We’re grading on a curve this year, because what is the right tone to strike during a Super Bowl held in the midst of a pandemic? Most successful efforts went the usual route — being funny, some thanks to celebrities and other clever concepts — while the lesser ads accidentally played the wrong notes. Dolly Parton advocating for overworking yourself in a time when people barely have the energy to take care of themselves? Lenny Kravitz telling us we’re all billionaires, not literally — in this economy?! — but because of our 2.5 billion heartbeats?


Here are the Super Bowl commercials that could’ve used another go.


Squarespace flipped Dolly Parton’s iconic 1980 song, “9 to 5,” to “5 to 9” in the website hosting company's Super Bowl 2021 commercial. (Squarespace)

Usually, Dolly Parton can do no wrong. And this commercial seemed like it would have all the winning elements: upbeat choreography by the team behind the film “La La Land,” a drab office that becomes magically awash in cheery colors, a cover of a great song and a winking cameo from Dolly.

But it’s the message of this commercial that falls flat: that people should be working their 9 to 5, and then working a second shift on their side hustles from 5 to 9. “Gonna change your life, do something that gives it meaning!” sings Dolly, in her updated lyrics. But for many people this year, side hustles aren’t the topiary-sculpting/cake-baking/furniture-building passion projects the commercial depicts. Those are the types of businesses that have been struggling during the coronavirus pandemic — and side hustles tend to be uncreative, app-based gig work that’s even bleaker than the day job this commercial depicts. Besides, that job probably has health insurance! Kind of important right now! Anyway, there’s also something craven about encouraging people to work harder and longer hours during a freakin’ pandemic. We’re all exhausted, Dolly!

Stella Artois

Musician Lenny Kravitz stars in an ad that tells viewers, “You’re rich in life when you’re a heartbeat billionaire.” (Stella Artois)

In a commercial for Stella Artois, Lenny Kravitz tells us we’re all born with 2.5 billion heartbeats. “That makes you a billionaire,” the musician says. Our bank accounts beg to differ. Yes, the message of the commercial was that our lives are all rich in experiences, but there’s something awfully tone-deaf and insensitive about that “billionaire” framing amid an economic crisis.


There have been many times this year when we, like many people, wished we could leave this cursed planet behind. So it was a surprise to see that Shift4Shop — a platform for building e-commerce stores — was planning to help people make that dream come true. In its Super Bowl commercial, the company launched a contest to send normal people to space. Ha-ha, what could possibly go wrong? The commercial is scant on details, so when we went to the website, we learned that you have to (1) launch an e-commerce business using their platform, then (2) make a video about why the normal people want to go to space, and (3) be judged by a panel of celebrities (undoubtedly the consummate authorities on who is fit for a mission to space). But our question remains: How can a commercial about going to space — literally, outer space! For normals! — be so boring?


Ford hopped on a major theme of the night: honoring essential workers and, in some cases, encouraging everyone to keep fighting. It’s a commendable idea, but the company tacked on some convoluted messaging — asking viewers to “hold the line” and “sacrifice for it” — and ironically ended on a hashtag reading #FinishStrong. But finish what, the pandemic? What exactly does the line have to do with finishing strong? And, for that matter, what does Ford?


Oatly CEO Toni Petersson sings about the oat milk company during the Feb. 7 Super Bowl commercial. (The Original Oatly)

Every year, there’s a Super Bowl commercial that appears to be extremely low-budget, as if the company had enough money to purchase the airtime, but little else. No choreography, music licensing, famous actors — possibly even no director. This year’s jankiest ad came from Oatly, a company that is very good at making oat milk and very bad at making commercials. It starred the company’s CEO, standing in a field and singing a jingle he wrote. The refrain: “Wow, no cow.” Uncomfortably awkward “Napoleon Dynamite” vibes abound.

But the weird, low-budget terribleness seems to have been a deliberate strategy. After the ad aired, Oatly was already selling shirts that say “I Totally Hated That Oatly Commercial,” evidence that the company was trying to make it on a list just like this one. As much as we hate to give them what they want (more attention), they earned it.

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