Cautious or caution to the wind? Polarizing or pointless? Momentous or moronic? Memorable or milquetoast? Super Bowl LI — the commercial edition — managed a little of each Sunday, although (let’s be real) it was all shaded a little more to the cautious, pointless, moronic and milquetoast side of the ledger.
In any event, we can’t say we weren’t warned. These ads were meant to sell, not alienate, and at $5 million a pop, alienation would have come with a steep price tag. Instead, controversy was aired out largely beforehand, when Fox rejected an 84 Lumber commercial that referenced a wall, presumably the one supposed to go up along a certain border. (A re-cut version aired instead — no wall.) Vitamin supplements chain GNC planned to use Super Bowl LI for a turnaround effort, but the NFL had something to say about that. A tiny fraction of GNC products contain banned substances under league guidelines, and the ad in turn was banned.
Instead, we were left with a live Snickers commercial starring Adam Driver, a talking elephant, John Hamm, a ghost-of-Christmas-past Spuds McKenzie and a whole lot of other memories to last at least a week.
But the good, the bad, the gloriously awful? Yup, we had all that too. My top five picks for the best and the worst:
1. Kia: Kia and Melissa McCarthy certainly had a shrewd strategy going into this game. First, there were those series of “teases” (Mel and the Rhino? Ouch). Then there was her surprise super-social-media-charged turn as White House press Secretary Sean Spicer on “Saturday Night Live” the night before the Super Bowl. And finally the ad — the best one of the LI. These things don’t happen by accident (and next time she wants to save the whales, maybe go on “SNL” instead?).
2. Airbnb: With those faces and these words — “Where you’re from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept” — Airbnb broke through the “no politics” ceiling and blew past the Fox in-house No Controversy police with a true talker. Best of all, a total surprise.
3. Lifewtr: Is it “Lifewater” or “Lifewatr” or “Lifewtr”? Is it even water? Beats me! Great graphics, courtesy of visual effects master Robert Stromberg — “The Hunger Games,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Game of Thrones” — who captured beauty in 30 seconds. Don’t get that often in a Super Bowl ad.
4. 84 Lumber: Poor 84 Lumber. Its very first-ever Super Bowl ad is rejected because of the “wall,” then comes back with what a hundred or so million people saw instead. This was the story a little girl in Mexico (presumably) who crosses mountain and desert with her mother (presumably) while grabbing bits of flotsam and crumbling bits of plastic. To do what? We were directed to go online for that answer. (She’s not going to build a wall with all that stuff, I think we can safely assume). Ads that tell evocative stories are good. Ads that leave us wanting more (like answers) even better.
5. Honda: The carmaker’s so-called “2017 Year Books” managed to do something that most of us usually don’t do, or don’t want to do, but of course have to do when we’ve had too many Busch beers (see below), which is to look at our old high school yearbooks. But none of ours had Tina Fey, Viola Davis, Steve Carell, Stan Lee or Jimmy Kimmel in them. (Questions to be resolved: Were those the real pictures? Did Carell really have that ’stache?) This one maybe won’t make us buy a Honda, but we will dust off the you-know-what.
6. Wix: Yup, loved or at least liked this Wix ad with Jason Statham and Gal Gadot because it was pre-released early (all the better to watch and re-watch) and because it was well done. Plotline: Felix’s restaurant is demolished when bad guys break into his restaurant while he is building a website. Bad guys meet Gadot and Statham. Cue: The explosion.
1. Budweiser, “Born the Hard Way.” The immigration of Adolphus Busch which was related in these 60 saccharin-soaked, pre-released seconds was dragged into the current political uproar over the subject (immigration, not beer), and no doubt unintentionally. Bud wants to sell beer, not politics. This ad was so hamfisted that it even mishandled its own creation myth. Asked why he left Germany, Adolphus responded, because “I want to brew beer?” Really? No brewers allowed back in the old country?
2. Buick. The carmaker had 60 seconds (that’s $10 million) to explain to the world that the impression we all have of Buick is outdated, and came up with this: Panthers QB Cam Newton throws a bullet pass to a 6-year old, who goes flying, then pushes over the other kids like bowling pins. Meanwhile, our outdated impressions of Buick AND Cam were actually reinforced.
3. Busch beer: A guy opens a can of the stuff, and all he (and we) hear is a long hiss of escaping gas, indicating that a. There really is nothing much inside a can of Busch, as most Busch drinkers already know, or b. Do not light a match around open cans.
4. Febreze: What more can be said about an ad featuring people going into the bathroom during halftime with a container of Febreze, and with the tagline, “I love you, halftime break . . . but sometimes you stink.” I think that says it all pretty well. Or to paraphrase what was once said of Mr. Grinch, this ad stink-stank-stunk.
5. World of Tanks: There were two short commercials for this online game, and if you missed ’em, you missed some of the worst ads of LI. Each was a riff on a reality show — “Real Housewives” and “Tiny House Hunters.” Then came the tanks. Then came the moment when I decided no more. Please, no more.