Best storytelling: Budweiser, “Lost Dog”
Puppy ads are the “gimme” of Super Bowl commercialdom, but this one—the story of an unabashedly precious little dog being saved from a big, bad wolf by noble Clydesdales—is like Homeward Bound in 60 seconds.
Most… what?: Bud Light, “Real-Life Pac-Man”
The #UpForWhatever actor’s last words in this real-life Pac-Man spot are “What is going on?” That was pretty much my sole thought for the entirety of this aural onslaught of yelling, retro gaming sounds, and a thumping baseline made by a man pressing keys on a laptop. A DJ, I mean.
Least syntactical copywriting: WeatherTech, “America at Work”
“There’s something happening right here in this country,” a gravelly voice says. “It’s the sound of America. Working with American materials. In American factories.” Okay, question: Does sound happen? And I understand how Americans can work in American factories, but, like, how does America itself work in factories in itself? It’s meta, but unintentionally so.
[Editor’s note: This is what happens when you let a Yale grad analyze Super Bowl commercials.]
Best message: Always, “Like a Girl”
Always, Procter & Gamble’s brand of feminine products, debuted a three-minute version of “Like a Girl” online in June 2014. In a historic year for feminism, the video’s head-on confrontation of casual sexism resonated so strongly with viewers that Always decided to re-release a TV version of the video for the Super Bowl.
The ad opens with two teenage girls, a man, and a boy being asked to run, fight, and throw “like a girl,” and their actions reveal the way doing something “like a girl” is often an insult. But then young girls are asked to do the same things—and they are tenacious and confident. “A girl’s confidence plummets during puberty,” the ad says. “But it doesn’t have to.” “Like a Girl” is, for better or for worse, “empowertising” to the extreme, but Always does it well.
Most likely to make your Super Bowl party devastatingly sad: Nationwide, “Make Safe Happen”
Nationwide’s newest campaign, aimed at educating parents on how to prevent household accidents that endanger children, is called “Make Safe Happen.” It might as well have been called “Make Sad Happen.” (Zing!)
The ad shows all the wonderful things a boy could do in his life, like get cooties, learn to fly, and sail the high seas with his dog—but then Nationwide rocks you with a sucker punch: The kid is dead. “I couldn’t grow up,” he says, “because I died from an accident.” Oh. Shucks. At least Judd Apatow is giving you some attention, kid:
Weirdest ad/product fit: Toyota, “#OneBoldChoice”
Here, Toyota juxtaposes high-energy, down-but-not-out scenes of Paralympian snowboarder and Dancing With the Stars competitor Amy Purdy with a poetic motivational speech from Muhammad Ali.
The message of overcoming the odds in thrilling fashion is normally hard to get wrong, but Toyota’s problem is that this is an ad for the Toyota Camry—one of the most banal, unexciting, safest cars in existence. It’s America’s best-selling car precisely because it’s so boring. Toyota’s attempt to align the Camry with anything “bold” is like throwing some pepper on potato chips and advertising them as an exhilarating new flavor. They’re still boring chips, man.
Most cross-promotional: Squarespace, “Om”
In perhaps the most intriguing ad of the night, Jeff Bridges plays a Tibetan singing bowl and hums. No more, no less.
The ad directs you to DreamingWithJeff.com, a gorgeous website that promotes both the Squarespace website-building platform and the actor’s new spoken-word album. “Om” is weird, but it’s also soothing, and its meditative vibe stands out among Super Bowl commercials’ usual effervescence.
Worst reappropriation of a fable: Mercedes-Benz, “Fable”
Mercedes starts with the classic moralistic tale of the tortoise and the hare and ends with group selfies, animals bro-ing out, and the suggestion that money gets the girl. Targeting the millennial demographic so explicitly only makes sense when you’re advertising a car that doesn’t cost $130,000.
Best newcomer: Mophie, “All-Powerless”
Gravity goes haywire, fish rain from the sky, trees spontaneously ignite, and dogs are our new bipedal overlords—all because God’s cell phone died. The main implication is that life is hard when your phone loses battery, and Mophie helps prevent that. But the darker, more sinister implication is that God might be obsessed with selfies, which would explain that whole “created in his image” thing.
Best dadvertising: Nissan, “With Dad”
Odes to dads were a theme of this year’s Super Bowl ads, and Nissan’s “With Dad” was the winner. The story of a boy growing up as he follows his dad’s career (as a NASCAR driver) isn’t a novel one, but the cinematography is excellent, as is the Harry Chapin folk-rock background ballad.
As we learned from Gravity, you don’t need much substance to be popular—you just need to look good.