One writer’s thoughts on the weird and not weird enough.
After watching this year’s Super Bowl, it’s evident that the advertising world — much like the actual world — remains bitterly divided. Contrary to the hopes and dreams of a Jeep-drivin’, sweet-talkin’ Springsteen, we’re still a long way away from the middle. At one end of the gulf, you’ll find the oh-so-important anthem spot in all of its long-winded, cinematic glory. On the other end, the frivolous, celebrity-infested “comedy” gag. Then, spiraling somewhere between, but miles away, is the uncategorical category of “huh?” There’s no knowing which direction really works best. But from a purely creative perspective, I’m always rooting for the far-out in-between.
Of course, the best ad of SuperBowl LV wasn’t really an ad at all. By forgoing their traditional top-ticket spot and donating money to the vaccine rollout instead, Budweiser proved that its commitment to the average Joe runs deeper than a gravelly voice and archival footage of uncontroversial heroes.
That’s more than our friends at Ford can say. Or Michelob. Or Guaranteed Rate. Or, (sorry Bruce), Jeep. They all provided perfectly fine and fuzzy messages. But these hollow corporate anthems represent a trend as tired as a bean-selling dog. The best of them manage to at least make reference to an identifiable feature or benefit. Bass Pro Shops really can help you reconnect with nature, and yes, Toyota does technically donate to the Paralympics. But more often than not, these self-serious spots are spinning their wheels in conceptual terra incognita, making broad, tepid claims they have no claim to at all.
For advertisers at the other end of the spectrum, even the strongest string-scored slideshow isn’t enough. They need celebrities and they need them to shout about Norway. And inflate themselves in vending machines. And pretend to magically make mayonnaise cakes. There were so many shameless celebrity cameos this year that there were ads about shameless celebrity cameos. Now, I’m not knocking spectacle. Of course I cheered when Shaggy rapped about Cheetos. But when every tent-pole touchstone plays like an episode of The Masked Singer, it might be time to rethink your creative strategy.
That’s why my favorite commercials of the evening were the few with the courage to try something new. Sure, nobody could read that Reddit post in 5 seconds. But as long as you didn’t blink and miss it, you might be curious enough to look it up later. And who would actually sit there and count every bottle of Mountain Dew in John Cena’s psychotropic wonderland? Who cares? The fact that we were invited to play, and not just watch, made the ad stand out.
Yet all of these brave new ideas pale in comparison to the work of a lonely CEO with an 80s Casio keyboard. Oatly’s open-mic travesty was loathed by many. At first, I thought I hated it, too. But with every replay, my appreciation continues to grow like oats in a cloud-covered field. There is no unconnectable sermon about the power of persistence. No mindless name-drop or cloying TikTok dance. Instead, you have the literal face of the business, literally facing the music in an unadulterated expression of a company and its values. To top it all off, they handed out self-deprecating t-shirts to whoever wanted them. It’s not a pretty ad. But on a night overstuffed with speeches and stars, it’s nice to see something that makes you go: “Woooow!”