Super Bowl 2021 ad review

We laughed—but not as much as we would have liked (though we’ll take any guffaw, chuckle or snicker we can get these days). We cried (or at least got verklempt) a few times. We also grew more than a bit annoyed (about weak creative and lost opportunities) and bored (by recycled ideas).

But regardless of whether or not any given Super Bowl LV commercial clicked, overall we were pretty dazzled by the astonishing range of enterprise and ingenuity on view. After all, these commercials were created during impossibly trying times—with productions invariably impacted in large and small ways by the pandemic and global recession. In every case it took a lot of courage and persistence, and a certain amount of blind faith, to proceed from rough concept to final cut.

As far as we’re concerned, everyone in the advertising community who made it to the Super Bowl this year should get to go to Disney World (circa 2022 or 2023, or whenever you’re ready). Below, our ad review (5 stars is the top score).

 

First Quarter

M&M’s, “Come Together”
BBDO New York
Score:

In its dryly funny Super Bowl spot, M&M’s positions itself as a gift to be given to accompany an apology. We see an assortment of repentant gift-givers who (supposedly) regret their actions, including a man who’s mansplained to a woman (and then ends up haplessly mansplaining again), and a woman who’s called another woman “Karen”—though it turns out her name actually is Karen, which prompts an additional “Sorry” and a second gift of M&M’s.

We also get some celebrity cameos, in the form of Dan “Schitt’s Creek” Levy and the M&M’s spokescandies. Levy proffers a bag of M&M’s to the green and brown M&M’s spokescandies, saying, “I promise I will not eat any more of your friends.” But then we see that the red M&M’s spokescandy is trapped in the back seat of Levy’s car and is screaming in terror. “OK, it might happen one more time,” says Levy, who really also needs to apologize for giving inanimate M&M’s to the walking-talking M&M’s, which seems grotesquely insensitive (and suggests a chilling sort of caste system in the M&M’s community). Granted, the M&M’s spokescandies have a history of cannibalism, but still.

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GM, “No Way, Norway”
McCann Worldgroup
Score:

In GM’s epic, 90-second spot, Will Ferrell is enraged about the fact that “Norway sells way more electric cars per capita than the U.S.”— so he decides to enlist Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina to head over to Northern Europe for a confrontation of some sort with unsuspecting Norwegians. “With GM’s new Ultium battery,” he says, “we’re going to crush those lugers. Crush them!”

Ferrell is in fine form here—this is peak Ferrellian slapstick—and his easy comedic rapport with Thompson and Awkwafina make this nonsense narrative a daffy delight to watch. Of course, the three pals’ plan to challenge Norway goes a bit haywire (turns out they’re not so good with directions), but no matter, because GM has this covered: The ad ends with an on-screen message that reads “We’re coming, Norway. 30 new EVs by 2025.”

Ads promoting eco-conscious initiatives typically follow an earnest, self-congratulatory template. GM wriggles free from that marketing straightjacket—and breaks through the Super Bowl ad clutter—by graciously deciding to entertain us (while informing us).

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Doritos, “#FlatMatthew”
Goodby, Silverstein & Partners
Score:

Matthew McConaughey is #FlatMatthew—a paper-thin, two-dimensional version of himself—in Doritos’ 60-second Super Bowl spot. “Lately I just haven’t been feeling quite like myself,” #FlatMatthew declares before we see him haplessly navigating the 3D world as he awkwardly interacts with his dog, a friend, a Roomba, a barista and even Jimmy Kimmel and Mindy Kaling in a joint cameo appearance. Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” serves as the soundtrack, telegraphing that #FlatMatthew will indeed find a successful treatment for his condition. It comes not from surgery or medication, but from breaking into a vending machine (he slips right in) to filch a bag of Doritos 3D. Munching on the heavily processed mixture of corn flour, vegetable oil, salt, cheese, Maltodextrin, MSG, buttermilk, whey, onion powder, spices and assorted natural and artificial ingredients miraculously causes #FlatMatthew to instantly plump back up to his old 3D self (perhaps from gas?).

Unfortunately, this happens while he’s still inside the vending machine—but mercifully the commercial ends before first responders show up to free McConaughey and assess his quite-likely horrific injuries (not to mention indigestion). The junk-food-as-cure logic in #FlatMatthew’s universe isn’t new—see Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign from Super Bowl XLIV—but the CGI in this quirky, memorable spot is pretty darn cool and McConaughey is low-key fun to watch.

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Dexcom, “Rant”
Marcus Thomas
Score:

Health-sector commercials—particularly pharmaceutical ads—are notoriously insufferable. Dexcom, which makes a glucose monitoring system for diabetes management, rises above the pack by using a celebrity to prompt a bit of gee-whiz wonder about its state-of-the-art technology. Actor and pop star Nick Jonas, who has Type 1 diabetes, shows up in a leather jacket to marvel about some of the futuristic technology we already live with, including face-aging technology (which he briefly invokes in a moment that seems tailor-made for gif/meme culture), self-driving cars and drones. And yet, he adds, “People with diabetes are still sticking their fingers? What?! … That’s about to change.” Jonas pulls out his smartphone to show us the easy-to-use connected app for the Dexcom G6. Is this amazing creative? Nope. But by deploying a likeable celebrity in a relatable, optimistic way, this spot admirably does its job with clarity and conviction.

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Indeed, “The Rising”
72andSunny
Score:

The deceptively simple setup of this Indeed spot depends on a bit of typographical animation. Superimposed over scenes of diverse, everyday jobseekers, we see the words “We help get jobs” with a gap between “help” and “jobs.” As we hear a stellar, soulful cover of Andra Day’s anthemic “Rise Up,” that gap gets filled out in various ways every few seconds: “We help the ones starting out get jobs,” “We help the ones starting over get jobs,” “We help the ones thinking about today get jobs,” “We help the ones thinking about tomorrow get jobs,” “We help the hell-bent get jobs,” “We help the determined get jobs,” “We help the qualified get jobs,” “We help the hopeful get jobs,” “We help the passionate get jobs,” “We help the beginners get jobs,” “We help the experienced get jobs” and “We help the ready get jobs.”

Combined with the images and the music, the sentences serve as powerful, moving reminders of the emotional journey involved in searching for the right job. It feels exactly right for this cultural moment—it connects with the hopes and fears regarding employment that so many of us are experiencing in the midst of a brutal global recession—and in a brilliant touch, the ad closes with a brief scene of a woman in a car looking absolutely overcome with joy. It’s clear she’s just landed the job of her dreams.

This might just be the best job listings site ad since Monster.com’s classic “When I Grow Up” from Super Bowl XXXIII (1999).

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Logitech, “Defy Logic”
In-house
Score:

Logitech’s Super Bowl spot starring Lil Nas X does what it sets out to do: It makes the digital accessories company seem cooler than you probably think it is (if you think about it at all) by aligning the brand with “creator” culture. “We stand there in defiance,” says Lil Nas X as we see a montage of ultra-cool people creating and doing, well, ultra-cool things—and it helps the cause enormously that the propulsive beat of a Lil Nas X song makes the spot almost danceable.

The sentiments expressed here don’t break new ground: “We the makers, we the groundbreakers, we the creators, the screamers, the dreamers,” Lil Nas X continues. “We defy expectations, perceptions and misconceptions.” You’ve seen and heard this kind of stuff in ads before, most notably in Apple’s old “Think Different” campaign as well as its ongoing series of “Behind the Mac” spots starring big-name celebrity creators. But Logitech’s version skews younger, hipper, fresher—and Lil Nas X’s parting words nicely weave together the ad’s theme with a deft play on the brand name: “To create the future, we must defy the logic of the past. We must defy logic.”

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Pringles, “Space Return”
Grey Group
Score:

In a gratuitously big-budget production, Pringles tells us the tale of a couple of astronauts who are stranded at sea after their lunar pod returns from space. “Where is everyone?” one of the astronauts says upon opening a hatch and surveying the lonely waters. Cue a scene from the NASA-ish mission control room, where, instead of monitoring a video feed from the pod, workers are obsessing over creating a Pringles “flavor stack” by combining various flavors of Pringles. We also see a passing freighter filled with grubby-looking sailors who are speaking something that’s not English, and they are likewise too absorbed in Pringles flavor-stacking to rescue the astronauts. What’s the point here? That extreme self-absorption, to the point of dereliction of duty, is universal—and somehow funny? (Spoiler: It’s not.)

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Shift4Shop, “Join Us”
Known
Score:

In this 30-second spot, Shift4Shop encourages us to visit Inspiration4.com “for your chance to go to space.” The e-commerce platform is sponsoring SpaceX Inspiration4, a planned October low-orbit trip that will be the first all-civilian mission to space.

To hype the opportunity, this oddly subdued ad simply offers us slow-mo close-up shots of a starkly lit Inspiration4 space suit that’s floating through a solid black void—a version of what we’ve seen about 1,000 times before in Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy commercials—as the announcer (Octavia Spencer) reads the pitch and a moody cover of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” plays. Creatively, it feels like a lost opportunity, but that probably doesn’t matter; millions of wannabe astronauts will likely flock to the website (which, of course, includes a Shift4Shop-powered e-commerce section complete with commemorative gear) and millions more will get this straightforward ad’s very clear message that the era of space tourism is upon us.

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DoorDash, “The Neighborhood”
The Martin Agency
Score:

First, some essential context: Right before Thanksgiving 2020, food delivery service DoorDash made headlines by agreeing to pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the attorney general of Washington, D.C., alleging that it basically lied to customers about its tip policy. It turns out that in certain circumstances, tips that thankful customers thought were going directly and entirely to delivery workers were actually getting skimmed by DoorDash. Like a lot of “gig economy” companies, DoorDash has been under fire for how it treats its largely freelance workforce.

How to overcome that type of bad publicity (other than, say, treating your workers better)? Find some way to make your brand seem less ruthless and more warm and fuzzy. Enter those icons of warmth and fuzziness, the Muppets, who get deployed in DoorDash’s 60-second Super Bowl spot, along with “Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs and a few other humans, for an adaptation of “People in Your Neighborhood.”

That song, familiar to millions of Americans who grew up watching “Sesame Street,” gets retrofitted with lyrics such as “culinary artists with delicious cuisines” and “empanadas down the street.” Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover and friends are enlisted to shill for a tech giant (is nothing sacred?) that raised billions last December (right after that pesky tip-skimming lawsuit was settled) in one of the biggest IPOs of 2020. Again, the strategy here is a pretty transparent attempt to trade on the cuteness and charm of the Muppets (and Diggs) to try to burnish DoorDash’s image. And we’re supposed to be OK with that because, we’re told, “For every order, we’ll donate $1 to Sesame Workshop,” the nonprofit production company behind “Sesame Street” (every order, that is, placed on Feb. 7 and 8, and not to exceed $1 million, per the small print on the screen).

Today’s lesson from “Sesame Street”: Absolutely everybody has a price.

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Bud Light, “Bud Light Legends”
Score:

Ads about ads are, of course, a whole recurring thing. (Madison Avenue’s favorite subject is Madison Avenue.) Geico’s “The Best of Geico” campaign from 2019 pulled it off, and now Bud Light wryly mines its own ad catalog in a “Bud Light Legends” spot that positions some of its assorted past commercial characters and celebrity spokesfolk as unlikely superheroes. After a Bud Light truck tips over and spills its cargo all over a road, the Legends show up out of nowhere to help save the day. Across 60 seconds, we reencounter the likes of the “Real Men of Genius” singer and Dr. Galazkiewicz as well as non-fictional (more or less) characters Cedric the Entertainer and Post Malone. But what makes the spot really click is that the Bud Knight has a mishap (R.I.P., maybe), and the “I love you, man” guy pops up to pay his respects.

