Super Bowl

Super Bowl Super Review: Unlikely Car Commercials Race to the Top

While Budweiser, Chrysler and GE Promise Us It'll Get Better

By Published on .

A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

Ad Age has been told before that reviewing Super Bowl spots before the game is folly. Without the context of the game itself—the excitement, the noise, the taco dip -- the reviewer is missing the big picture. There is a truth to such grousing. Watching the spots at a computer is not the same as watching during the game, surrounded by family, friends and copious amounts of beer.

But the reality is I am lucky enough to write for a magazine that still exists in print and is sent to the printer on Friday night. So there.

Besides, these days, you -- yes, you -- had likely already seen most of the spots and formed your conclusions before the game started. Perhaps you decided Honda's "Matthew's Day Off" was a work of genius last Tuesday afternoon. Well, guess what, Mr. Purist? That was a 2:30 video, not a Super Bowl commercial! Or was it part of a much larger campaign with roots in the game, spreading out into the web and social media, forward and backward in time? So many marketers were thinking beyond the game this year that Shazam should have been awarded the MVP award.

But I'm a traditionalist! I say enough with the previews and the teaser spots. The practice robs the average consumers -- and marketers -- of the element of surprise. It burns off a lot of excitement well before the game. I could go on, but I'm here to review old-fashioned TV spots based on things such as intent, humor, salesmanship, good taste and whatever mood I happened to be in at the time. You can yell at me for that later -- and also tell me I was wrong and that releasing so many ads before the game didn't make one bit of difference to marketers or consumers.

Let's proceed, shall we?

"A Dream Car. For Real Life."
David & Goliath, Los Angeles

Last year's multidimensional, intergalactic space epic for the Optima left me feeling cold. This one doesn't. Kia Motors Corp. and David & Goliath get back to the formula of charming content with a great soundtrack. But instead of sock monkeys and other stuffed critters, this year's ad is chock-full of celebrities—well, celebrities to straight men of a certain age. And the ending is a nice twist on your typical testosterone-laden football ad, bringing us from kick-ass to "Awwww, you guys!" in under 60 seconds.

Cars.com
"Neck"
DDB, Chicago

The first response to this commercial, in which a second head is singing that he wants this particular car, will be this: WTF? The second will be, "Wait, let's watch that again." Ultimately, this polarizing ad will push viewers into "love it" or "hate it" land with no room in between. The spot is made by the facial expressions of the main head and the singing of the second head—and that song, which will become this year's "Give me back that Filet of Fish." Me? I'm loving it.

Chevy Sonic
"Stunt Anthem"

So Chevy's finally got a hot little car that can compete with Toyota, Honda and even Ford. Were they going to wrap it in the American flag? A Mellencamp soundtrack? Thankfully, none of the above. Stunt Anthem shows the Sonic performing outrageous stunts including bungee jumping, skydiving, kickflipping and making a music video with OK Go. The car looks good and the tricks look even better. It should have the Mtn Dew-slurping, X-Games-watching crowd (or the GenXers and Boomers who pretend to be) rushing to the web to see each stunt in its full glory.

Acura
"Transactions"
RP&, Santa Monica, Calif.

This spot, starring Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, trumps sibling Honda's for a couple of key reasons. First, the Acura NSX is a jaw-dropping bit of automotive engineering. Secondly, while the spot is over the top, it's not that hard to imagine the real-life Jerry Seinfeld duking it out with gearhead Jay Leno for the first NSX off the production line.

Bud Light
"Rescue Dog"
McGarryBowen , Chicago

The dog-retrieving-a-beer gag has been done by everyone from Strohs to, well, Bud Light. But it's hard to harsh on Weego, the rescue dog in this spot from McGarryBowen . The last time Bud Light went this route, in 2008's "Bad Dog," it took a turn for the coarse with a crotch-biting mutt. This one, though, is pure cute. Better yet, scruffy little Weego's name ties into the brand's tag line: "Here We Go." And just as you're maxing out on the warm and fuzzies, it closes with a plea to help rescue dogs. However, I'm sure a small fraction of the viewing audience will be disappointed Bud Light deprived them of dumb-ass frat boys this year.

