Pepsi should have chosen a different slogan for its ads during this year’s Super Bowl.
The company’s slogan was “More than OK.” Well, not really. In fact, most of the high-priced commercials we saw between the football plays were just OK. They were so careful to avoid scandal and backlash that they felt leached of originality or bite.
That’s pretty much what Greg Lyons, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo Beverages North America, predicted when I asked him last week what this year’s spots would look like: nothing controversial.
“The Super Bowl is a time for people to enjoy themselves and enjoy the ads,” Lyons said, deftly avoiding direct mention of the elephant in this particular room — allegations that the NFL blackballed former quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his silent protests over social justice issues, leading to the hashtag #Imwithkap trending before the big game started.
Super Bowl ad time was costly — CBS charged up to $5.3 million for each 30 seconds of time — so the commercials sidestepped anything that might offend. That left viewers with a lot of spots centered on emotional tributes to first responders and soldiers; artificial intelligence and robots acting out; and awkward celebrity cameos. One example: Charlie Sheen reading a newspaper as Mr. Peanut speeds by in a car shaped like a peanut, looking up to say, “And people think I’m nuts.” Really.
Here’s my take on what worked — and so much more that didn’t — on the world’s biggest showcase for TV advertising:
Best argument for a free press: The Washington Post‘s spot “Democracy Dies in Darkness”
Yeah, as a journalist and sometimes media critic, I’m a little biased. And at a time when journalists are enduring layoffs across many outlets, the price of a Super Bowl ad may seem foolish. But The Washington Post spot reminded us how journalism informs every facet of our lives, with clips of deceased reporters such as Marie Colvin and Jamal Khashoggi with the reassuring voice of Tom Hanks telling viewers that “knowing keeps us free.” Would an “enemy of the people” do that? I don’t think so.
The Washington Post
Best mashup of two things that probably shouldn’t be mashed up: Bud Light and HBO’s Game of Thrones
Last year, Bud Light featured a bunch of ads in a medieval setting with characters saying the catchphrase “dilly, dilly.” This year, they upped the ante by showing one of their Bud Light knights killed in a jousting contest by a character from Game of Thrones — The Mountain — before a dragon from the show sets everyone on fire. I’ll give Bud Light points for teaming up with a cool, highly anticipated TV event. But in a Super Bowl advertising environment that’s mostly about humor and sentimentality, selling your beer with a commercial that shows scores of people getting killed feels a bit, well, off brand.
Good try making the best of a bad thing: “Is Pepsi OK?”
Props to the company for not shying away from something that could be considered a serious weakness: the fact that waitstaff often ask customers “Is Pepsi OK?” when customers ask for a Coke but the restaurant serves only Pepsi products. The ad featured Steve Carell berating a waiter before rappers Cardi B and Lil Jon show up bellowing “OK” in their signature styles. Carell’s patter did feel a little like watching your dad joke about a pop music video. But at least he admits trying to cop Cardi B’s style is probably a bad idea.
Best use of celebrities: Harrison Ford, Forest Whitaker, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Mark and Scott Kelly coping with Amazon fails
Give Amazon points for making Harrison Ford’s increasingly curmudgeonly style look charming. The premise of the ad is simple: After showing off a microwave with Alexa, the commercial features celebrities trying other Alexa/Amazon products that didn’t turn out so well. It’s cute seeing Forest Whitaker struggle to hear a podcast through an Alexa-enabled toothbrush stuck in his mouth, while the stars of Broad City, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, get accidentally ejected from an Alexa-powered hot tub. But it’s Ford jousting with his dog, who keeps ordering stuff through his Alexa-outfitted dog collar, who steals the show. (I think he just might have found his partner for the next Indiana Jones movie.)
Worst use of a celebrity: Jason Bateman for Hyundai
Jason Bateman is an underappreciated talent with a skill for serving up dry humor. So it’s sad to see Hyundai stick him in a role anyone could have played: an elevator operator descending with a car-shopping couple, going past floors with awful activities such as getting a root canal or attending a vegan dinner party, until they finally land in the basement, where there’s a car dealership. Frankly, I expected him to pass a floor where people were watching this commercial, which might have rescued the whole thing.
Best stunt reminding you of all the things you hate about Super Bowl advertising: Michael C. Hall in “Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical”
It’s already a weird idea: Just before the Super Bowl, Skittles will present a half-hour musical at The Town Hall theater, starring Michael C. Hall. Only the theater’s paying audience will see it (proceeds will be donated to charity). The cast recording is already up on Spotify, there are teaser ads online and the company has released a video of one song titled “Advertising Ruins Everything.” (Sample lyric: “It shows me how perfect a person can be/and reminds me how perfect I’m not.”) Never mind how bizarre it is to spend all this effort and money to create a Broadway show/advertisement only 1,500 people will see; it’s also wild to publicize a song that argues this whole experience is damaging. Tough to know how any of this sells Skittles, but anything that gives a gig to the mega-talented Hall can’t be all bad.
Best hijacking of Super Bowl ad frenzy: Volvo’s Longest Drive Contest
Volvo is encouraging people not to watch the game by sponsoring a contest where you can take a “digital test drive” of its S60 sedan on a smartphone as the Big Game starts. The three people who keep their eyes on the sedan for the longest time — no looking at the game or other commercials — will win a “Care by Volvo” subscription. The subscription provides an S60 or similar luxury vehicle to drive for two years. It covers everything but gas for the car. And Volvo gets a heap of publicity without spending millions on a Super Bowl ad, engineering a contest where the winners have to give the big prize back after two years. Masterful.
Best jab at ads that don’t have anything to do with the product they advertise: Ram Trucks’ “Can’t Remember”
Two cowboys load their gear into a big trailer, shooting the breeze — as cowhands will — about which past Super Bowl commercials they like the most. After talking about the one about herding cats and the other one with the talking baby, the cowboys realize they don’t know what products those spots were advertising (if you guessed Electronic Data Systems and E-Trade without using Google, then you probably work in advertising). The camera pulls back to show one of the guys getting into an imposing Ram truck as he says “They need to just show you what they’re sellin’!” Like a thinly disguised poke at the competition, perhaps? At least this ad was less offensive than their effort last year, which used audio from a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., lending the appearance that one of history’s greatest activists was helping shill for a truck company.
Most awkward use of celebrities for an understated charity: Carrie Bradshaw and The Dude for Stella Artois
Sure, it’s fun to see Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges briefly reprise their iconic characters from Sex and the City and The Big Lebowski, even if it’s just in an ad for a highfalutin Belgian pilsner. But there’s not much impact, beyond seeing the two of them onscreen, passing up their signature drinks — a White Russian and a Cosmopolitan — for a Stella. You have to go online to see the details, but the company will donate a portion of proceeds from every bottle, pint or glass chalice sold until March 31 to Water.org. Might have been nice to see that detail in the actual TV ad.