Super Bowl LI Ad Review: Facing a Big Moment, Enough Marketers Find Their Footing
In a divisive time for the country on issues such as immigration, much of the ad roster from Super Bowl LI felt too muted for the moment. But a bunch of good ads leaned against walls, physical and otherwise, while some of the others invited everybody to party together for at least one night. Check out all the Super Bowl LI ads here, sortable by rating and brand. And cast your own vote for the best right here.
It's too easy for animation of familiar faces to fall into the uncanny valley of weirdness, like the CGI Carrie Fisher at the end of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." But in the hands of RPA and Angus Wall, young versions of Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, Viola Davis, Jimmy Kimmel and others are suddenly your favorite friends from high school, tying a shiny CR-V with an affirming message more effectively than ought to be possible.
It's a 10 Hair Care, Four More Years
Havas Edge and Hungry Man Productions
Damn, It's a 10 Hair Care: You're playing the Trump card to sell hair care products, taking a cheap shot at the president's hair and making it rich with themes of acceptance, and it works.
Finally a celebrity's faux-executive title pays off, here with Justin Timberlake, "chief flavor officer" at Bai Brands and former member of "Bye Bye Bye" boy band 'NSync. Christopher Walken returns to the Super Bowl ad roster after a successful stint with Kia in Super Bowl 50, delivering another winning performance. Bai itself is back after a pretty charming regional spot last year, too. Oh hey, and there's a concise and coherent product pitch.
Squarespace, Calling JohnMalkovich.com
While this ad doesn't at all explain why viewers should use Squarespace over some other web platform, it will entertain anyone whose Super Bowl party isn't too loud to hear John Malkovich argue with the domain-name squatter at JohnMalkovich.com. It's part of a broader campaign about the actor's side business in men's fashion, but that's not need-to-know. The craft is enough to shine up the Squarespace brand.
Mr. Clean, Cleaner of Your Dreams
Unlike Sunday's work from Procter & Gamble sibling Febreze, this spot shows that you can advertise a cleaning product without dropping viewers in the, uh, mess. It's funny, engaging, affectionate, different and sexy (Georgia-Pacific's less-effective attempts to gin up lust for Brawny Man notwithstanding). That's about the maximum you can ask from an ad in this category.
84 Lumber, The Journey Begins
It's hard to know exactly where building-supplies company 84 Lumber is headed with "The Journey Begins," but you have your suspicions because you know where its protagonists are going: across the border into the U.S. Unfortunately Fox didn't allow 84 Lumber to include the bit with the giant border wall, which would have made things even more clear. And the online finale seals it: "The Will to Succeed Is Always Welcome Here," it concludes. If that part had actually aired, it would have been the strongest statement of the Super Bowl. This ad is still pretty close.
Bud Light, Ghost Spuds
Wieden & Kennedy
Bud Light over the decades has given Super Bowl viewers the highs and lows of big-game advertising, but "Ghost Spuds" is happily near the high end. It's attention-getting, channels the hauntings of "A Christmas Carol" to good effect, and lasts long enough to welcome people who start focusing late ("... Is that … Spuds MacKenzie? And ... he's dead?"). The selling proposition (this beer is for drinking with friends) is as strong as it can be for a pretty nondescript brew.
Amazon Alexa, Finger Lick/My Girl/Buster
Better than competitors' sweeping odes to your beloved home, where the only thing between you and your loved ones is having to use your hands to turn on the lights or look up a recipe, Amazon's trio of 10-second ads for Alexa in Super Bowl 51 keep it quick and to the point: It's easy to order things with Alexa. Of course it's easy to order things with Amazon, too -- just ask anybody who worked at a store that's out of business now -- but now you can do it for effect.
Avocados From Mexico, Secret Society
Keeping it fresh and light for a third year in a row, Avocados From Mexico sets a scene, lands a few jokes plus a product benefit and almost has time to develop the characters enough for a sitcom pitch. (Not that that worked for ABC's Geico-inspired "Cavemen.")
T-Mobile, #Punished and #NSFWireless
Kristen Schaal is turned on by the pain of cellphone contracts and getting punished for data overages. The execution is flawless, the product differentiator clear. The best of T-Mobile's three minutes of Super Bowl ads.
Snickers, Old West
The Super Bowl's first live ad in a long time surprises with its technical excellence and narrative destination. A sequence of head-fakes and on-key performances -- complete with the score from the game as proof of live -- give viewers something worth leaning forward for. If it isn't as strong an argument for Snickers as the pre-recorded spots with the likes of Betty White and Danny Trejo, the Willem Defoe execution from Super Bowl 50 showed that the theme needed a refresh.
Tide, Bradshaw Stain
Saatchi & Saatchi
Tide and Saatchi & Saatchi kick off this spot with a painstaking recreation of the Fox broadcast booth designed to fool viewers into thinking Terry Bradshaw has really been caught on live TV messing with a shirt stain. It quickly veers into absurd adventures in laundry, with an enjoyably dry turn by Jeffrey Tambor. Points for not only grabbing the audience's attention with something unexpected but making it worthwhile to keep watching. "Restain" makes a nice kicker-slash-reminder later in the game.