Chevy Silverado
"2012"

Boy, those Ford guys who have window stickers of Calvin peeing on a Chevy symbol are going to be so mad when they see this ad! Actually, they'll probably love it. (A couple of F150 drivers commenting on Ad Age admitted they liked it.) You don't often see comparative ads this blatant in the Super Bowl—driving a Ford pickup will get you killed during the apocalypse—but Chevy manages to pull it off while keeping it light.

General Electric
"Building Something Big in Louisville"
BBDO , New York

If Barack Obama doesn't steal this ad concept for his campaign advertising, I'll eat my hat. The bean-counters might say we're not technically in a recession, but it doesn't feel that way. And anxious Americans are caught between hating greedy corporations and hoping those greedy corporations bring back some of those manufacturing jobs we've been told have shipped out for China never to return. Well, according to GE, refrigerators are being built right here in the good ol' U.S. of A. Definitely not the flashiest ad of the night, but considering the economy, GE might want to brace for a massive pile of applications to land at its Lexington factory.

History Channel
"Swamp People: This Is Your Boss"
In-house

It's not often you see a cable network's promo during a Super Bowl broadcast, but History Channel is on a roll with the male demographic and wants to get even more of those eyeballs for its Feb. 9 season premiere of reality show "Swamp People," which follows the lives of a few alligator hunters down in Louisiana. As a Louisiana native, I may be biased, but the photography and copywriting here will pique the curiosity of the uninitiated and psych up die-hard fans of the show.

M&M's
"Just My Shell"
BBDO , New York

Polar bears take note. Here we have some computer-animated characters with defined personalities. Sure, they can speak, so that helps, but we've always liked the interplay between the M&M's and the humans in the room—even if these spots raise all sorts of questions we'd rather not address (especially the pretzel M&M ads). In this one, a leering dude mistakenly assumes Brown M&M is naked—as if she'd be so gauche. It isn't long before Red M&M shows up and makes a fool of himself. The ad is tied together nicely by LMFAO's "I Work Out."

"A Thing Called Love"
72 & Sunny

Yes, there are certain iPhone users who are little more than easy-to-herd sheeple, quick to proclaim individuality and freedom and peace and love while they happily build Apple into a company bigger than Exxon by paying too much for toys built by little Chinese kids. And we take delight in mocking them. But the bit's getting old, Samsung. Thankfully, this ad breaks the confines of yet another Samsung-on-Apple passive-aggressive hipster smugfest, offering us a ridiculous street carnival of a performance by "The Darkness" that sets the Apple flock free. Too bad it takes a full 30 seconds before the fun starts. Extra points for a cameo by the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher and that one lone iPhone holdout at the end.

Volkswagen
"Dog Strikes Back"
Deutsch , Los Angeles.

What, did someone let George Lucas near the script? I'm not going to say that this is "Phantom Menace"—it's not. But it's certainly no "Empire Strikes Back." There's actually a perfectly fine Super Bowl ad in this spot, one about a chubby dog, past his prime, inspired by a Beetle to get in shape and regain his former glory. Then, just when you're about to turn away, there's some Star Wars footage, as if somewhere the following conversation went down. Creative 1: "Guys, this is great, but didn't we do a teaser promising some sort of tie-in to Star Wars?" Creative 2: "What? We did? I was on vacation." Creative 3. "Oh, yeah. Forgot to tell you." Creative 1: "Well, we'd better think of something quick."

Audi of America
"Vampire Party"
Venables , Bell & Partners, San Francisco

Audi is another auto brand lucky enough to have visually striking cars. You can recognize those headlights almost immediately. This year the marketer decided to play up that particular product attribute by crossing into the vampire genre. It's a decent enough ad—the special effects are OK and the sound track is great—but vampires are so, I don't know, 2009.

Best Buy
"Innovators"

A complete 180 from last year's Bieber and Ozzie celeb-fest, this ad pays tribute to the innovators behind all the little doodads and apps that make our smartphones less like that thing that used to reside in your living room and more like something from Star Trek. The ad has some serious nerd cred (which may play well in social-media circles) and even a sense of humor (the Words With Friends segment is a nice touch). Now, the type of people who recognize the inventors in this ad are not the type who shop at Best Buy. Best Buy knows this. Hence this approach. Will it work? Does not compute.