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Chipotle, “Can a Burrito Change the World?”
Venables Bell & Partners
Score:

“What if this could change the world?” a boy asks as he stares at the burrito he’s eating at a kitchen counter. His sister speaks for all of us when she says “You are so weird,” but that doesn’t stop her little bro from engaging in an unlikely, rambling reverie: “It could change how we plant things, grow things, water things, pick things, move things …”—we see all these things happening in an elaborate montage—“It could make our farmers happier, more organic, more real, more soil-helping, less carbon-emitting and world-changing!” His sister, thankfully, cuts him off (“Are you still talking?”) and we’re left to wonder if Chipotle’s market share will rise among precocious, eco-conscious boys who, improbably, care deeply about the ethical implications of supply-chain management and the future of the burrito-industrial complex.

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State Farm, “Drake from State Farm”
The Marketing Arm
Score:

For its big Super Bowl moment, State Farm presents an ad that’s about ad-making. Going in, it helps if you know what a stand-in is, because this spot shows Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Jake from State Farm (Kevin Miles) talking about their stand-ins while taking a break from shooting their commercial. Rodgers is a bit miffed that his stand-in, a dorky guy in a cheesehead hat, doesn’t look “anything like me,” while Mahomes just seems confused that his stand-in is Paul Rudd. (“It’s like looking in a mirror, right?” Rudd says, before fumbling a football toss.) As for Jake from State Farm, he initially pretends he doesn’t have a stand-in, until Mahomes spots rapper Drake grazing at the craft-services table.

Drake identifies himself as “Drake from State Farm” (ha!) and keeps trying to deliver Jake’s “Like a good neighbor” line—until Jake explains that stand-ins don’t have lines.

The ad is fun, but it serves up a lot of (expensive) star power for relatively minimal yield.

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Mtn Dew, “Mtn Dew Major Melon Bottle Count”
TBWA/Chiat/Day New York
Score:

In its Super Bowl commercial, PepsiCo’s Mtn Dew (Mountain Dew) deploys John Cena to invite you to count all the bottles of Mtn Dew Major Melon on view across the spot’s 30 seconds for a chance to win $1 million. Cena, who’s in his usual goofy mood, is shown motoring with a pal through a surreal alternate universe that looks like a cross between Las Vegas and something out of Candy Crush Saga. The bottles are kind of all over the place, and they whiz by in hyperactive edits, so we gave up counting right away.

It’s a fun idea—a sort of real-time Where’s Waldo done at industrial scale—and it’s got a built-in social activation: You enter by tweeting your count (or guess).

For the record, we feel like it would be rude to point out that a cool million seems kinda low considering what PepsiCo had to pay to air this ad. So, we’re not going to do that.

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Second Quarter

Scotts Miracle-Gro, “Keep Growing”
VaynerMedia
Score:

Scotts Miracle-Gro shows us a bunch of random, disconnected celebrities—including Martha Stewart, Carl Weathers, Nascar racer Kyle Busch, John Travolta (with his daughter, Ella) and Leslie David Baker (Stanley from “The Office”)—gardening, golfing and generally goofing off in their backyards. The point of the spot is a call to action: Scotts wants us all to text a number shown on screen (which feels like a very circa-2006 commercial strategy, but whatever) to find out how to enter a contest to win “the lawn and garden of your dreams.” It’s a lot to take in in 45 seconds, and, confusingly, we’re supposed to believe that all these celebs live in the same neighborhood with adjoining backyards. In the end, the spot feels disjointed and needlessly overstuffed—as if written, cast and directed by committee.

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Tide, “The Jason Alexander Hoodie”
Woven Collaborative
Score:

A mom suggests that her son’s hoodie—a trendy, flesh-colored monstrosity that hilariously has the giant face of “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander printed on it—is dirtier than he thinks. Cue a montage of the hoodie getting subjected to all manner of everyday abuse (a dog drools on it, food gets spilled on it, a basketball gets slammed into it), underscored by the cheesily upbeat 1981 Joey Scarbury hit “Believe It Or Not.”

The brilliant thing is that, thanks to a little CGI magic, Alexander’s face on the hoodie reacts to the indignities with a whole range of over-the-top, Seinfeldian emotion: disgust, horror, despair, self-pity, etc. After the mom declares that “You owe Jason Alexander Hoodie an apology,” her son dutifully tosses it into the washing machine with new Tide Hygienic Clean. An on-screen tagline—“It’s dirtier than it looks”—neatly sums up the whole point of the ad.

And in a wonderfully less-is-more moment, the actual Jason Alexander pops up at the very end to confront the hoodie-wearing son in a chance encounter. Across the minute-long spot we’re not only taken on a very funny journey, we’re possibly even convinced, against all odds, that the world might need yet another variety of laundry detergent.

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Skechers, “To the Max”
In-house
Score:

In this trying-too-hard-to-be-funny 30-second Skechers spot, Tony Romo and his wife, Candice, are identified on-screen as “comfort enthusiasts.” Right before they try to show us what that means, Tony declares that “we take things to the max” in the Romo household. Cue Tony sitting at the kitchen table and calling out “Honey, get my stretch pants” (inconsiderate) before digging into a stupidly massive sandwich (just gross). Moments later we see Candice lying in bed on multiple mattresses that are stacked so high she could touch her bedroom ceiling (dangerous). And then, in their driveway, we learn that Tony’s ride has monster-truck-level tires on them (also dangerous).

So what’s the point of our spending a precious half-minute with this extravagantly misguided, self-indulgent couple? Per Tony: “That’s why we love Skechers Max Cushioning footwear. They’ve maxed out the comfort for extreme comfort. Bam!”

And just like that, totally uncool brand Skechers seems even less cool. Uncool to the max, in fact. Bam!

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Toyota, “Upstream”
Saatchi & Saatchi
Score:

In a poetic, gorgeously filmed 60-second vignette, Toyota tells how Paralympian Jessica Long came to be adopted from a Siberian orphanage by an American couple. We see Long swimming in open waters that artfully, symbolically meld with the adoption agency and what would become her adoptive home. And we hear how Long’s future parents learned she would have to have her legs amputated due to a rare medical condition.

Long would go on to become a 13-time Paralympic gold medalist. As we see the smiling swimmer, now 28, contemplating her life’s journey, an announcer says, “We believe there is hope and strength in all of us.” The spot is an elegant, quietly moving way for Toyota to call attention to its support of the Olympics—the announcer says the carmaker is a “proud partner of Team USA”—and align its brand with optimism, perseverance and triumph over adversity.

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TurboTax, “Spreading Tax Expertise Across the Land”
Wieden+Kennedy
Score:

TurboTax serves up a clever visualization of its virtual deployment of TurboTax Live tax experts by showing us a series of desks with computer monitors on them traveling (in a magical, self-driving-car sort of way) through the American heartland. An expert on one of the screens sings a country song that offers obscure tips on tax laws (e.g., “If you’re 100 in New Mexico, you’ll pay no state taxes now”—news that pleases one fabulous centenarian). In the end, as a bunch of the desk-screen combos converge on one all-American neighborhood, the assorted experts join voices and sing their chorus/tagline: “Tax experts spreading expertise across the land.” It’s a surprisingly warm, winning way to (literally) drive home the value-add of the product.

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WeatherTech, “Family”
Pinnacle Advertising
Score:

Car accessory maker WeatherTech, known for its laser-measured floor mats, once again serves up some old-fashioned, made-in-America pride in a pair of complementary 30-second spots. In the first ad, we hear directly from employees on its factory floor, who declare that “I love telling people I work at WeatherTech” and “At WeatherTech, I’m very proud of the work that I do” and so on. It’s an exceedingly simple, no-frills spot that will either make you feel happy for these happy people or worry that they’re actually unhappy but were pressured to pretend to be happy on camera. (See the “Third Quarter” section for the second WeatherTech ad.)

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Bud Light Seltzer, “Last Year’s Lemons”
Wieden+Kennedy
Score:

“When life gives you lemons …”—yeah, we don’t need to finish the saying, and neither does this ad for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, which declares that “2020 was a lemon of a year” and then shows us apocalyptic scenes of lemons falling from the sky, like a plague of locusts. The ad quickly cranks up to the whimsical conceit to alarming levels, with scenes of mass panic, widespread property damage and implied injuries—an odd and strangely tone-deaf creative choice in the wake of a devastating year marked by widespread suffering and death. Anyhow, drink up!

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E-Trade, “Workout”
MullenLowe U.S.
Score:

In E-Trade’s 30-second Super Bowl spot, a slight, nerdy boy (think Macaulay Culkin circa “Home Alone”) sits on his bed watching a video in which a boxer, flexing a bicep and strutting around the ring with her championship belt, declares, “This is how you become the best!” He’s transfixed—and inspired. Cue a montage of the boy in training mode—doing jumping jacks in his bedroom, lifting some paint cans in the garage, lugging a tire in the backyard—as Joe Esposito’s cheesy 1984 synth pop-rock hit “You’re The Best Around,” from “The Karate Kid,” plays.

We then see our protagonist back in his bedroom, regarding himself pridefully in a mirror as he flexes a bicep (he seems to have made no progress at all), at which point the music abruptly stops and a message flashes on the screen: “This might be the year you finally get in shape.” A moment later, we see a follow-up line: “Financially, at least.” An announcer says, “Don’t get mad, get E-Trade”—the tagline of a continuing campaign that doesn’t quite track here—”and take charge of your finances today.”

It’s cute—or cute enough—but instantly forgettable.

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Hellmann’s, “Fairy Godmayo”
Wunderman Thompson
Score:

Amy Schumer portrays Hellmann’s Fairy Godmayo—a winged humanoid who suddenly appears in one man’s kitchen as he puzzles over how to make a meal out of all the random stuff he’s got in his refrigerator. Despite the brash home invasion, our everyman rolls with it, deferring to the Fairy Godmayo’s mayonnaise-related food-prep expertise. Fortunately, he’s got a jar of Hellman’s in his fridge, which allows FG to work her magic and instantly whip up a “creamy, dreamy” array of meal options. The spot briskly makes its point, and an on-screen tagline—“Make Taste. Not Waste”—positions Hellmann’s as a go-to leftovers-helper. And the reliably funny Schumer got us to chuckle with her confession about her non-mayo-related skill set.

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Jimmy John’s, “Meet the King”
Anomaly LA
Score:

Jimmy John’s introduces us to Tony “The King of Cold Cuts” Bolognavich, a Mafia-esque sandwich kingpin portrayed by Brad Garrett. He’s pissed off that Jimmy John’s—the national chain that he keeps referring to as “Jimmy’s John’s” for some reason—has invaded his turf with its “high-quality, reasonably priced sandwiches” and “all-natural meat sliced by hand.” And so he declares that “This is war. Sandwich war,” before a teaser flashes on screen: “The story continues at JimmyJohns.com.” (Most Super Bowl viewers saw a 30-second version of this spot, but selected markets got a 60 with additional scenes.)

Honestly, the call to action here is kind of a big ask. Bolognavich is an amusing enough character, and Garrett plays him with sleazy conviction, but it’s hard to imagine your average TV viewer thinking, “Gosh, I want more Bolognavich content in my life! Lemme fire up my web browser right now!” Good luck with that, Jimmy’s John’s.

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Oatly, “Wow No Cow”
In-house
Score:

At the very start of Oatly’s 30-second Super Bowl spot, you might think you’re watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt sunning himself. But nope, an on-screen ID appears two seconds in—”Toni Petersson, CEO Oatly”—and the JGL look-alike starts singing “It’s like milk, but made for humans.” The camera pulls back and we can see that Petersson is playing an electric piano in a field.