Mercedes-Benz, Easy Driver
Merkley & Partners
Aging bikers are found still living the old days in the old ways, just less gracefully than in their youth, and playing the only song in the jukebox: Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild." Eventually they confront Peter Fonda, who's ditched the choppers of "Easy Rider" for a Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster and look almost as young as in 1969. The pre-released spot was criticized for allegedly aiming at boomers, but so what: People over 50 buy cars too.
Wix, #Disruptive World
Jason "The Transporter" Statham and Gal "Wonder Woman" Godot total a restaurant in a brawl against (presumably) bad guys while the chef-preneur in the kitchen happily works on his website using Wix. When he sees the damage, the restaurant (and website) turn food truck. Not just action for the sake of it, the action stars' fight makes a winning pitch.
Budweiser, Born the Hard Way
Bud's "Brewed the Hard Way" tagline/theme/positioning takes a suddenly more credible and powerful turn when it becomes a position on immigration. It's not a polarizing position from the wars of Trump world, but a position all the same: Making a better life by getting to a new country is hard, and worth respect. OK, it's a little political, with a "dream" reference that evokes the young so-called "dreamers" whom Barack Obama tried to protect from deportation. And it's a little silly, mixing hard "Far and Away" scenes with a ready sketch of a Bud bottle between Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser, but it's bigger than most of the ads in Super Bowl LI, and it's hard to shake politics in February 2017.
"#UnlimitedMoves" gets points for a snappy narrative, a back-talking dancing kid and Justin Bieber in limited enough quantities (soundtrack included) to not overstay his welcome.
Venables Bell & Partners
In a broadcast that has historically included more than a fair share of commercials you'd call sexist, following a presidential campaign with a surplus of gender controversy, Audi puts down a stake for a position that ought not need be staked: equal pay for women and men. Partly for propelling an idea, partly for presentation that draws you in, this qualifies as a "Super Bowl ad" -- in the way you want.
Ford, Go Further
Global Team Blue
You might question a company that sells cars and trucks when it tries to position itself as a "mobility" company, as if a Bay Area bike-share sponsorship and recently-acquired shuttle service change the marketer's core product. But you can't question this ad's touch with vignettes that are relatable instead of boring, soundtrack choice (Nina Simon's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free") and affirmation that sitting behind the wheel in traffic isn't the only life there is. In terms of corporate branding, Ford just gave itself a big push.
Kia, Hero's Journey
David & Goliath
At first this ad might make a non-practicing environmental warrior feel guilty about his inaction or angry at Kia for having some fun with it, but in the end if you're not going to do much about global warming, you might as well buy a car with good mileage. It's not aspirational advertising -- it's more like a case for giving up on New Year's resolutions -- but it's probably more effective than New Year's resolutions anyway.
Michelob Ultra, Our Bar
This is the best of Michelob Ultra's Super Bowl advertising yet, easily outshining last year's competent but essentially silent lonely-workout video. Solitary sweating has been replaced by group exertions set to the heartwarming theme song from "Cheers," of all things. (I'd love to see Cliff and Norm keep up with this pack of morning-rave tough mudders.) If Bud Light is now about friends, Michelob Ultra isn't going to be left out of the party.
Wieden & Kennedy
A crisp play on endorsements and authenticity -- Sprite endorser LeBron James refuses to tell viewers to drink Sprite, even while his friends urge him to earn his pay and the line flashes on the screen anyway -- is good fun for Super Bowl Sunday. Too bad it's not new for the game.
Airbnb, We Accept
The sentiment is strong and timely and right, though the execution -- unfortunately given only a few days to come together after a last-minute buy by Airbnb -- is like a Benetton ad without the passion, like Michael Jackson's "Black or White" video without the music.
GoDaddy, Good Morning
It's (almost) always fun to roll up a bunch of internet references in one place and trigger pleasurable-recognition nerves to fire en masse, and you can't go wrong with Rick Astley playing you out. But otherwise the spot is more of an appreciation of memes than anything to do with GoDaddy, leaving some potential on the floor. The web services company has come a long way from its "SAY MY NAME!" sexed-up stunt ads of a decade ago, but sometimes the next level of marketing is the harder one.
Lexus, Man & Machine
Lil' Buck dances energetically around the new Lexus LC 500 performance coupe to "Move Your Body" by Sia, with a cameo by the Lexus LS. Charismatic dancer and charismatic car somehow fail to unify into a coherent message.
Coca-Cola, Love Story
This ad would get more stars any other day of the year, but this is a Super Bowl ad review, and this ad has been on the air for a while. That said, it's a convincing, attractive spot.
TurboTax, Humpty Hospital
Wieden & Kennedy
Seeing Humpty Dumpty's nursery-rhyme ill fortune take realistic form, from the depressing hospital room to the seeping bodily fluids to the guilt and recriminations, is compelling enough. And there's a clear link to TurboTax to boot, as Humpty uses live video chat to find out whether he can write off the costs associated with treating his severe injuries. Still a little down for Super Bowl Sunday's party atmosphere.