Budweiser
Anomaly

I still say Super Bowl fans want their Clydesdales acting like people, not pulling a damn beer wagon. And they'll certainly be wondering why Budweiser is running an ad about the end of prohibition that isn't even, like, funny! But I guess Budweiser is trying to undo years of goofy branding and latch on to a more grown-up image. With "Return of the King" and "Eternal Optimism," Budweiser starts us off in bleak times—just like today!—and promises things will get better, that —gosh darnit—Americans always pull through, and Budweiser's always been there to help. Too bad that "Eternal Optimism" spot seems entirely too similar to PepsiCo "Generations" spot starring Britney Spears a few years ago.

Century 21
"Smarter. Bolder. Faster."
Red Tettemer & Partners, Philadelphia

If I worked in an ad agency and someone told me I'd be working on a Super Bowl spot, I'd be thrilled. If they then told me I'd be working on a spot for a real-estate company, I'd wander off into the night, weeping gently, never to be seen again. Given the task (and the economy), this is a respectable spot, featuring a Century 21 rep out-dealing Donald Trump (smarter), out-blinging Deion Sanders (bolder) and out-skating Apollo Ohno (faster). Might not be the talk of the water cooler, but not a stinker, either.

Chrysler
"Halftime in America"
Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.

The ghost of Ronald Reagan called. He wants his "Morning in America" back. Chrysler enlists Clint Eastwood to return to the down-but-not-out "Imported from Detroit" theme it surprised everyone with last year. The ad will have some viewers bleary-eyed, hands over their hearts just daring you to diss it, because you can just love it or leave it, you little sniveling punk! But this is a bit much. Sure, Clint's been around, and he's seen good times and bad. And, like Budweiser, he promises we'll get through, just like Detroit did (with the help of massive government bailouts?). But why Clint? What's his connection to Chrysler or Detroit? Sure, he shot "Gran Torino" in Motor City, but Gran Torino is a product of that American car company that didn't need a bailout.

Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.

On offer are three spots, each featuring the polar bears watching the game. One bear is wearing a red-and-white Giants scarf. One is wearing a blue-and-gray Patriots scarf. (And because the Giants are known as Big Blue, it took us three rounds of phone calls and emails to get that straightened out.) Listen, the polar bears are cute. But these two have all the personality of a block of arctic ice. And, while it may have been technologically challenging to make them react to the game, in a post-"Avatar," post-"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" world, it's going to take more than this. Of the three, only the "Arrgggh" spot came close to approaching the emotional level of reality-based football fans.

E-Trade
"Fatherhood"
Grey , New York

Shouldn't this kid be in college by now? In this spot, the E-Trade baby is counseling a new father as both look in on a hospital nursery. Maybe it's the economy or maybe the E-Trade baby is getting a little tired of this whole shtick, but he seems more sedate than normal. Why isn't he busting this guy's chops? It's too bad. This is one of the few ads consumers don't seem to tire of . The speed-dating joke at the end was worth a chuckle, though.

"Seduction"
Richards Group, Dallas

Yo, Fiat. Drop J Lo immediately. Hire this woman and this agency. Stick with them. They seem to know how to make a car look sexy, rather than like a cheap prop in a horrible music video. We liked this ad when we saw it in November. We still like it now.

Honda
"Matthew's Day Off"*
RPA , Santa Monica, Calif.

Is this the first Super Bowl ad review that gets an asterisk? Sure, why not? As of writing, I have no idea which 60 seconds of this "Ferris Bueller" tribute are going to make it into the game. Whatever the case, the ad relies almost entirely on nostalgia, a powerful tool, but also a dangerous one. A depressing one, too! It's no fun realizing that your generational cohort (Gen-X, in my case) is now old enough to have marketers play on the dimming memories of your childhood years. But that 's not the only reason it's a dangerous play. Honda's initial 10-second teaser prompted a flood of speculation about a "Ferris Bueller" sequel—which could have led to the sort of social-media outrage that passes for controversy these days. The ad itself? Consumers will remember this crowd-pleaser as a visit with an old childhood friend, not as an ad for a CR-V.