If this seems vaguely familiar, it’s because Oatly posted some of this footage on its YouTube channel back in 2017 with this explanation: “In a one of a kind performance, multi-talented CEO Toni Petersson sings a song he wrote entirely by himself to explain exactly what Oatly is all about. Please feel free to like, share and comment. Toni is a big boy, he can take it.” (And before that, it turns out, a version of the footage appeared in an ad in Sweden.)

Um, so, this is an eco-conscious commercial, we suppose, because it’s recycled? Anyway, now we can’t get the chorus (“Wow, wow! No cow!”) out of our heads. Damn it.

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Rocket Mortgage (Quicken Loans), “Certain Is Better”
Highdive
Score:

Tracy Morgan serves up some high-grade, well, Tracy Morganness in Quicken Loans’ Super Bowl spot for its Rocket Mortgage service—which is to say that this is an over-the-top, absurdist delight. The spot starts with a shot of a family arriving at an open house, and then standing in the living room to discuss. Mom says, “Can we even afford this house?” Dad says, “I’m pretty sure we can.” Morgan—who is revealed to be in the nearby bathroom, taking a bubble bath (of course), chimes in: “Pretty sure?! With Rocket Mortgage you can be certain—not pretty sure!”

Cue a montage of scenes of Morgan showing the family how bad it is to be just “pretty sure” in certain circumstances. “I’m pretty sure these aren’t poisonous,” he says of mushrooms found in the woods (bad news for Dad, who just ate some). “I’m pretty sure these are parachutes,” he says about what appear to be children’s backpacks (just before he pushes Dad out of an airplane). “I’m pretty sure you could take Bautista down,” he says of former mixed martial artist Dave Bautista, who overhears that speculation and promptly engages poor Dad in a fight. And so on.

We’re pretty sure—scratch that, certain—this is one of the funniest ads in the whole game.

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Mercari, “Get Your Unused Things Back in the Game”
Rain the Growth Agency
Score:

A young man and woman (newlyweds?) both simultaneously unbox identical hot air popcorn poppers (duplicate wedding gifts?) in their living room. Our protagonists decide to list the extra on the app-based Mercari marketplace, and then we’re instantly transported to another household where the spare popper is now being deployed by some roomies watching football. “At Mercari, your unneeded things can find a new life,” an announcer declares with cheerful conviction, probably hoping against all hope that we won’t think about the actual challenges of peer-to-peer e-commerce—including the cost and hassle of shipping merch to cheap-ass randos who think that buying unwanted electrical appliances from strangers on the internet is a good idea.

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Dr. Squatch, “You’re Not a Dish”
Raindrop Marketing
Score:

A regular-guy on-camera spokesman for direct-to-consumer brand Dr. Squatch declares that “Your soap is [bleep]. And your body wash is a synthetic detergent. But you’re not a dish. You’re a man.” He makes these assertions not only to us, but to another regular-guy guy who is, for some reason, taking a shower in the woods. “Switch to Dr. Squatch natural soap for men,” the announcer advises. “Men who build things. Open pickle jars on the first try. Slay dragons. And let their daughters braid their hair.” (Each of these examples of regular-guy masculinity are briefly, comically depicted.) “Men,” he continues, “who like to feel good and smell…titillating.” (He says that last word with exaggerated flourish.)

The ad has an appealingly unpretentious feel, and it avoids all the over-the-top clichés about product features and modern manhood that incumbent personal-care brands for men can’t seem to shake. Sure, the tongue-in-cheek sensibility here is straight out of the Old Spice playbook, but the execution feels more DIY than CGI. It wouldn’t surprise us if this turns out to be one of the lowest-budget-but-highest-return Super Bowl ads.

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Vroom, “Dealership Pain”
Anomaly
Score:

Vroom has been running a series of ads that focus on the misery of used car shopping. But in its Big Game spot, it ups the ante by serving up a mini horror movie that depicts used car shopping as literal torture. “So, are you going to buy the car?” a dealer says as he emerges from his office, jumper cables in hand, and approaches a sweaty, tied-up customer he’s left waiting. The poor guy pleads with him: “Please! If I could just go home and discuss things with my wife!” The dealer doesn’t like that answer and, as ominous music plays, he makes the jumper cables spark by rubbing the clamps together. “You can leave anytime you want!” he says, obviously not meaning it, as he lurches toward the customer, who screams rather convincingly. (Solid acting and production values here.)

Fortunately, we don’t have to witness exactly where the dealer intended to attach the clamps (nips? nads?) because the customer snaps out of his waking nightmare just in time to watch the flatbed delivery of a car he painlessly bought through Vroom. An announcer instructs us to “Never go to a dealership again.” OK, sure, so long as we also never have to see this ad again—that’s how strangely jarring and traumatizing it is.

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T-Mobile, “Rockstar 5G”
Panay Films
Score:

In the first of its two Super Bowl spots, T-Mobile offers us a flashback to “a few years ago” (per an on-screen caption). We see pop star Gwen Stefani video-calling fellow pop star Adam Levine. “I think I’m ready to start dating again,” she tells him, and when he asks “What are you looking for?,” she says “I’m sick of L.A. guys. I want someone completely different. Maybe from another country, and someone cultured and sensitive, and who is not threatened by a strong, confident woman.”

Cue the announcer, who says, “On a spotty network, this is what Adam heard.” We now see Stefani’s face on Levine’s phone in a video call that’s clearly glitching and breaking up. “I want someone completely … country … uncultured and … threatened by a strong, confident woman.” (Ha!) Levine happens to be out to eat with his unsuspecting friend Blake Shelton, the country star. “I have your guy,” Levine says, chuckling. Next thing you know, Stefani and Shelton are on an uncomfortable blind date.

T-Mobile’s announcer swoops in to tell us, “Don’t trust your love life to just any network.” It’s a funny conceit, and thanks to deft performances by Stefani, Levine and Shelton (who is obviously a good sport), it works—if you don’t think about it too much. Because, of course, in real life Stefani and Shelton are very much together and apparently in love; they announced their engagement last October. Logically, according to this ad, they owe their happiness to the fact that their mutual friend Adam Levine wasn’t a T-Mobile customer “a few years ago.”

So in a way, this commercial is a cosmic-level endorsement of spotty cellular service.

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Huggies, “Welcome to the World, Baby”
Droga5
Score:

For its Super Bowl ad, Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies serves up shots of babies that were born on Game Day—literally today—which means pulling this ad off was a major production challenge. (The final cut borrows from some elements that appeared in “Welcome to the World, Baby,” a 105-second version of this campaign released online as an “extended cut” teaser on Feb. 2.) An announcer says welcoming, reassuring things to the babies such as “Welcome to Earth” and “Being a baby is pretty great” and “We got you, baby.” It is, of course, super cute (though it’s cuter in long-form), and Huggies mercifully avoids informing the babies about things like COVID-19, the global recession and the Kardashians. Speaking of being uninformed, the announcer doesn’t seem to realize that newborn babies don’t speak English, so they can’t understand a thing he’s saying. We’re kind of jealous of those babies.

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Third Quarter

Cheetos, “It Wasn’t Me”
Goodby, Silverstein, & Partners
Score:

There’s trouble in power-couple paradise, as Ashton Kutcher suspects that his wife, Mila Kunis, has stolen his bag of Cheetos Crunch Pop Mix. Kunis denies it, despite the incriminating evidence—including orange Cheetos dust on her fingers and face—and even as Kutcher keeps the pressure on her by talk-singing accusations to the tune of Shaggy’s 2000 reggae hit “It Wasn’t Me.” For some reason, Shaggy himself is also on hand to deliver adapted “It Wasn’t Me” lyrics as he strolls through the couple’s mansion. In the end, to Shaggy’s surprise, Kutcher seems to accept Kunis’ assertion of innocence—but the dejected way Kutcher says “Oh, OK” and walks away feels like quiet defeat. We understand that he must acquiesce to keep the peace with his deceitful spouse. While every marriage requires some compromise, this ends up feeling like an unhappy standoff. Also, if Kunis is lying to Kutcher about Cheetos Crunch Pop Mix, what else is she hiding from him?

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WeatherTech, “We Never Left”
Pinnacle Advertising
Score:

The second of a set of two WeatherTech commercials (see above for the other spot) follows the same template as the first: WeatherTech employees deliver soundbites straight from the factory floor, including “At WeatherTech, we don’t need to bring jobs back to America” and “To us, coming back doesn’t make any sense”—because, as both employees and the announcer declare, “We never left.” Imagine that!

As with the first ad, the line readings are a bit stiff and the production values are unremarkable. That said, WeatherTech’s no-frills approach to advertising is, by now, something of a Super Bowl tradition, so here’s to dull-but-worthy consistency.

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Mercari, “Get Your Unused Things Back in the Game”
Rain the Growth Agency
Score:

A young man and woman (newlyweds?) both simultaneously unbox identical hot air popcorn poppers (duplicate wedding gifts?) in their living room. Our protagonists decide to list the extra on the app-based Mercari marketplace, and then we’re instantly transported to another household where the spare popper is now being deployed by some roomies watching football. “At Mercari, your unneeded things can find a new life,” an announcer declares with cheerful conviction, probably hoping against all hope that we won’t think about the actual challenges of peer-to-peer e-commerce—including the cost and hassle of shipping merch to cheap-ass randos who think that buying unwanted electrical appliances from strangers on the internet is a good idea.

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Uber Eats, “Eat Local”
The Special Group
Score:

Uber Eats’ Super Bowl spot starring Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) makes all kinds of no sense in 2021. For starters, the characters’ shtick—that they’re hosting a local cable-access TV show called “Wayne’s World” from the basement of Wayne’s parents’ home in Aurora, Illinois—is a distant memory even for TV viewers of a certain age. (The “Saturday Night Live” sketches and spin-off “Wayne’s World” movies date to the ’80s and ’90s.) Most younger viewers, meanwhile, will have no idea what a cable-access TV show is—a disconnect the creators of this spot try to compensate for by throwing in a present-day celebrity guest, Cardi B, and a TikTok-style dance sequence.

“As a local access show, we want everyone to support local restaurants,” Wayne says. The boys (and Cardi B), it turns out, are here to promote Uber Eats’ Eat Local, an initiative to support struggling local independent restaurants in cities across the U.S. (The ad doesn’t say so, but Uber Eats is putting $20 million behind the effort over the next six months.) They try a little ham-handed manipulative advertising—cue a sexy-Garth sequence, the gratuitous use of cute babies (wearing “Eat Local” T-shirts) and the aforementioned celebrity cameo—before rocking out to one of Wayne’s signature guitar jams and singing “Local eats! Wayne’s World! Yummy time! Excellent!”

It’s a confusing, decade-hopping pop-cultural mashup—but hey, it’s for a good cause, so…party on?

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Michelob Ultra, “All-Star Cast”
FCB
Score:

To make a point about authenticity, Michelob Ultra serves up a bunch of scenes of seemingly famous people doing famous-people things—shooting an action-movie scene, performing a song, walking the red carpet—while we hear an announcer, who sounds like Christopher Walken, speculate about the inner lives of “supastars.”

If you feel like everything’s a little off here, your suspicions are soon confirmed by a dramatic reveal on a yacht when Real Don Cheaple confronts Fake Don Cheadle (his brother Colin). The other celebs are also revealed to “lookalikes” and “fakes” (and the announcer confesses that “I’m not Christopher Walken”). Figures someone would do a #FakeNews Super Bowl ad this year, eh? Anyway, Real Don Cheadle says that “In a world where most things seem real, sometimes they’re not. …New Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer is real, and it tastes that way.” Fair enough—though we’ll believe it when we buy it and try it. Maybe.

