybe one of the cardboard cutout fans in the Tampa stands. “It’s like I used to be on solid ground,” he says before the wind blows him away. “There’s gotta be a way to get back.”
The answer? Doritos 3D Crunch, those puffy chips from the ’90s that serve as a punchline to this ad, now McConaughey’s second entertaining — and vaguely unsettling — exploration of dimension and time travel (after “Interstellar,” of course).
In perhaps the best casting choice of the night, Timothée Chalamet plays Edgar Scissorhands, the child of Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder’s characters from the Tim Burton classic “Edward Scissorhands.” (Chalamet notably dated Depp’s daughter, Lily Rose Depp, so there are layers to this one.) Edgar leads a difficult life as a young man with scissors for hands, able to cut pineapple for Ryder — who reprises her character, Kim Boggs, in the ad — but a public menace on the bus and an accidental football puncturer.
Mother’s intuition kicks in, and Kim surprises Edgar, who is no longer allowed onto the bus, with a Cadillac that has a hands-free cruise function. It remains to be seen whether anyone actually remembers which company aired the Edgar Scissorhands commercial, but points for a pop culture reference that actually felt clever (sorry, “Wayne’s World”).
Toyota turned its commercial over to a short, beautifully filmed profile of Paralympian Jessica Long, a swimmer who has earned 23 Olympic medals. It shows scenes from Long’s life as she rises to the top of her field as a double leg amputee, while we listen in on an imagined phone call to her mother from an adoption agency, outlining the challenges she will face when she takes in baby Jessica from a Siberian orphanage. “Her life, it won’t be easy,” says the adoption agent. “It might not be easy, but it’ll be amazing,” says her mother, joyfully. “I can’t wait to meet her.” It’s a dreamy, semi-surreal spot, as the adult Long is shown swimming through her orphanage, her first swim lessons, and in the Olympics. But mostly, it’s a testament to perseverance and parental love.
The Super Bowl tends to feature a few overly patriotic ads each year, and General Motors put a fun spin on that tradition by giving Will Ferrell a vendetta against Norway for selling more electric cars per capita than the United States. After angrily punching a globe, Ferrell announces that Americans will “crush those lugers” using GM’s electric car battery. “Let’s go, America!”
Unfortunately, Ferrell ends up in Sweden, while sidekicks Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina travel to Finland. Perhaps they’ll figure it out by 2025, the target for GM’s goal of releasing 30 new electric vehicles.
Aubrey Graham returned to his acting roots for an insurance commercial also featuring Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (a.k.a. the soon-to-be Mr. Shailene Woodley), Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Jake from State Farm. It’s meta, seemingly taking place on the set of a commercial, where Rodgers complains that his stand-in doesn’t look anything like him. Mahomes’s stand-in is a clumsy Paul Rudd, who grew up in Kansas City (the only possible explanation here). And then there’s Drake from State Farm, who tries to sing the jingle but is told that stand-ins don’t get lines. Maybe the sadness will fuel his next album.
It’s hard to make a funny commercial referencing what a rough year it has been, but Bud Light managed better than most. The commercial, which advertises the brand’s seltzer lemonade, runs with the “when life gives you lemons” idiom, riffing off 2020 being a “lemon of a year.” Flashback to lemons falling from the sky, causing a biker to crash and a bride to sob while hiding under a table at her outdoor wedding, among other tragedies.
“That was a lot of lemons,” a man says while holding the seltzer. Boy, don’t we know it.