MetLife
"Everyone"
CP&B

This ad will undoubtedly delight boomers and Gen-Xers alike, chock-full as it is with dozens of cartoon characters from our youths. The Peanuts gang, He-Man, Waldo, Scooby Doo, Marvin the Martian. Holy crap, it's Voltron! But it raises more questions than it answers. How many characters are in there? How did they get the rights to hold this prom? What is Daphne doing in Richie Rich's limousine? When did MetLife turn socialist? Here's the copy. "Every family, everywhere, should have the financial security they need. Not just the ones who can figure it out. Not just the most fortunate. Everyone." What? Is MetLife offering its services for free? Whatever. People will be too distracted by the visuals to pay attention to this nonsense during the game.

Skechers
"Go Run"
Siltanen & Partners, Los Angeles

A cute little French bulldog takes to the Greyhound track and tears up the competition thanks to his little Skechers. Sort of a textbook Super Bowl ad: dog, underdog story (ha!), punch line, even a semi-celebrity (Mark Cuban). I'm inclined to like it even more since it's a complete departure from the company's repulsively bad Kim Kardashian spot from last year.

Toyota Camry
"It's Reinvented"
Saatchi & Saatchi , Los Angeles

After reinventing the Camry, Toyota shows us it's reinvented other things: curtains made of pizza, free ice cream and smiles at the DMV, policemen who give massages rather than tickets and beat-downs. If they're going to rely on a series of one-note visual jokes, they should probably be funnier than this. And neither of those reinvented couches look very comfortable. Feed those models some pork chops and carbs and then we'll talk.

Bud Light
"Welcome to Halftime"
Cannonball, St. Louis

In a spot more closely guarded than even Chrysler's Clint Eastwood number, LMFAO appear in a Bud Light ad immediately before halftime. The joke—they went to a bar called Halftime, rather than the stadium—isn't all that funny, but the band carries the gag. But more important, the commercial implies a surprise halftime appearance by the group and offers Shazam-enabled viewers an LMFAO remix of a new Madonna single.

Bud Light Platinum
Translation

Two more generic-looking spots—one called "Factory" and the other "Work"—to add to the beer-makes-you-stylish-and-sophisticated genre. You know what they say about people who try so hard to be cool. And "triple filtered" sounds a little too much like Miller Lite's "triple hops brewed." One thing is certain: Bud Light Platinum makes you drunker, as it has 6% alcohol by volume—if you look hard enough you can see that in one of the close-ups of the shiny blue bottle.

Bridgestone Americas
Richards Group, Dallas

In Performance Basketball and Performance Football, the tire-maker and its agency try to find a simple way to talk about advancements in tire technology without relying on a) cars taking off at high rates of speed, b) cars gripping wet/snowy/icy roads, c) cars screeching to a halt. The concept—incredible athletes doing almost impossible things thanks to this tech—is clever but the punch line—wait for it—falls flat.

Chevy Camaro
"Happy Grad"
Consumer-Generated

Ma and Pa give Jimmy a refrigerator as a graduation gift. For some inexplicable reason they do so on the front lawn, and there just happens to be a Camaro parked on the curb. Hilarity ensues. This one should do pretty well on the old AdMeter. It was released before the game, but so long ago those who've seen it might have forgotten about it.

Cadillac
"Sneak Peek"
Fallon , Minneapolis

The "Sneak Peek" here refers to a look at the Cadillac ATS, which isn't out yet, not the fact that this ad looks like it was a low-production early look at something that was later going to be developed into a proper Super Bowl commercial. Repeat after me: A Cadillac is not a sports car. It may be powerful and fast, but recent advertising seems to completely overlook the luxury roots and aspirational history of the brand. Though I do like the "Go to Green Hell" line. Sounds like something a GM exec would tell an environmentalist.

Doritos
"Crash the Bowl"
Consumer-generated

"Sling Baby" involves a baby, a wheelchair-bound granny and a slingshot. "Man's Best Friend" involves dog-on-cat murder, a cover-up and bribery. I'm half-tempted to say, "My 13-year-old kid could do that ," but there's no point arguing with AdMeter success or—from an actual benefit-to-the-brand point of view—the goodwill Doritos builds among its fans and wannabe commercial creators.