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Fiverr, “Opportunity Knocks”
Publicis
Score:

In this spot, freelance marketplace Fiverr gives Four Seasons Total Landscaping—the Philadelphia business where Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani staged a notoriously bizarre and out-of-place press conference last November—an extra 30 seconds to tack on to its 15 minutes of fame. Our vantage point is the familiar parking lot of the establishment, where we see workers hoisting an addendum to the FSTL signage that reads “& Press Venue!” Four Seasons co-owner Marie Siravo, who’s been supervising the installation, turns to the camera and says, “Success! It’s often: right place, right time.” As the garage-door entrance rolls open, she adds that “Fiverr gets that” and starts walking us through the inside of her business, which confusingly has diorama-like displays of workers looking at monitors that display Fiverr listings showing the kinds of services you can book. “From graphic design to web development,” Siravo explains. “Or even a PR expert for things like, I don’t know, booking a press conference!” (Har har.)

Thanks, but given that Fiverr’s whole business model revolves around cut-rate services (“Fiverr” is a reference to $5, the theoretical starting point for many of the platform’s so-called “gigs”), no thanks.

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T-Mobile, “Family Drama”
Pinay Films
Score:

In the second of its two Super Bowl spots, T-Mobile shows “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson and his real-life mom, Doris Hancox, along with some family and friends, playing a friendly-ish game of football. Distant family and friends get to tune in and watch all the drama—including what the announcer characterizes as “hardcore trash talk” between the hypercompetitive mother and her son—thanks to video-calling on T-Mobile’s 5G network.

“Don’t trust your family drama to just any network,” the announcer says, explaining the point of all this.

This commercial looks like it was fun to shoot, but there’s an awful lot going on (there’s even a cameo appearance by Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs), which the announcer tries to sort out for us in voiceover. When your ad needs a play-by-play, that’s a sign it might be a wee bit overwritten.

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State Farm, “Drake from State Farm”
The Marketing Arm
Score:

For its big Super Bowl moment, State Farm presents an ad that’s about ad-making. Going in, it helps if you know what a stand-in is, because this spot shows Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Jake from State Farm (Kevin Miles) talking about their stand-ins while taking a break from shooting their commercial. Rodgers is a bit miffed that his stand-in, a dorky guy in a cheesehead hat, doesn’t look “anything like me,” while Mahomes just seems confused that his stand-in is Paul Rudd. (“It’s like looking in a mirror, right?” Rudd says, before fumbling a football toss.) As for Jake from State Farm, he initially pretends he doesn’t have a stand-in, until Mahomes spots rapper Drake grazing at the craft-services table.

Drake identifies himself as “Drake from State Farm” (ha!) and keeps trying to deliver Jake’s “Like a good neighbor” line—until Jake explains that stand-ins don’t have lines.

The ad is fun, but it serves up a lot of (expensive) star power for relatively minimal yield.

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Fourth Quarter

Amazon, “Alexa’s Body”
Lucky Generals
Score:

If, like us, you’ve asked Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, semi-inappropriate questions now and then (“Alexa, what are you wearing?” “Alexa, do you love me?”), you know that she is almost aggressively prim and sexless. So the conceit of this ad, which has a female executive daydreaming about what life would be like if Alexa lived inside the body of her celebrity crush Michael B. Jordan, is confusing from the get-go. Jordan hangs out in her house and responds to her voice prompts with smoldering swagger. All of this annoys our protagonist’s jealous husband, who is moved to intervene after his spouse commands Alexa/Jordan to turn on a connected lawn sprinkler system. “Alexa, stop!” he says. “Things are getting way too wet around here.” So, yeah, things get…weird.

The relationship drama here calls to mind the heartbreaking 2013 Spike Jonze sci-fi film “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as a schlub who falls in love with his AI assistant (played by an unseen Scarlett Johansson). That film was a masterpiece. This ad isn’t. On the up side, Michael B. Jordan strips off his shirt at one point for no good reason—other than he looks great with his shirt off. So there’s that.

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Klarna, “Four Quarter-Sized Cowboys”
Miramar
Score:

How do installment-plan payments work? There are countless tedious, boring ways to answer that question. But Klarna, a Swedish financial-services company that allows merchants to offer buyers the option to pay over time across four separate payments, found a clever, entertaining way to explain its utility to consumers.

Four women—all played by beloved “Saturday Night Live” alum Maya Rudolph—ride into an old-timey Western town on horseback while singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” She (they?) is determined to buy a cute pair of pink boots in a local shop, though they look kind of expensive. So Maya No. 1 says “I’ll make payment one” while tapping her smartphone screen, and then the three other Mayas chime in and commit to making the remaining payments. In case you weren’t sure what just happened, a message flashes on screen—“PAY IN 4 SMALL PAYMENTS”—before the Klarna logo and slogan, “Smooth shopping,” close out the spot.

Smooth indeed.

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Cadillac, “Scissor Hands-Free”
Leo Burnett
Score:

In its 60-second Super Bowl commercial, GM’s Cadillac division introduces us to Edgar, the son of Edward Scissorhands, who shares his (absentee) dad’s condition, affects the same quasi-goth fashion statement and Robert Smith-esque haircut, and is played by an actor, Timothée Chalamet, who kinda-maybe vaguely looks like a young Johnny Depp, if you squint. Edgar lives with his mom (portrayed by Winona Ryder, who also played Edward’s love interest in the 1990 “Edward Scissorhands” movie). Mom, we can see, is sympathetic to her boy’s struggles (e.g., he can’t catch a football without deflating it, which, sorry, made us think of Tom Brady’s Deflategate … but we digress).

Mom decides she can help Edgar better navigate the world by buying him a new Cadillac—specifically, the all-electric Cadillac Lyriq, which, some on-screen type informs us, has “Hand-free Super Cruise: Driver assistance feature for compatible roads.”

Near the end of the ad, Edgar’s mom, sitting in the Lyriq’s passenger seat as he drives, says “Go ahead, try it,” and so he uses one of his scissorfingers to turn on Super Cruise (which in real life would surely destroy the touchscreen, but whatever). The music swells, he pulls his sharp implements entirely off the steering wheel, his mom smiles, Edgar smiles—and we’re left to worry about how long he intends to “drive” like that, and what kind of bloody carnage might result if the car suddenly brakes for him.

The spot is an expertly produced mini homage to “Edward Scissorhands,” but it also feels like a bit of a conceptual misfire that raises way too many questions about driver safety. That said, Chalamet’s cultish fanbase will eat this up, and Chalametheads will swamp social media to demand a full-length “Edgar Scissorhands” movie, so the ad has that going for it.

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Michelob Ultra, “Happy”
Wieden+Kennedy
Score:

In Michelob Ultra’s 60-second Super Bowl spot, we see historic shots of a number of victorious famous athletes (making winning shots, clutching trophies, that sort of thing) as an announcer intones: “What if we’ve been wrong this whole time? Wrong in thinking that joy only happens at the end—after the sacrifice. After the commitment. After the win.” The announcer has apparently somehow not been exposed to decades of literary and pop-cultural indoctrination, including countless commercials, that have conditioned us to collectively believe that in life it’s about the journey, not just the destination, etc., etc. (Side note: For some reason the bass guitar line of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” a 1972 song about Reed’s druggy, gender-bending New York demimonde, serves as the soundtrack in this spot.)

Having set up the dubious conceit, the announcer then swiftly strikes it down: “What if happiness has always been there—fueling the run toward greatness?” He rambles on a bit more as we see the likes of Serena Williams, Anthony Davis, Peyton Manning, Brooks Koepka, Jimmy Butler and Alex Morgan hanging out with friends and, of course, drinking Michelob Ultra. In the end, the announcer says, “So ask yourself: Are you happy because you win, or do you win because you’re happy?” It’s a trite question—and it’s maddening that Michelob Ultra suggests that we should be taking lessons on happiness from wealthy, supernaturally gifted, hyper-successful celebrity athletes. Also: Keep in mind that you might just think you’re happy because you’re drunk.

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Jeep, “The Middle”
Doner
Score:

This two-minute Jeep ad starring Bruce Springsteen is a triumph. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to, and it says something essential about this moment in American history.

As we see the occasional shot of Springsteen looking pensive, and as we take in heartland scenes—an aerial view of a lonely road, a close-up of a dusty cowboy hat resting on the seat of a Jeep, a horse on the range, a cross atop a chapel—we hear a somber instrumental score and the bard of New Jersey’s narration, which is worth quoting here in full:

There’s a chapel in Kansas. Standing on the exact center of the lower forty-eight. It never closes. All are more than welcome. To come meet here, in the middle.

It’s no secret…The middle has been a hard place to get to lately. Between red and blue. Between servant and citizen. Between our freedom and our fear.

Now, fear has never been the best of who we are. And as for freedom, it’s not the property of just the fortunate few; it belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from. It’s what connects us.

And we need that connection. We need the middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground. So we can get there.

We can make it to the mountaintop, through the desert…and we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope on the road…up ahead.

That is, quite simply, poetry (parts of it call to mind Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb”). Combine that poetry with masterly cinematography, scoring and editing, and it feels reductive to call this whole thing just a commercial.

It’s a work of art. One that, at some level, is meant to sell Jeeps. But a work of art nonetheless.

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Anheuser-Busch, “Let’s Grab a Beer”
Wieden+Kennedy
Score:

For a corporate-level commercial—a first for AB InBev’s Anheuser-Busch—this is a surprisingly heartfelt and wise bit of creative. Though Anheuser-Busch brand logos (including those of Budweiser, Michelob Ultra, Stella Artois and Goose Island) are briefly flashed on screen at the very end, this is basically just an ad for beer—and the idea of drinking beer, really.

As we see beautifully filmed scenes of various people coming together in ad hoc social situations, an announcer delivers a poetic meditation on the deeper meaning via voice-over: “So when you say, ‘Let’s grab a beer,’ it’s never just about the beer. It’s how you say, ‘I’m glad we’re stuck together.’ Or, ‘You deserve to be here.’ Or, ‘And um, I’m really sorry.’ It’s a way to say, ‘Shake it off.’” Each of those instances is depicted with entirely relatable vignettes; naturalistic acting and snippets of dialogue create the sense that we’re eavesdropping on reality.

The voice-over script even alludes to the reality of the pandemic, and all we’ve lost during the era of quarantine and social-distancing: “So when we’re back, let’s remember: It’s never just about the beer. It’s about saying that simple truth: We need each other.”

That is actually just lovely (and quietly profound). A toast to everyone that worked on this ad: You deserved to be here, in the Super Bowl.

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Guaranteed Rate, “Believe You Will”
In-house
Score:

In Guaranteed Rate’s 30-second Super Bowl spot, an announcer tells the stories of blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, UFC fighter Dustin Poirier and Nascar driver Ryan Newman, who overcame the odds to achieve greatness. “How? They all believe,” the announcer says with highly caffeinated flourish worthy of a motivational speaker. “They believe in themselves. And they believe that their dreams, that their goals in life, were more than just imaginable. They were possible!” We see fleeting clips of other accomplished athletes, including Seth Jones, Rose Namajunas and Starr Andrews (who for some reason don’t get specifically called out in the voiceover), and then our announcer semi-awkwardly pivots: “For those who believe in their dream of a new home, Guaranteed Rate is a mortgage lender with all the right tools, advice and financing to make that dream a reality! … You can make it happen. You can conquer that mountain. You can! If you believe, you will!

OK! If you say so! Honestly, this ad might just inspire us to finally move out of our current place—a van down by the river—and start looking for a new home.

