There were moments when it was possible to watch this year’s Super Bowl commercials and feel like we’re still living in a recognizable version of America. The overhyped, pricey ads broadcast during the year’s most widely watched American television event did all the things we have come to expect from such moments of corporate/athletic-competition synergy, even if they didn’t yield any hugely memorable advertising moments. Where have you gone, Budweiser “Wassup” ads? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo woo wassupppp.
This year’s commercials, as in decades of Super Bowls before this one, tried to sell us beer, and also light beer, and also spiked seltzers spun off from light-beer brands, using celebrities (Jimmy Fallon! John Cena! Post Malone!), old Guns N’ Roses songs, and appeals to environmental consciousness. “Drink a six-pack, create organic farms”? Sure, Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, I’m game, I guess. Cars were hawked by celebrities, this time including Idris Elba, Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones, LeBron James, Bill Murray reprising his Groundhog Day persona, and a trio of well-known Massachusetts natives — Chris Evans, Rachel Dratch, and John Krasinski — who sang the praises of Hyundai’s “smaht pahk” feature, using Boston accents so thick it seemed like they may have been simultaneously auditioning for roles in Good Will Hunting 2: No, Really — How About Them Apples?
Also as usual, the Zeitgeist was mined for sales opportunities, leading Jason Momoa to strip away his muscles and hair via CGI on behalf of Rocket Mortgage, Jonathan Van Ness to get very excited about Pop-Tarts that taste like pretzels, and Lil Nas X to take his horse to the old town road to promote Doritos until he can’t no more. Companies tried to move our cuteness meters, too, with sweet dogs (thanks, WeatherTech) and the regeneration of deceased Mr. Peanut in the form of Baby Mr. Peanut, the most blatant attempt to capitalize on Baby Yoda mania since we at Vulture published this ongoing series of Baby Yoda GIF-caps.
As always, there were trailers for blockbuster movies, many of them sequels. Truly, what could be more American than yet another Fast & Furious movie and a sequel to Top Gun? As the prospect of a Top Gun follow-up underscores, there were many, many attempts to appeal to Gen-X/millennial nostalgia, another Super Bowl ad tradition established by past greats like the 2012 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Honda commercial.
In addition to the aforementioned bits that highlighted Guns N’ Roses and the movie Groundhog Day, Molly Ringwald appeared in a commercial for avocados, Winona Ryder was in another for Squarespace, and MC Hammer put his Hammer pants back on in a Cheetos promo focused on his biggest hit, “U Can’t Touch This.” Mel C. and Jaleel White, among others, advocated on behalf of hummus, while Bryan Cranston and Tracee Ellis Ross reenacted scenes from The Shining while daring to ask the question Stanley Kubrick never could: What if the blood that floods the hallways of the Overlook Hotel is actually Mtn Dew?
Discover strung-together scenes from all our favorite movies and TV shows — Mean Girls, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless, 30 Rock, Friends — in a pair of commercials that emphasized the credit card’s universal acceptance and lack of annual fees, while a spot for Walmart’s pickup service hurled in our faces as many pop-culture nostalgia trips and references as it could fit into a two-minute period. Did you know that Buzz Lightyear shops at Walmart, and so do the aliens from Mars Attacks!, and the aliens from Arrival, and the aliens from the Men in Black franchise, and C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars, and Bill from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure?? (Note: Ted does not shop at Walmart, presumably because Keanu Reeves does not have time for this Walmart shit.) In the most meta take possible on nostalgic advertising, some commercials even attempted to appeal to our nostalgia for old commercials that aren’t even that old. Jake from State Farm, we missed you and your khakis, even though both were all over our TV screens only five years ago.
And as ever, the advertising during the quintessential big-media American sporting event celebrated America. Specifically, it portrayed this country the way many Americans, and clearly corporate America, want it to be seen: as an evolved, inclusive place where people are good to each other and don’t spend half their days arguing on social media.
Amazon, with an assist from Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, reminded us how technologically advanced we’ve become, while, in its second Super Bowl spot, Walmart portrayed the United States as a place where there are “sparks of hope and compassion” found in an array of multicolored faces, set to the tune of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” The contributions of women were celebrated in numerous commercials, including a Secret ad in which a pair of field-goal kickers were revealed to be soccer players Carli Lloyd and Crystal Dunn; a Microsoft celebration of Katie Sowers, the assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers who became the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl; and an Olay spot that sent Busy Philipps, Lilly Singh, and actual astronaut Nicole Stott into space while seeking to raise money for Girls Who Code. Unless I missed something during a chili refill, there wasn’t a single GoDaddy-esque exploitative or misogynistic commercial during the entire Super Bowl. This is progress.
Budweiser even took the term “typical American” and flipped it on its head by demonstrating that typical Americans are thoughtful, hardworking, and, most importantly, represented by individuals of all different races and ethnicities.
But just when you might begin to think, Hey, maybe everything is really okay, a commercial would sneak in and reintroduce the sense of unease that has become the new normal in an America where an impeached president is currently being put on trial with no witnesses nor evidence.
There was the promo for Fox Nation, the streaming service that “celebrates America” and, so help me, is actually real, emphasizing how deep and long the influence of Fox News runs in this country. There was the Google commercial that was designed to tug at our heartstrings as we witnessed an old man saving his memories of his wife via his Google Assistant, which was sweet as long as you could forget that it’s also creepy for AI to retain so much of our personal information. There was the Pringles commercial that suggested the characters from Rick and Morty had been trapped, against their will, in a Pringles commercial.
Then there was the first-quarter campaign commercial for President Donald Trump, which touted his work on prison reform by highlighting the fact that he granted clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, but didn’t mention the fact that he did so after a celebrity, Kim Kardashian West, urged him to do so. “Thousands of families are being reunited,” said the voice-over in the commercial, a level of gaslighting that would give even the least ethical shills in all of corporate advertising pause.
The only Democratic candidate who could afford to buy Super Bowl ad time and offer a contrasting point of view was Michael Bloomberg, the same man who, in his pre–Super Bowl interview with Sean Hannity, Trump mocked for being “little.” The NFL joined the ad parade with a spot that highlighted the league’s Players Coalition, co-founded by former wide receiver Anquan Boldin, whose cousin was killed in a police shooting. The Coalition was created to address police/community relations and criminal justice, and the commercial clearly came from a less self-serving place than Trump’s campaign message. But its Inspire Change theme was still a jagged little nacho to swallow considering that the NFL player who did more to publicly highlight these issues than any other, Colin Kaepernick, was not on the field with the 49ers last night.
These moments, interspersed among the familiar waves of Super Bowl advertising tropes, were reminders of the chaotic and broken society in which we’re currently living, something that only one brand dared to address head-on: Snickers.
In the candy bar’s epic ad, a mass of humanity sings about how “the world is out of sorts” and “we need to fix it quicker,” while gathering to “feed the world a Snickers” in the hope that it will cure Earth’s many ailments, which include everything from “demented autocorrect” to “politics that make us sick” to “the surveillance state” represented by Google and Amazon. If any commercial from this year’s Super Bowl is remembered ten or 20 years from now, this may be the one. It managed to define that aforementioned unease in terms that could make every American feel seen, while acknowledging that we can no longer solve our problems by coming together in love and harmony on a hillside to buy the world a Coke, the way advertising taught us in the 1970s. As evolved as we’d like to think we are, we’re also cruder now, and the best solution we’ve got is to throw a hunk of chocolate into a hole and just … see what happens, I guess? Look on the bright side, though: If humanity collapses soon, at least we can all say we lived to see smaht pahk become a reality.