General Electric
"Power and Beer"
BBDO , New York

With a name like that , you'd expect a double dose of inspiration. And while it is an interesting attempt to explain GE's connection to co-Super Bowl advertiser Budweiser, it's not exactly the sort of ad that 's going to cut through the clutter, much less hold the attention of a football crowd.

Pepsi
"King's Court"
TBWA /Chiat/Day, Los Angeles

Pepsi, the choice of a new generation, may look like it's going old-school in its return to the Super Bowl, what with the castle and court and all. But there's a certain "Hunger Games" vibe to the spot, which may resonate with the kids these days. Then again, Elton John and "X Factor" winner Melanie Amaro aren't exactly the cutting edge of pop culture. And wouldn't a real revolutionary have used social media to depose the king, rather than a cheesy version of "Respect"? The cameo by Flava Flav was worth a laugh.

Dannon's Oikos Yogurt
"The Theme"
Poptent, Y&R

This particular bit of lady-candy shows John Stamos (Greek heritage!) getting head-butted over a cup of yogurt. Worth half a chuckle, but feels consumer-generated. By the way, Dannon can expect outraged cries from the sort of oversensitive men who whine about violence against their gender in Super Bowl commercials. Welcome to the club.

Innocean

Two spots—one for the Veloster Turbo, the other for the Genesis—aim for humor but mostly fall flat. The Genesis, it turns out, can perform CPR and the Veloster really, really annoys cheetahs.

GoDaddy
In-house

One ad for GoDaddy.com involves Jillian Michaels and Danica Patrick painting on a nekkid woman. Another ad for GoDaddy.com features Danica visiting two couch-surfing dudes who perfectly embody the GoDaddy target . I'm tempted to give GoDaddy an extra star for knowing its audience and sticking to its guns. But I won't.

H&M
"David Beckham"
In-house

Another piece of lady-candy. Early polling at home and in the office indicates this will work with the target … wait, who IS the target audience? Sure, it's nice to throw a well-chiseled bone to the women in the audience who've sat through years of bouncy bikinis, but this? C'mon.

Lexus
"The Beast"
Attik, Team One

"The all new Lexus GS. This is just the beginning." Of what? An ad campaign based on "Jurassic Park" references? This is how you make your brand debut in the Super Bowl?

TaxACT
"Free to Pee"
J.W. Morton & Associates, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Perhaps the folks who still tune into "America's Funniest Home Videos" will find this spot amusing. But let's try a mental exercise. Before this spot, what did you think of when hearing the name TaxACT? (Answer: Nothing.) Now what do you think of ? Pool urination! Brilliant!

Teleflora
"Give and Receive"
Fire Station Agency (In-house )

You know how women have been trying to teach men for decades that a gift or a date is NOT an economic transaction designed to procure bedroom action later that night? Yeah, well, neither does Teleflora. Teleflora goes from the dudes-as-dipshits humor of last year to a women-as-prostitutes theme for this year's game. Makes GoDaddy look down-right progressive. But it'll probably sell a ton of flowers. Can't wait to see what the company churns out for Mother 's Day.

CareerBuilder
"Business Trip"
In-house

CareerBuilder wasn't about to let its chimp footage go to waste. Besides, despite the objections of PETA, animal-rights activists and, yes, Ad Age , consumers still love 'em some monkey business. That said, the joke—a human office drone suffering through office space with chimp coworkers—is getting a little long in the tooth. This clown hasn't gotten a new job YET?

NFL
"Timeline"
Grey , New York

Last year's spot was an exercise in goodwill-building self-promotion. This year's is an exercise in cynical ass-covering. Using a nifty little ad, the league takes us through its history of safety improvements. What the ad leaves out, of course, is that the league is facing a raft of lawsuits on behalf of hundreds of former players regarding what ESPN described as "concussion-related dementia and brain disease." The NFL is by no means required to air its dirty laundry on Super Bowl Sunday. So why bring up the subject at all? Should have stuck with the funny Fantasy Football ad it ran during halftime.

PepsiMax
"Check-Out"
TBWA /Chiat/Day

After being out of the Super Bowl for so long, this is what you come back with? Not even the presence of Regis could save this one.

~ ~ ~
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story credited Deutsch with the Toyota "Reinvention" spot. The ad was created by Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles.

In this article:
Most Popular