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We laughed—but not as much as we would have liked (though we’ll take any guffaw, chuckle or snicker we can get these days). We cried (or at least got verklempt) a few times. We also grew more than a bit annoyed (about weak creative and lost opportunities) and bored (by recycled ideas).

But regardless of whether or not any given Super Bowl LV commercial clicked, overall we were pretty dazzled by the astonishing range of enterprise and ingenuity on view. After all, these commercials were created during impossibly trying times—with productions invariably impacted in large and small ways by the pandemic and global recession. In every case it took a lot of courage and persistence, and a certain amount of blind faith, to proceed from rough concept to final cut.

As far as we’re concerned, everyone in the advertising community who made it to the Super Bowl this year should get to go to Disney World (circa 2022 or 2023, or whenever you’re ready). Below, our ad review (5 stars is the top score).

More Super Bowl news from Ad Age

Why Canadians can’t watch most American Super Bowl commercials
Super Bowl LV advertisers tackle diversity, inclusion with mixed results
5 trends to watch in Super Bowl LV commercials
How Cheetos shot its Super Bowl spot during COVID-19: Anatomy of an Ad

 First Quarter

M&M’s, “Come Together”
BBDO New York
Score:

In its dryly funny Super Bowl spot, M&M’s positions itself as a gift to be given to accompany an apology. We see an assortment of repentant gift-givers who (supposedly) regret their actions, including a man who’s mansplained to a woman (and then ends up haplessly mansplaining again), and a woman who’s called another woman “Karen”—though it turns out her name actually is Karen, which prompts an additional “Sorry” and a second gift of M&M’s.

We also get some celebrity cameos, in the form of Dan “Schitt’s Creek” Levy and the M&M’s spokescandies. Levy proffers a bag of M&M’s to the green and brown M&M’s spokescandies, saying, “I promise I will not eat any more of your friends.” But then we see that the red M&M’s spokescandy is trapped in the back seat of Levy’s car and is screaming in terror. “OK, it might happen one more time,” says Levy, who really also needs to apologize for giving inanimate M&M’s to the walking-talking M&M’s, which seems grotesquely insensitive (and suggests a chilling sort of caste system in the M&M’s community). Granted, the M&M’s spokescandies have a history of cannibalism, but still.

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GM, “No Way, Norway”
McCann Worldgroup
Score:

In GM’s epic, 90-second spot, Will Ferrell is enraged about the fact that “Norway sells way more electric cars per capita than the U.S.”— so he decides to enlist Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina to head over to Northern Europe for a confrontation of some sort with unsuspecting Norwegians. “With GM’s new Ultium battery,” he says, “we’re going to crush those lugers. Crush them!”

Ferrell is in fine form here—this is peak Ferrellian slapstick—and his easy comedic rapport with Thompson and Awkwafina make this nonsense narrative a daffy delight to watch. Of course, the three pals’ plan to challenge Norway goes a bit haywire (turns out they’re not so good with directions), but no matter, because GM has this covered: The ad ends with an on-screen message that reads “We’re coming, Norway. 30 new EVs by 2025.”

Ads promoting eco-conscious initiatives typically follow an earnest, self-congratulatory template. GM wriggles free from that marketing straightjacket—and breaks through the Super Bowl ad clutter—by graciously deciding to entertain us (while informing us).

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Doritos, “#FlatMatthew”
Goodby, Silverstein & Partners
Score:

Matthew McConaughey is #FlatMatthew—a paper-thin, two-dimensional version of himself—in Doritos’ 60-second Super Bowl spot. “Lately I just haven’t been feeling quite like myself,” #FlatMatthew declares before we see him haplessly navigating the 3D world as he awkwardly interacts with his dog, a friend, a Roomba, a barista and even Jimmy Kimmel and Mindy Kaling in a joint cameo appearance. Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” serves as the soundtrack, telegraphing that #FlatMatthew will indeed find a successful treatment for his condition. It comes not from surgery or medication, but from breaking into a vending machine (he slips right in) to filch a bag of Doritos 3D. Munching on the heavily processed mixture of corn flour, vegetable oil, salt, cheese, Maltodextrin, MSG, buttermilk, whey, onion powder, spices and assorted natural and artificial ingredients miraculously causes #FlatMatthew to instantly plump back up to his old 3D self (perhaps from gas?).

Unfortunately, this happens while he’s still inside the vending machine—but mercifully the commercial ends before first responders show up to free McConaughey and assess his quite-likely horrific injuries (not to mention indigestion). The junk-food-as-cure logic in #FlatMatthew’s universe isn’t new—see Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign from Super Bowl XLIV—but the CGI in this quirky, memorable spot is pretty darn cool and McConaughey is low-key fun to watch.

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Dexcom, “Rant”
Marcus Thomas
Score:

Health-sector commercials—particularly pharmaceutical ads—are notoriously insufferable. Dexcom, which makes a glucose monitoring system for diabetes management, rises above the pack by using a celebrity to prompt a bit of gee-whiz wonder about its state-of-the-art technology. Actor and pop star Nick Jonas, who has Type 1 diabetes, shows up in a leather jacket to marvel about some of the futuristic technology we already live with, including face-aging technology (which he briefly invokes in a moment that seems tailor-made for gif/meme culture), self-driving cars and drones. And yet, he adds, “People with diabetes are still sticking their fingers? What?! … That’s about to change.” Jonas pulls out his smartphone to show us the easy-to-use connected app for the Dexcom G6. Is this amazing creative? Nope. But by deploying a likeable celebrity in a relatable, optimistic way, this spot admirably does its job with clarity and conviction.

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Indeed, “The Rising”
72andSunny
Score:

The deceptively simple setup of this Indeed spot depends on a bit of typographical animation. Superimposed over scenes of diverse, everyday jobseekers, we see the words “We help get jobs” with a gap between “help” and “jobs.” As we hear a stellar, soulful cover of Andra Day’s anthemic “Rise Up,” that gap gets filled out in various ways every few seconds: “We help the ones starting out get jobs,” “We help the ones starting over get jobs,” “We help the ones thinking about today get jobs,” “We help the ones thinking about tomorrow get jobs,” “We help the hell-bent get jobs,” “We help the determined get jobs,” “We help the qualified get jobs,” “We help the hopeful get jobs,” “We help the passionate get jobs,” “We help the beginners get jobs,” “We help the experienced get jobs” and “We help the ready get jobs.”

Combined with the images and the music, the sentences serve as powerful, moving reminders of the emotional journey involved in searching for the right job. It feels exactly right for this cultural moment—it connects with the hopes and fears regarding employment that so many of us are experiencing in the midst of a brutal global recession—and in a brilliant touch, the ad closes with a brief scene of a woman in a car looking absolutely overcome with joy. It’s clear she’s just landed the job of her dreams.

This might just be the best job listings site ad since Monster.com’s classic “When I Grow Up” from Super Bowl XXXIII (1999).

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Logitech, “Defy Logic”
In-house
Score:

Logitech’s Super Bowl spot starring Lil Nas X does what it sets out to do: It makes the digital accessories company seem cooler than you probably think it is (if you think about it at all) by aligning the brand with “creator” culture. “We stand there in defiance,” says Lil Nas X as we see a montage of ultra-cool people creating and doing, well, ultra-cool things—and it helps the cause enormously that the propulsive beat of a Lil Nas X song makes the spot almost danceable.

The sentiments expressed here don’t break new ground: “We the makers, we the groundbreakers, we the creators, the screamers, the dreamers,” Lil Nas X continues. “We defy expectations, perceptions and misconceptions.” You’ve seen and heard this kind of stuff in ads before, most notably in Apple’s old “Think Different” campaign as well as its ongoing series of “Behind the Mac” spots starring big-name celebrity creators. But Logitech’s version skews younger, hipper, fresher—and Lil Nas X’s parting words nicely weave together the ad’s theme with a deft play on the brand name: “To create the future, we must defy the logic of the past. We must defy logic.”

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Pringles, “Space Return”
Grey Group
Score:

In a gratuitously big-budget production, Pringles tells us the tale of a couple of astronauts who are stranded at sea after their lunar pod returns from space. “Where is everyone?” one of the astronauts says upon opening a hatch and surveying the lonely waters. Cue a scene from the NASA-ish mission control room, where, instead of monitoring a video feed from the pod, workers are obsessing over creating a Pringles “flavor stack” by combining various flavors of Pringles. We also see a passing freighter filled with grubby-looking sailors who are speaking something that’s not English, and they are likewise too absorbed in Pringles flavor-stacking to rescue the astronauts. What’s the point here? That extreme self-absorption, to the point of dereliction of duty, is universal—and somehow funny? (Spoiler: It’s not.)

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Shift4Shop, “Join Us”
Known
Score:

In this 30-second spot, Shift4Shop encourages us to visit Inspiration4.com “for your chance to go to space.” The e-commerce platform is sponsoring SpaceX Inspiration4, a planned October low-orbit trip that will be the first all-civilian mission to space.

To hype the opportunity, this oddly subdued ad simply offers us slow-mo close-up shots of a starkly lit Inspiration4 space suit that’s floating through a solid black void—a version of what we’ve seen about 1,000 times before in Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy commercials—as the announcer (Octavia Spencer) reads the pitch and a moody cover of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” plays. Creatively, it feels like a lost opportunity, but that probably doesn’t matter; millions of wannabe astronauts will likely flock to the website (which, of course, includes a Shift4Shop-powered e-commerce section complete with commemorative gear) and millions more will get this straightforward ad’s very clear message that the era of space tourism is upon us.

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DoorDash, “The Neighborhood”
The Martin Agency
Score:

First, some essential context: Right before Thanksgiving 2020, food delivery service DoorDash made headlines by agreeing to pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the attorney general of Washington, D.C., alleging that it basically lied to customers about its tip policy. It turns out that in certain circumstances, tips that thankful customers thought were going directly and entirely to delivery workers were actually getting skimmed by DoorDash. Like a lot of “gig economy” companies, DoorDash has been under fire for how it treats its largely freelance workforce.

How to overcome that type of bad publicity (other than, say, treating your workers better)? Find some way to make your brand seem less ruthless and more warm and fuzzy. Enter those icons of warmth and fuzziness, the Muppets, who get deployed in DoorDash’s 60-second Super Bowl spot, along with “Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs and a few other humans, for an adaptation of “People in Your Neighborhood.”

That song, familiar to millions of Americans who grew up watching “Sesame Street,” gets retrofitted with lyrics such as “culinary artists with delicious cuisines” and “empanadas down the street.” Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover and friends are enlisted to shill for a tech giant (is nothing sacred?) that raised billions last December (right after that pesky tip-skimming lawsuit was settled) in one of the biggest IPOs of 2020. Again, the strategy here is a pretty transparent attempt to trade on the cuteness and charm of the Muppets (and Diggs) to try to burnish DoorDash’s image. And we’re supposed to be OK with that because, we’re told, “For every order, we’ll donate $1 to Sesame Workshop,” the nonprofit production company behind “Sesame Street” (every order, that is, placed on Feb. 7 and 8, and not to exceed $1 million, per the small print on the screen).

Today’s lesson from “Sesame Street”: Absolutely everybody has a price.

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Bud Light, “Bud Light Legends”
Score:

Ads about ads are, of course, a whole recurring thing. (Madison Avenue’s favorite subject is Madison Avenue.) Geico’s “The Best of Geico” campaign from 2019 pulled it off, and now Bud Light wryly mines its own ad catalog in a “Bud Light Legends” spot that positions some of its assorted past commercial characters and celebrity spokesfolk as unlikely superheroes. After a Bud Light truck tips over and spills its cargo all over a road, the Legends show up out of nowhere to help save the day. Across 60 seconds, we reencounter the likes of the “Real Men of Genius” singer and Dr. Galazkiewicz as well as non-fictional (more or less) characters Cedric the Entertainer and Post Malone. But what makes the spot really click is that the Bud Knight has a mishap (R.I.P., maybe), and the “I love you, man” guy pops up to pay his respects.

