Okay, quick, name the first ad to run during the Super Bowl!
Of course you can’t remember.
It doesn’t help that most brands have been teasing out or just flat out releasing their ads for weeks now, all trying to squeeze another drop of attention out of the entire spectacle. It’s easy to be a cynic, but there is no doubt that despite our eyeballs being inundated with tens of thousands of ads every day, we still all watch this game and actively pay attention—even look forward to—the commercials.
It’s that one magical day a year for brands used to the exact opposite every other day on the calendar.
This past year was a weird one, not the Super Bowl’s first, but you’d never really know it watching these ads. Not a mask in sight. Social distance . . . huh? Ah well, chalk it up to the fine art of escapism and a very real desire to avoid having made 2021’s Dead Kid ad.
Despite all the millions spent and the celebrities wrangled into the hullabaloo, to put it in football terms, most of the ads were four yards and a cloud of dust. No Hail Marys. No advertising equivalents of the helmet catch. There were some pretty nice plays, but one stood out among the rest.
And the (completely subjective) best commercial of the 2021 Super Bowl trophy goes to . . . Amazon!
Created by the agency Lucky Generals, the spot sees Amazon back experimenting with Alexa anthropomorphism for the Super Bowl. It first went to this well in 2018, when Alexa’s voice was replaced by celebrities such as Gordon Ramsey, Cardi B, and Rebel Wilson. Then last year it was a look at Alexas throughout history. Now things step up a notch, with the virtual assistant becoming Michael B. Jordan in the flesh. Like, really in the flesh.
This isn’t an original idea, but it’s one that jumps off from one—and does so pretty spectacularly. Jordan is great as the straight man here, while the husband-and-wife combo hilariously navigates the new technology. There are a lot of brands using celebrities in their Super Bowl ads, but none quite hit the mark as well. Amazon delivers a capital S, capital B Super Bowl commercial with the perfect combination of a major brand, a major celebrity, and perfect execution. (It even sneaks in a promo for Jordan’s upcoming film Without Remorse, debuting on Prime Video next month.) It’s all almost enough to make you forget the company is well on its way to controlling the entire universe.
And now the worst . . .
When it comes to judging the worst Super Bowl commercials, there are a few more factors involved than an ad being simply bad, boring, or unforgivably misguided. Major factors under consideration are the size and scale of the brand and its general creative advertising and Super Bowl pedigree. You can’t really compare Squarespace, for example, a brand with incredible creative in the recent past with Keanu Reeves (2018), John Malkovich (2017), Key & Peele (2016), and Jeff Bridges (2015), on the same scale as, say . . . WeatherTech (USA! USA! USA!). It’s like comparing apples and sledgehammers. Let’s gooooooo.
Squarespace “5 to 9”
We invoked its name already, so why not start here? On paper, this commercial kills. You can almost imagine the Don Draper-style pitch presentation. “We’re going to get Dolly Parton to rerecord her 1980 hit ‘9 to 5’ as an anthem to 21st-century side-hustle culture!” The room collectively rises and grinds.
Except what we end up with is a conceptually generic ad (directed by Oscar winner Damien Chazelle??) that sees cubicle-bound workers burst into color when that clock hits five, as new entrepreneurial possibilities come to life. This whole caterpillar-to-butterfly conceit is an age-old ad trope. It’s been used to sell everything from laundry detergent to insurance. What makes this more disappointing is how it compares to the brand’s weird and wonderful past. The Jeff Bridges sleep album? Gold.
Meanwhile, the lyrical blasphemy here is of the highest order. Could it be worse? Sure, maybe if Arby’s got Robert Plant to redo “Stairway to Heaven.” And she’s buuuuying a Beef N’ Cheddar at Arrrrrrrby’s . . .
Uber Eats “Wayne’s World”
Speaking of brutal murders of pop culture nostalgia, Uber Eats enticed Mike Myers and Dana Carvey out of cable access character retirement to use Wayne and Garth in its spot hyping local food delivery. As someone who grew up loving Wayne’s World, this feels like the equivalent of seeing 77-year-old Mick Jagger strut on stage at SNL to “Start Me Up”. . . It sounds like the original, but the years don’t exactly age it like a fine wine.
Cardi B makes a cameo to bring it all into 2021, and there’s a TikTok moment, as well as a nod back to the product placement spoof of the first Wayne’s World movie. Thing is, you can’t spoof product placement when you’re in the middle of a giant product placement. It’s like yelling “Meat is murder!” while your elbow is deep in BBQ ribs.
Jimmy John’s “Meet the King”
Ay oh! Turns out the ridiculous mobster trope still isn’t dead! Brad Garrett stars as Tony Bolognavich, “The King of Cold Cuts,” whose turf is getting squeezed by this midrange, two-first-name sandwich chain. Do we even need to get into how many ads have done this bit? This isn’t even the first one in the Super Bowl! Audi pretty much sewed up the best version back in 2008 with its bumper-and-front-grill-in-the-bed Godfather gag. This is more like Gotti: The Super Bowl Ad.
Cheetos “It Wasn’t Me”
Once again, here we have a brand utilizing a catchy hit song in order to draft off its emotional nostalgia among the audience. Back in 2000, Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” was a certified megahit, hitting number one in a laundry list of countries on its way to selling millions of copies. Which brings us to Cheetos. If making a great Super Bowl ad was as easy as typing successful elements from old ads into an AI-based commercial generator, then this spot looks like a sure thing: A fun song. Two incredibly likable celebrities in Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. And Shaggy is there in a perfectly charming side role. In practice, though? Kutcher’s singing voice is a cross between Chad Hanks and Edith Bunker. It’s . . . distracting.
Much like Squarespace, perhaps what’s most disappointing is the waste of talent combined with Cheetos’s own creative ad pedigree. This is the same brand that not only used the same cheese dust gag for “Can’t Touch This,” but also things like the Spotted Cheetah restaurant—and an entire mansion. Here, like Kutcher, it just hits too many of the wrong notes.
Robinhood “We’re All Investors”
Now we come to the pièce
de résistance of commercial tone deafness. Less than two weeks ago, Robinhood became Topic A in a country where when a highly valued Silicon Valley startup is what everyone is talking about, it’s likely not because it did something amazing and good. We all know of the GameStop stock market story, and in the process we’ve learned a lot about options trading and short selling and all that fun stuff. There have arguably been any number of folks seeking to cast a villain in this drama, and Robinhood, the free trading app, has been one of them. There are, as of now, six—count ’em, six!—Hollywood productions trying to wrestle this story into comedy, drama, farce, or all of the above.
If you happen to find yourself in that scenario and discover that you have a Super Bowl set to run in mere days, a lot of companies would either cancel the ad and eat the cost (smart!) or make a new ad seeking to bring down the temperature as class-action lawsuits and invitations to appear before Congress pile up. (Risky but not impossible!)
I’ll tell you what you don’t do: Just run the ad you previously made and pretend like it’s all good. Especially when your spot in the can is aiming for a kumbaya investment anthem, celebrating its customers, with not even a whiff of the absolute sh*tstorm it had created among those very customers mere days ago. Why not just run the room-on-fire Everything’s Fine dog for 30 seconds and slap their logo on the end?
WATCH: Budweiser skips the Super Bowl, and Robinhood’s reputation takes a tumble—brand hit and miss of the week