The best and worst ads of Super Bowl XLIX

Brands played it safe this year — safe and sad

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Between terrible play calls and terribly amusing dancing sharks, last night’s Super Bowl XLIX claimed the honor of biggest show of the year for advertising — the one time when people proudly announce they’ll go to the bathroom during the game itself to avoid missing those prized 30-second spots.

For $4.5 million, you, too, can associate yourself with the biggest television event of the year. Sometimes you can get lucky with a tweet or a $700 regional ad buy, but the only surefire way to get your company out front is the commercial buy for the national stage. And though humor found its way into the night, by and large, this year’s Super Bowl ad campaigns were all about family and familiarity.

Old stalwarts like Anheuser-Busch made decidedly less effort than in years’ past, both in quantity and content. The beer company bought three and a half minutes of airtime (totaling $31.5 million) — down from four minutes last year and the four and a half minutes before that — and grouped that time to make just three longer commercials. Of those, two were "sequels" (swapping Reggie Watts for Pac-Man and continuing to use horses as the Vessel Through Which All Good Happens In The World). The final ad was artificially designed to try and label Budweiser as a "macro" brewer, with hipsters drinking over an aggressive indie beat and title cards like "It’s brewed for drinking, not dissecting" — some bastardized hybrid of artisanal tone and mainstream branding.

It wasn’t just beer that kept it tame. McDonald’s went faux-reality with a message of love. Geico rehashed the months-old Salt-N-Pepa spot, one it knew played well. GoDaddy sexed down this year with an overworked 20-something (which we’re supposed to believe is a last-minute replacement for that stupidly offensive puppy mill parody). Coca-Cola made a sentimental jab at bettering the internet with, what else, Coca-Cola. But "World Peace is Brokered With Soda" is Coke’s modus operandi, day in and day out.

The big theme, if there’s one to find, was dads: Racing dads who want their son to show the need for speed (Nissan). Crying dads who drop their military-bound daughters off at the airport (Toyota). Affectionate dads that hug and kiss (Dove). Doritos' counter to this — a guy in an airplane who’s happy to sit next to the "hot girl" before realizing she has a baby — felt wholly out of place. And of course, if you have a child, the Super Bowl is the perfect time to think of the possibility they’ll die in an accident, at least according to Nationwide’s intentionally jarring, emotionally manipulative 30-second spot (which became a meme by the end of the night).

Basically, it’s all about family. Even Vin Diesel knows it.

Where humor was found, it was by and large driven by tech companies (and one incredible glue maker). Mophie wants you to believe that its battery will last well into the apocalypse. T-Mobile wants you to believe that Sarah Silverman’s hydroponic garden is full of kale. The creator of Clash of Clans wants you to believe Liam Neeson (aka "AngryNeeson52") gets really mad about free-to-play iPhone games. BMW isn’t exactly a tech company, but it did play to the evolution of technology with a clip of Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric trying to understand the internet in 1994.

So yes, there were laughs — and yes, there were movie trailers by the half-dozen (albeit very few surprises). But for the most part, if the game wasn’t making you emotional enough, the ads in between would break you.

Stray observations by the numbers:

  • Two times the elderly were used to sell cars ("Official Dodge Wisdom" and My-boner-pill-makes-Fiats-cool)
  • Two times that prosthetic legs were used to tug at the heartstrings (Microsoft and Toyota)
  • Two actors who made The Brady Bunch better: Danny Trejo as Marsha, Steve Buscemi as Jan
  • Two uses of that screaming goat meme (Sprint, Discover) — and countless uses of other memes
  • One Brett Favre cameo. Seriously, even between plays, he can’t seem to leave football behind.

And now, some arbitrary awards:

  1. The "best" ad: Nationwide

    Defined here by, "the ad that everyone will be talking about and set out what it intended to do." It was a shock in the first quarter, a trending topic by the second, and a meme by halftime. As a species, we have truly become desensitized to the world around us.

  2. The actual best ad: Loctite

    Without question, glue maker Loctite made one of the biggest gambles of the night. Advertising Age has (fortuitously) been following the company as it made its first-ever showing in the game. It was a success in terms of brand awareness, but will it translate to meaningful sales of $3–$10 glue?

  3. The real MVP: Land Shark

    Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show, made exponentially better by way of Missy Misdemeanor Elliott and a gaggle of people on Twitter making the same Wiimote strap joke, was awash in bright colors and fun. No matter how much fun you had, however, it wasn’t as much as the shark to Perry’s right had. Choreography be damned, he’s just happy to be there.

  4. Winner of the Bechdel Award: T-Mobile

    If a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, it passes the "Bechdel test." Comedians Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman made a hilarious ad for T-Mobile more concerned with "kale."

  5. Weirdest Twitter Stunt: T-Mobile — and Kim Kardashian

    Look, T-Mobile. I know she’s not actually tweeting at me, and I can see your timeline — it’s just the same five images in rotation. How did Twitter not flag this for spamming?

  6. Most improved: Jurassic World trailer

    Credit to Wired's Kyle Vanhemert, who noticed the vast graphical improvements between last night's Jurassic World teaser and the debut trailer. "It’s a fascinating glimpse into modern day moviemaking," he writes, "hidden in plain sight." Agreed!

  7. Most scrutinized: Furious 7

    Which is to say, our own Chris Ziegler decided to break down a 30-second movie teaser line by line. Okay.

  8. Best prediction engine (TIE): Madden and Breaking Madden

    Who knew the final score would be 28-24? EA's annual Madden Super Bowl simulation nailed the score. So, too did Jon Bois' Breaking Madden season finale. Never count out Touchdown Tom.

  9. Best use of Nick Offerman

    By our account, there are about 16 different characters played by Nick Offerman in this NASCAR commercial that immediately followed the Super Bowl. If Ron Swanson isn't driving at least three cars in the next race, I will be reporting NASCAR to the FTC for false advertising.

  10. Best troll: Chevrolet

    Nothing says "I want you to buy my car" like giving large swaths of the American population a heart attack by faking a lost signal at the start of the game.

Credits

  • Developer Yuri Victor

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