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Chipotle, “Can a Burrito Change the World?”
Venables Bell & Partners
Score:

“What if this could change the world?” a boy asks as he stares at the burrito he’s eating at a kitchen counter. His sister speaks for all of us when she says “You are so weird,” but that doesn’t stop her little bro from engaging in an unlikely, rambling reverie: “It could change how we plant things, grow things, water things, pick things, move things …”—we see all these things happening in an elaborate montage—“It could make our farmers happier, more organic, more real, more soil-helping, less carbon-emitting and world-changing!” His sister, thankfully, cuts him off (“Are you still talking?”) and we’re left to wonder if Chipotle’s market share will rise among precocious, eco-conscious boys who, improbably, care deeply about the ethical implications of supply-chain management and the future of the burrito-industrial complex.

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State Farm, “Drake from State Farm”
The Marketing Arm
Score:

For its big Super Bowl moment, State Farm presents an ad that’s about ad-making. Going in, it helps if you know what a stand-in is, because this spot shows Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Jake from State Farm (Kevin Miles) talking about their stand-ins while taking a break from shooting their commercial. Rodgers is a bit miffed that his stand-in, a dorky guy in a cheesehead hat, doesn’t look “anything like me,” while Mahomes just seems confused that his stand-in is Paul Rudd. (“It’s like looking in a mirror, right?” Rudd says, before fumbling a football toss.) As for Jake from State Farm, he initially pretends he doesn’t have a stand-in, until Mahomes spots rapper Drake grazing at the craft-services table.

Drake identifies himself as “Drake from State Farm” (ha!) and keeps trying to deliver Jake’s “Like a good neighbor” line—until Jake explains that stand-ins don’t have lines.

The ad is fun, but it serves up a lot of (expensive) star power for relatively minimal yield.

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Mtn Dew, “Mtn Dew Major Melon Bottle Count”
TBWA/Chiat/Day New York
Score:

In its Super Bowl commercial, PepsiCo’s Mtn Dew (Mountain Dew) deploys John Cena to invite you to count all the bottles of Mtn Dew Major Melon on view across the spot’s 30 seconds for a chance to win $1 million. Cena, who’s in his usual goofy mood, is shown motoring with a pal through a surreal alternate universe that looks like a cross between Las Vegas and something out of Candy Crush Saga. The bottles are kind of all over the place, and they whiz by in hyperactive edits, so we gave up counting right away.

It’s a fun idea—a sort of real-time Where’s Waldo done at industrial scale—and it’s got a built-in social activation: You enter by tweeting your count (or guess).

For the record, we feel like it would be rude to point out that a cool million seems kinda low considering what PepsiCo had to pay to air this ad. So, we’re not going to do that.

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Second Quarter

Scotts Miracle-Gro, “Keep Growing”
VaynerMedia
Score:

Scotts Miracle-Gro shows us a bunch of random, disconnected celebrities—including Martha Stewart, Carl Weathers, Nascar racer Kyle Busch, John Travolta (with his daughter, Ella) and Leslie David Baker (Stanley from “The Office”)—gardening, golfing and generally goofing off in their backyards. The point of the spot is a call to action: Scotts wants us all to text a number shown on screen (which feels like a very circa-2006 commercial strategy, but whatever) to find out how to enter a contest to win “the lawn and garden of your dreams.” It’s a lot to take in in 45 seconds, and, confusingly, we’re supposed to believe that all these celebs live in the same neighborhood with adjoining backyards. In the end, the spot feels disjointed and needlessly overstuffed—as if written, cast and directed by committee.

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Tide, “The Jason Alexander Hoodie”
Woven Collaborative
Score:

A mom suggests that her son’s hoodie—a trendy, flesh-colored monstrosity that hilariously has the giant face of “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander printed on it—is dirtier than he thinks. Cue a montage of the hoodie getting subjected to all manner of everyday abuse (a dog drools on it, food gets spilled on it, a basketball gets slammed into it), underscored by the cheesily upbeat 1981 Joey Scarbury hit “Believe It Or Not.”

The brilliant thing is that, thanks to a little CGI magic, Alexander’s face on the hoodie reacts to the indignities with a whole range of over-the-top, Seinfeldian emotion: disgust, horror, despair, self-pity, etc. After the mom declares that “You owe Jason Alexander Hoodie an apology,” her son dutifully tosses it into the washing machine with new Tide Hygienic Clean. An on-screen tagline—“It’s dirtier than it looks”—neatly sums up the whole point of the ad.

And in a wonderfully less-is-more moment, the actual Jason Alexander pops up at the very end to confront the hoodie-wearing son in a chance encounter. Across the minute-long spot we’re not only taken on a very funny journey, we’re possibly even convinced, against all odds, that the world might need yet another variety of laundry detergent.

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Skechers, “To the Max”
In-house
Score:

In this trying-too-hard-to-be-funny 30-second Skechers spot, Tony Romo and his wife, Candice, are identified on-screen as “comfort enthusiasts.” Right before they try to show us what that means, Tony declares that “we take things to the max” in the Romo household. Cue Tony sitting at the kitchen table and calling out “Honey, get my stretch pants” (inconsiderate) before digging into a stupidly massive sandwich (just gross). Moments later we see Candice lying in bed on multiple mattresses that are stacked so high she could touch her bedroom ceiling (dangerous). And then, in their driveway, we learn that Tony’s ride has monster-truck-level tires on them (also dangerous).

So what’s the point of our spending a precious half-minute with this extravagantly misguided, self-indulgent couple? Per Tony: “That’s why we love Skechers Max Cushioning footwear. They’ve maxed out the comfort for extreme comfort. Bam!”

And just like that, totally uncool brand Skechers seems even less cool. Uncool to the max, in fact. Bam!

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Toyota, “Upstream”
Saatchi & Saatchi
Score:

In a poetic, gorgeously filmed 60-second vignette, Toyota tells how Paralympian Jessica Long came to be adopted from a Siberian orphanage by an American couple. We see Long swimming in open waters that artfully, symbolically meld with the adoption agency and what would become her adoptive home. And we hear how Long’s future parents learned she would have to have her legs amputated due to a rare medical condition.

Long would go on to become a 13-time Paralympic gold medalist. As we see the smiling swimmer, now 28, contemplating her life’s journey, an announcer says, “We believe there is hope and strength in all of us.” The spot is an elegant, quietly moving way for Toyota to call attention to its support of the Olympics—the announcer says the carmaker is a “proud partner of Team USA”—and align its brand with optimism, perseverance and triumph over adversity.

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TurboTax, “Spreading Tax Expertise Across the Land”
Wieden+Kennedy
Score:

TurboTax serves up a clever visualization of its virtual deployment of TurboTax Live tax experts by showing us a series of desks with computer monitors on them traveling (in a magical, self-driving-car sort of way) through the American heartland. An expert on one of the screens sings a country song that offers obscure tips on tax laws (e.g., “If you’re 100 in New Mexico, you’ll pay no state taxes now”—news that pleases one fabulous centenarian). In the end, as a bunch of the desk-screen combos converge on one all-American neighborhood, the assorted experts join voices and sing their chorus/tagline: “Tax experts spreading expertise across the land.” It’s a surprisingly warm, winning way to (literally) drive home the value-add of the product.

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WeatherTech, “Family”
Pinnacle Advertising
Score:

Car accessory maker WeatherTech, known for its laser-measured floor mats, once again serves up some old-fashioned, made-in-America pride in a pair of complementary 30-second spots. In the first ad, we hear directly from employees on its factory floor, who declare that “I love telling people I work at WeatherTech” and “At WeatherTech, I’m very proud of the work that I do” and so on. It’s an exceedingly simple, no-frills spot that will either make you feel happy for these happy people or worry that they’re actually unhappy but were pressured to pretend to be happy on camera. (See the “Third Quarter” section for the second WeatherTech ad.)

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Bud Light Seltzer, “Last Year’s Lemons”
Wieden+Kennedy
Score:

“When life gives you lemons …”—yeah, we don’t need to finish the saying, and neither does this ad for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, which declares that “2020 was a lemon of a year” and then shows us apocalyptic scenes of lemons falling from the sky, like a plague of locusts. The ad quickly cranks up to the whimsical conceit to alarming levels, with scenes of mass panic, widespread property damage and implied injuries—an odd and strangely tone-deaf creative choice in the wake of a devastating year marked by widespread suffering and death. Anyhow, drink up!

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E-Trade, “Workout”
MullenLowe U.S.
Score:

In E-Trade’s 30-second Super Bowl spot, a slight, nerdy boy (think Macaulay Culkin circa “Home Alone”) sits on his bed watching a video in which a boxer, flexing a bicep and strutting around the ring with her championship belt, declares, “This is how you become the best!” He’s transfixed—and inspired. Cue a montage of the boy in training mode—doing jumping jacks in his bedroom, lifting some paint cans in the garage, lugging a tire in the backyard—as Joe Esposito’s cheesy 1984 synth pop-rock hit “You’re The Best Around,” from “The Karate Kid,” plays.

We then see our protagonist back in his bedroom, regarding himself pridefully in a mirror as he flexes a bicep (he seems to have made no progress at all), at which point the music abruptly stops and a message flashes on the screen: “This might be the year you finally get in shape.” A moment later, we see a follow-up line: “Financially, at least.” An announcer says, “Don’t get mad, get E-Trade”—the tagline of a continuing campaign that doesn’t quite track here—”and take charge of your finances today.”

It’s cute—or cute enough—but instantly forgettable.

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Hellmann’s, “Fairy Godmayo”
Wunderman Thompson
Score:

Amy Schumer portrays Hellmann’s Fairy Godmayo—a winged humanoid who suddenly appears in one man’s kitchen as he puzzles over how to make a meal out of all the random stuff he’s got in his refrigerator. Despite the brash home invasion, our everyman rolls with it, deferring to the Fairy Godmayo’s mayonnaise-related food-prep expertise. Fortunately, he’s got a jar of Hellman’s in his fridge, which allows FG to work her magic and instantly whip up a “creamy, dreamy” array of meal options. The spot briskly makes its point, and an on-screen tagline—“Make Taste. Not Waste”—positions Hellmann’s as a go-to leftovers-helper. And the reliably funny Schumer got us to chuckle with her confession about her non-mayo-related skill set.

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Jimmy John’s, “Meet the King”
Anomaly LA
Score:

Jimmy John’s introduces us to Tony “The King of Cold Cuts” Bolognavich, a Mafia-esque sandwich kingpin portrayed by Brad Garrett. He’s pissed off that Jimmy John’s—the national chain that he keeps referring to as “Jimmy’s John’s” for some reason—has invaded his turf with its “high-quality, reasonably priced sandwiches” and “all-natural meat sliced by hand.” And so he declares that “This is war. Sandwich war,” before a teaser flashes on screen: “The story continues at JimmyJohns.com.” (Most Super Bowl viewers saw a 30-second version of this spot, but selected markets got a 60 with additional scenes.)

Honestly, the call to action here is kind of a big ask. Bolognavich is an amusing enough character, and Garrett plays him with sleazy conviction, but it’s hard to imagine your average TV viewer thinking, “Gosh, I want more Bolognavich content in my life! Lemme fire up my web browser right now!” Good luck with that, Jimmy’s John’s.

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Oatly, “Wow No Cow”
In-house
Score:

At the very start of Oatly’s 30-second Super Bowl spot, you might think you’re watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt sunning himself. But nope, an on-screen ID appears two seconds in—”Toni Petersson, CEO Oatly”—and the JGL look-alike starts singing “It’s like milk, but made for humans.” The camera pulls back and we can see that Petersson is playing an electric piano in a field.

If this seems vaguely familiar, it’s because Oatly posted some of this footage on its YouTube channel back in 2017 with this explanation: “In a one of a kind performance, multi-talented CEO Toni Petersson sings a song he wrote entirely by himself to explain exactly what Oatly is all about. Please feel free to like, share and comment. Toni is a big boy, he can take it.” (And before that, it turns out, a version of the footage appeared in an ad in Sweden.)

Um, so, this is an eco-conscious commercial, we suppose, because it’s recycled? Anyway, now we can’t get the chorus (“Wow, wow! No cow!”) out of our heads. Damn it.

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Rocket Mortgage (Quicken Loans), “Certain Is Better”
Highdive
Score:

Tracy Morgan serves up some high-grade, well, Tracy Morganness in Quicken Loans’ Super Bowl spot for its Rocket Mortgage service—which is to say that this is an over-the-top, absurdist delight. The spot starts with a shot of a family arriving at an open house, and then standing in the living room to discuss. Mom says, “Can we even afford this house?” Dad says, “I’m pretty sure we can.” Morgan—who is revealed to be in the nearby bathroom, taking a bubble bath (of course), chimes in: “Pretty sure?! With Rocket Mortgage you can be certain—not pretty sure!”

Cue a montage of scenes of Morgan showing the family how bad it is to be just “pretty sure” in certain circumstances. “I’m pretty sure these aren’t poisonous,” he says of mushrooms found in the woods (bad news for Dad, who just ate some). “I’m pretty sure these are parachutes,” he says about what appear to be children’s backpacks (just before he pushes Dad out of an airplane). “I’m pretty sure you could take Bautista down,” he says of former mixed martial artist Dave Bautista, who overhears that speculation and promptly engages poor Dad in a fight. And so on.

We’re pretty sure—scratch that, certain—this is one of the funniest ads in the whole game.

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Mercari, “Get Your Unused Things Back in the Game”
Rain the Growth Agency
Score:

A young man and woman (newlyweds?) both simultaneously unbox identical hot air popcorn poppers (duplicate wedding gifts?) in their living room. Our protagonists decide to list the extra on the app-based Mercari marketplace, and then we’re instantly transported to another household where the spare popper is now being deployed by some roomies watching football. “At Mercari, your unneeded things can find a new life,” an announcer declares with cheerful conviction, probably hoping against all hope that we won’t think about the actual challenges of peer-to-peer e-commerce—including the cost and hassle of shipping merch to cheap-ass randos who think that buying unwanted electrical appliances from strangers on the internet is a good idea.

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Dr. Squatch, “You’re Not a Dish”
Raindrop Marketing
Score:

A regular-guy on-camera spokesman for direct-to-consumer brand Dr. Squatch declares that “Your soap is [bleep]. And your body wash is a synthetic detergent. But you’re not a dish. You’re a man.” He makes these assertions not only to us, but to another regular-guy guy who is, for some reason, taking a shower in the woods. “Switch to Dr. Squatch natural soap for men,” the announcer advises. “Men who build things. Open pickle jars on the first try. Slay dragons. And let their daughters braid their hair.” (Each of these examples of regular-guy masculinity are briefly, comically depicted.) “Men,” he continues, “who like to feel good and smell…titillating.” (He says that last word with exaggerated flourish.)

The ad has an appealingly unpretentious feel, and it avoids all the over-the-top clichés about product features and modern manhood that incumbent personal-care brands for men can’t seem to shake. Sure, the tongue-in-cheek sensibility here is straight out of the Old Spice playbook, but the execution feels more DIY than CGI. It wouldn’t surprise us if this turns out to be one of the lowest-budget-but-highest-return Super Bowl ads.

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Vroom, “Dealership Pain”
Anomaly
Score:

Vroom has been running a series of ads that focus on the misery of used car shopping. But in its Big Game spot, it ups the ante by serving up a mini horror movie that depicts used car shopping as literal torture. “So, are you going to buy the car?” a dealer says as he emerges from his office, jumper cables in hand, and approaches a sweaty, tied-up customer he’s left waiting. The poor guy pleads with him: “Please! If I could just go home and discuss things with my wife!” The dealer doesn’t like that answer and, as ominous music plays, he makes the jumper cables spark by rubbing the clamps together. “You can leave anytime you want!” he says, obviously not meaning it, as he lurches toward the customer, who screams rather convincingly. (Solid acting and production values here.)

Fortunately, we don’t have to witness exactly where the dealer intended to attach the clamps (nips? nads?) because the customer snaps out of his waking nightmare just in time to watch the flatbed delivery of a car he painlessly bought through Vroom. An announcer instructs us to “Never go to a dealership again.” OK, sure, so long as we also never have to see this ad again—that’s how strangely jarring and traumatizing it is.

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T-Mobile, “Rockstar 5G”
Panay Films
Score:

In the first of its two Super Bowl spots, T-Mobile offers us a flashback to “a few years ago” (per an on-screen caption). We see pop star Gwen Stefani video-calling fellow pop star Adam Levine. “I think I’m ready to start dating again,” she tells him, and when he asks “What are you looking for?,” she says “I’m sick of L.A. guys. I want someone completely different. Maybe from another country, and someone cultured and sensitive, and who is not threatened by a strong, confident woman.”

Cue the announcer, who says, “On a spotty network, this is what Adam heard.” We now see Stefani’s face on Levine’s phone in a video call that’s clearly glitching and breaking up. “I want someone completely … country … uncultured and … threatened by a strong, confident woman.” (Ha!) Levine happens to be out to eat with his unsuspecting friend Blake Shelton, the country star. “I have your guy,” Levine says, chuckling. Next thing you know, Stefani and Shelton are on an uncomfortable blind date.

T-Mobile’s announcer swoops in to tell us, “Don’t trust your love life to just any network.” It’s a funny conceit, and thanks to deft performances by Stefani, Levine and Shelton (who is obviously a good sport), it works—if you don’t think about it too much. Because, of course, in real life Stefani and Shelton are very much together and apparently in love; they announced their engagement last October. Logically, according to this ad, they owe their happiness to the fact that their mutual friend Adam Levine wasn’t a T-Mobile customer “a few years ago.”

So in a way, this commercial is a cosmic-level endorsement of spotty cellular service.

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Huggies, “Welcome to the World, Baby”
Droga5
Score:

For its Super Bowl ad, Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies serves up shots of babies that were born on Game Day—literally today—which means pulling this ad off was a major production challenge. (The final cut borrows from some elements that appeared in “Welcome to the World, Baby,” a 105-second version of this campaign released online as an “extended cut” teaser on Feb. 2.) An announcer says welcoming, reassuring things to the babies such as “Welcome to Earth” and “Being a baby is pretty great” and “We got you, baby.” It is, of course, super cute (though it’s cuter in long-form), and Huggies mercifully avoids informing the babies about things like COVID-19, the global recession and the Kardashians. Speaking of being uninformed, the announcer doesn’t seem to realize that newborn babies don’t speak English, so they can’t understand a thing he’s saying. We’re kind of jealous of those babies.

 
Third Quarter

Cheetos, “It Wasn’t Me”
Goodby, Silverstein, & Partners
Score:

There’s trouble in power-couple paradise, as Ashton Kutcher suspects that his wife, Mila Kunis, has stolen his bag of Cheetos Crunch Pop Mix. Kunis denies it, despite the incriminating evidence—including orange Cheetos dust on her fingers and face—and even as Kutcher keeps the pressure on her by talk-singing accusations to the tune of Shaggy’s 2000 reggae hit “It Wasn’t Me.” For some reason, Shaggy himself is also on hand to deliver adapted “It Wasn’t Me” lyrics as he strolls through the couple’s mansion. In the end, to Shaggy’s surprise, Kutcher seems to accept Kunis’ assertion of innocence—but the dejected way Kutcher says “Oh, OK” and walks away feels like quiet defeat. We understand that he must acquiesce to keep the peace with his deceitful spouse. While every marriage requires some compromise, this ends up feeling like an unhappy standoff. Also, if Kunis is lying to Kutcher about Cheetos Crunch Pop Mix, what else is she hiding from him?

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WeatherTech, “We Never Left”
Pinnacle Advertising
Score:

The second of a set of two WeatherTech commercials (see above for the other spot) follows the same template as the first: WeatherTech employees deliver soundbites straight from the factory floor, including “At WeatherTech, we don’t need to bring jobs back to America” and “To us, coming back doesn’t make any sense”—because, as both employees and the announcer declare, “We never left.” Imagine that!

As with the first ad, the line readings are a bit stiff and the production values are unremarkable. That said, WeatherTech’s no-frills approach to advertising is, by now, something of a Super Bowl tradition, so here’s to dull-but-worthy consistency.

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Mercari, “Get Your Unused Things Back in the Game”
Rain the Growth Agency
Score:

A young man and woman (newlyweds?) both simultaneously unbox identical hot air popcorn poppers (duplicate wedding gifts?) in their living room. Our protagonists decide to list the extra on the app-based Mercari marketplace, and then we’re instantly transported to another household where the spare popper is now being deployed by some roomies watching football. “At Mercari, your unneeded things can find a new life,” an announcer declares with cheerful conviction, probably hoping against all hope that we won’t think about the actual challenges of peer-to-peer e-commerce—including the cost and hassle of shipping merch to cheap-ass randos who think that buying unwanted electrical appliances from strangers on the internet is a good idea.

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Uber Eats, “Eat Local”
The Special Group
Score:

Uber Eats’ Super Bowl spot starring Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) makes all kinds of no sense in 2021. For starters, the characters’ shtick—that they’re hosting a local cable-access TV show called “Wayne’s World” from the basement of Wayne’s parents’ home in Aurora, Illinois—is a distant memory even for TV viewers of a certain age. (The “Saturday Night Live” sketches and spin-off “Wayne’s World” movies date to the ’80s and ’90s.) Most younger viewers, meanwhile, will have no idea what a cable-access TV show is—a disconnect the creators of this spot try to compensate for by throwing in a present-day celebrity guest, Cardi B, and a TikTok-style dance sequence.

“As a local access show, we want everyone to support local restaurants,” Wayne says. The boys (and Cardi B), it turns out, are here to promote Uber Eats’ Eat Local, an initiative to support struggling local independent restaurants in cities across the U.S. (The ad doesn’t say so, but Uber Eats is putting $20 million behind the effort over the next six months.) They try a little ham-handed manipulative advertising—cue a sexy-Garth sequence, the gratuitous use of cute babies (wearing “Eat Local” T-shirts) and the aforementioned celebrity cameo—before rocking out to one of Wayne’s signature guitar jams and singing “Local eats! Wayne’s World! Yummy time! Excellent!”

It’s a confusing, decade-hopping pop-cultural mashup—but hey, it’s for a good cause, so…party on?

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Michelob Ultra, “All-Star Cast”
FCB
Score:

To make a point about authenticity, Michelob Ultra serves up a bunch of scenes of seemingly famous people doing famous-people things—shooting an action-movie scene, performing a song, walking the red carpet—while we hear an announcer, who sounds like Christopher Walken, speculate about the inner lives of “supastars.”

If you feel like everything’s a little off here, your suspicions are soon confirmed by a dramatic reveal on a yacht when Real Don Cheaple confronts Fake Don Cheadle (his brother Colin). The other celebs are also revealed to “lookalikes” and “fakes” (and the announcer confesses that “I’m not Christopher Walken”). Figures someone would do a #FakeNews Super Bowl ad this year, eh? Anyway, Real Don Cheadle says that “In a world where most things seem real, sometimes they’re not. …New Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer is real, and it tastes that way.” Fair enough—though we’ll believe it when we buy it and try it. Maybe.

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Fiverr, “Opportunity Knocks”
Publicis
Score:

In this spot, freelance marketplace Fiverr gives Four Seasons Total Landscaping—the Philadelphia business where Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani staged a notoriously bizarre and out-of-place press conference last November—an extra 30 seconds to tack on to its 15 minutes of fame. Our vantage point is the familiar parking lot of the establishment, where we see workers hoisting an addendum to the FSTL signage that reads “& Press Venue!” Four Seasons co-owner Marie Siravo, who’s been supervising the installation, turns to the camera and says, “Success! It’s often: right place, right time.” As the garage-door entrance rolls open, she adds that “Fiverr gets that” and starts walking us through the inside of her business, which confusingly has diorama-like displays of workers looking at monitors that display Fiverr listings showing the kinds of services you can book. “From graphic design to web development,” Siravo explains. “Or even a PR expert for things like, I don’t know, booking a press conference!” (Har har.)

Thanks, but given that Fiverr’s whole business model revolves around cut-rate services (“Fiverr” is a reference to $5, the theoretical starting point for many of the platform’s so-called “gigs”), no thanks.

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T-Mobile, “Family Drama”
Pinay Films
Score:

In the second of its two Super Bowl spots, T-Mobile shows “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson and his real-life mom, Doris Hancox, along with some family and friends, playing a friendly-ish game of football. Distant family and friends get to tune in and watch all the drama—including what the announcer characterizes as “hardcore trash talk” between the hypercompetitive mother and her son—thanks to video-calling on T-Mobile’s 5G network.

“Don’t trust your family drama to just any network,” the announcer says, explaining the point of all this.

This commercial looks like it was fun to shoot, but there’s an awful lot going on (there’s even a cameo appearance by Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs), which the announcer tries to sort out for us in voiceover. When your ad needs a play-by-play, that’s a sign it might be a wee bit overwritten.

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State Farm, “Drake from State Farm”
The Marketing Arm
Score:

For its big Super Bowl moment, State Farm presents an ad that’s about ad-making. Going in, it helps if you know what a stand-in is, because this spot shows Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Jake from State Farm (Kevin Miles) talking about their stand-ins while taking a break from shooting their commercial. Rodgers is a bit miffed that his stand-in, a dorky guy in a cheesehead hat, doesn’t look “anything like me,” while Mahomes just seems confused that his stand-in is Paul Rudd. (“It’s like looking in a mirror, right?” Rudd says, before fumbling a football toss.) As for Jake from State Farm, he initially pretends he doesn’t have a stand-in, until Mahomes spots rapper Drake grazing at the craft-services table.

Drake identifies himself as “Drake from State Farm” (ha!) and keeps trying to deliver Jake’s “Like a good neighbor” line—until Jake explains that stand-ins don’t have lines.

The ad is fun, but it serves up a lot of (expensive) star power for relatively minimal yield.

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Fourth Quarter

Amazon, “Alexa’s Body”
Lucky Generals
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If, like us, you’ve asked Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, semi-inappropriate questions now and then (“Alexa, what are you wearing?” “Alexa, do you love me?”), you know that she is almost aggressively prim and sexless. So the conceit of this ad, which has a female executive daydreaming about what life would be like if Alexa lived inside the body of her celebrity crush Michael B. Jordan, is confusing from the get-go. Jordan hangs out in her house and responds to her voice prompts with smoldering swagger. All of this annoys our protagonist’s jealous husband, who is moved to intervene after his spouse commands Alexa/Jordan to turn on a connected lawn sprinkler system. “Alexa, stop!” he says. “Things are getting way too wet around here.” So, yeah, things get…weird.

The relationship drama here calls to mind the heartbreaking 2013 Spike Jonze sci-fi film “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as a schlub who falls in love with his AI assistant (played by an unseen Scarlett Johansson). That film was a masterpiece. This ad isn’t. On the up side, Michael B. Jordan strips off his shirt at one point for no good reason—other than he looks great with his shirt off. So there’s that.

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Klarna, “Four Quarter-Sized Cowboys”
Miramar
Score:

How do installment-plan payments work? There are countless tedious, boring ways to answer that question. But Klarna, a Swedish financial-services company that allows merchants to offer buyers the option to pay over time across four separate payments, found a clever, entertaining way to explain its utility to consumers.

Four women—all played by beloved “Saturday Night Live” alum Maya Rudolph—ride into an old-timey Western town on horseback while singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” She (they?) is determined to buy a cute pair of pink boots in a local shop, though they look kind of expensive. So Maya No. 1 says “I’ll make payment one” while tapping her smartphone screen, and then the three other Mayas chime in and commit to making the remaining payments. In case you weren’t sure what just happened, a message flashes on screen—“PAY IN 4 SMALL PAYMENTS”—before the Klarna logo and slogan, “Smooth shopping,” close out the spot.

Smooth indeed.

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Cadillac, “Scissor Hands-Free”
Leo Burnett
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In its 60-second Super Bowl commercial, GM’s Cadillac division introduces us to Edgar, the son of Edward Scissorhands, who shares his (absentee) dad’s condition, affects the same quasi-goth fashion statement and Robert Smith-esque haircut, and is played by an actor, Timothée Chalamet, who kinda-maybe vaguely looks like a young Johnny Depp, if you squint. Edgar lives with his mom (portrayed by Winona Ryder, who also played Edward’s love interest in the 1990 “Edward Scissorhands” movie). Mom, we can see, is sympathetic to her boy’s struggles (e.g., he can’t catch a football without deflating it, which, sorry, made us think of Tom Brady’s Deflategate … but we digress).

Mom decides she can help Edgar better navigate the world by buying him a new Cadillac—specifically, the all-electric Cadillac Lyriq, which, some on-screen type informs us, has “Hand-free Super Cruise: Driver assistance feature for compatible roads.”

Near the end of the ad, Edgar’s mom, sitting in the Lyriq’s passenger seat as he drives, says “Go ahead, try it,” and so he uses one of his scissorfingers to turn on Super Cruise (which in real life would surely destroy the touchscreen, but whatever). The music swells, he pulls his sharp implements entirely off the steering wheel, his mom smiles, Edgar smiles—and we’re left to worry about how long he intends to “drive” like that, and what kind of bloody carnage might result if the car suddenly brakes for him.

The spot is an expertly produced mini homage to “Edward Scissorhands,” but it also feels like a bit of a conceptual misfire that raises way too many questions about driver safety. That said, Chalamet’s cultish fanbase will eat this up, and Chalametheads will swamp social media to demand a full-length “Edgar Scissorhands” movie, so the ad has that going for it.

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Michelob Ultra, “Happy”
Wieden+Kennedy
Score:

In Michelob Ultra’s 60-second Super Bowl spot, we see historic shots of a number of victorious famous athletes (making winning shots, clutching trophies, that sort of thing) as an announcer intones: “What if we’ve been wrong this whole time? Wrong in thinking that joy only happens at the end—after the sacrifice. After the commitment. After the win.” The announcer has apparently somehow not been exposed to decades of literary and pop-cultural indoctrination, including countless commercials, that have conditioned us to collectively believe that in life it’s about the journey, not just the destination, etc., etc. (Side note: For some reason the bass guitar line of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” a 1972 song about Reed’s druggy, gender-bending New York demimonde, serves as the soundtrack in this spot.)

Having set up the dubious conceit, the announcer then swiftly strikes it down: “What if happiness has always been there—fueling the run toward greatness?” He rambles on a bit more as we see the likes of Serena Williams, Anthony Davis, Peyton Manning, Brooks Koepka, Jimmy Butler and Alex Morgan hanging out with friends and, of course, drinking Michelob Ultra. In the end, the announcer says, “So ask yourself: Are you happy because you win, or do you win because you’re happy?” It’s a trite question—and it’s maddening that Michelob Ultra suggests that we should be taking lessons on happiness from wealthy, supernaturally gifted, hyper-successful celebrity athletes. Also: Keep in mind that you might just think you’re happy because you’re drunk.

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Jeep, “The Middle”
Doner
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This two-minute Jeep ad starring Bruce Springsteen is a triumph. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to, and it says something essential about this moment in American history.

As we see the occasional shot of Springsteen looking pensive, and as we take in heartland scenes—an aerial view of a lonely road, a close-up of a dusty cowboy hat resting on the seat of a Jeep, a horse on the range, a cross atop a chapel—we hear a somber instrumental score and the bard of New Jersey’s narration, which is worth quoting here in full:

There’s a chapel in Kansas. Standing on the exact center of the lower forty-eight. It never closes. All are more than welcome. To come meet here, in the middle.

It’s no secret…The middle has been a hard place to get to lately. Between red and blue. Between servant and citizen. Between our freedom and our fear.

Now, fear has never been the best of who we are. And as for freedom, it’s not the property of just the fortunate few; it belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from. It’s what connects us.

And we need that connection. We need the middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground. So we can get there.

We can make it to the mountaintop, through the desert…and we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope on the road…up ahead.

That is, quite simply, poetry (parts of it call to mind Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb”). Combine that poetry with masterly cinematography, scoring and editing, and it feels reductive to call this whole thing just a commercial.

It’s a work of art. One that, at some level, is meant to sell Jeeps. But a work of art nonetheless.

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Anheuser-Busch, “Let’s Grab a Beer”
Wieden+Kennedy
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For a corporate-level commercial—a first for AB InBev’s Anheuser-Busch—this is a surprisingly heartfelt and wise bit of creative. Though Anheuser-Busch brand logos (including those of Budweiser, Michelob Ultra, Stella Artois and Goose Island) are briefly flashed on screen at the very end, this is basically just an ad for beer—and the idea of drinking beer, really.

As we see beautifully filmed scenes of various people coming together in ad hoc social situations, an announcer delivers a poetic meditation on the deeper meaning via voice-over: “So when you say, ‘Let’s grab a beer,’ it’s never just about the beer. It’s how you say, ‘I’m glad we’re stuck together.’ Or, ‘You deserve to be here.’ Or, ‘And um, I’m really sorry.’ It’s a way to say, ‘Shake it off.’” Each of those instances is depicted with entirely relatable vignettes; naturalistic acting and snippets of dialogue create the sense that we’re eavesdropping on reality.

The voice-over script even alludes to the reality of the pandemic, and all we’ve lost during the era of quarantine and social-distancing: “So when we’re back, let’s remember: It’s never just about the beer. It’s about saying that simple truth: We need each other.”

That is actually just lovely (and quietly profound). A toast to everyone that worked on this ad: You deserved to be here, in the Super Bowl.

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Guaranteed Rate, “Believe You Will”
In-house
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In Guaranteed Rate’s 30-second Super Bowl spot, an announcer tells the stories of blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, UFC fighter Dustin Poirier and Nascar driver Ryan Newman, who overcame the odds to achieve greatness. “How? They all believe,” the announcer says with highly caffeinated flourish worthy of a motivational speaker. “They believe in themselves. And they believe that their dreams, that their goals in life, were more than just imaginable. They were possible!” We see fleeting clips of other accomplished athletes, including Seth Jones, Rose Namajunas and Starr Andrews (who for some reason don’t get specifically called out in the voiceover), and then our announcer semi-awkwardly pivots: “For those who believe in their dream of a new home, Guaranteed Rate is a mortgage lender with all the right tools, advice and financing to make that dream a reality! … You can make it happen. You can conquer that mountain. You can! If you believe, you will!”

OK! If you say so! Honestly, this ad might just inspire us to finally move out of our current place—a van down by the river—and start looking for a new home.

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