NFL, Inside These Lines
The NFL positions itself as an apolitical common ground for the country. It may not be 100% accurate, especially after a season when some people tried to blame bad ratings on Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand during the national anthem. But it's true enough, and a welcome offer.
Alfa Romeo, Mozzafiato
Alfa Romeo's trio of ads in Super Bowl LI improved as the night went on, making this fourth-quarter conclusion Fiat Chrysler's best investment of the night. It would have been nice if the brand had nailed a broader framework than the awesomeness of the machine, but it didn't, so this sexy sheet-metal approach is the one to take.
Adam & Eve/DDB
This jewel-box of pleasantly dumb candy humor works for Super Bowl Sunday: A teenager lobs Skittles through the window of his love interest, unaware that she's letting her mom, dad, grandma, home intruder, cop, etc. each take a turn catching candy in their mouths. Hey, people (and a beaver) actually enjoying the product -- that's a nice twist.
Like Wendy's one-note ode to never-frozen beef, Busch nails the execution of the lone joke here, an update on the brand's old TV ads making opening a can of beer into a sound of nature. But the impression it leaves is about as deep as a mountain stream.
Google, Home by You. Help by Google.
A nice montage of coming-home, partying-at-home, cooking-at-home and other at-home activities can't close the deal on Google Home, the search giant's voice-controlled device. It can pull up information, dim the lights and turn up the music, but it's not usually that hard to do any of those things without a Google Home. In terms of Super Bowl advertising, this is also one of a few that's not new for the game, which takes away from the fun; on YouTube, it has more than 1 million views.
Lifewtr, Inspiration Drops
Pepsico's new bottled water brand captures your eye with raindrops that fill a city with color as a John Legend soundtrack plays. It also alarms you a little as a little girl looks skyward to catch some of the very-not-normal rain in her mouth. Because it's hard for any marketer to differentiate its wate to say much about the brand attributes of water, thought, that's fine: It's more enjoyable and less preachy than the Fiji Water ad that also ran Sunday.
Buick, Not So Pee Wee Football
Buick's shaky Super Bowl 50 ad also pursued the "That's a Buick?" theme that sometimes seems to internalize bad perceptions of the brand at least as much it counters them. Where the prior big-game ad gave viewers a pretty dull wedding and a car so nice nobody believed it was a Buick, though, "No So Pee Wee Football" shows confidence that transfers to the product. It's just still an ad you'd see any day, not a big-stage force.
Wendy's, Cold Storage
Killer song choice (Foreigner's classic-rock "Cold as Ice") and message discipline (one pitch, no twist) help Wendy's first Super Bowl ad stand out from the pack. The question is whether fast-food customers care enough about fresh meat for this to give Wendy's a boost. They're also undoubtedly familiar with the premise, which Wendy's has been pushing for years. And, not to sound like the auto dealers that always corporate to show more cars on winding roads in their branding spots, but it wouldn't hurt to show a Wendy's sandwich.
Turkish Airlines, Manifest
Airline advertising isn't the easiest category in which to stand out, unless you're promoting seats that fold down into private pods and food better than you get on the ground -- i.e., airlines too expensive for you to every enjoy. So Morgan Freeman and Turkish Airlines do much of seems possible, selling the value of travel in a quality life. But if that value is partly about "finding delight in our differences," why does the camera then pan to a plane full of Morgan Freeman clones?
NFL, Super Bowl Babies Legends
The curse of the Super Bowl sequel, in which brands struggle to live up to the prior year's beloved big-game ad, has afflicted marketers including Volkswagen (trying to follow "The Force"), EDS (looking to match "Cat Herders"), McDonald's ("The Showdown") and Apple ("1984"). Now it's the NFL's turn to try, 12 months after a great spot featuring choirs of kids supposedly conceived after various Super Bowl victories. The result is a thin costume party for babies whose soft skulls remind you of the risks of playing football.
Intel, Brady Everyday
Props to Intel and McGarryBowen for hiring the quarterback arguably most likely to actually play in Super Bowl LI, as opposed to, say, Cam Newton in Buick's ad. But like many of the two-star ads from Sunday's game, it's got about one thing to say, and doesn't try to say it in more than one way.
Persil ProClean, 10 Dimensions
Wait, Bill Nye the Science Guy thinks "looks clean, smells clean, feels clean" is "10 dimensions of clean," not three? Somehow these calculations are not adding up. Persil has expanded on a 15-second debut in Super Bowl 50 with this 30-second ad, but the concentrated pitch a year earlier -- an unknown brand topped all its big rivals on a performance test -- was more convincing.
WeatherTech, Tech Team
WeatherTech's "Made in America" pitch has comprised virtually all of its messaging for three Super Bowls in a row, so it's a little surprising to see the focus shift away just as the same theme helped elect a new president of the United States. Then again, the new president is polarizing, to put it mildly, so the brand may have made the smart play here by adding a narrative beyond going to work at the WeatherTech factory. But the action sequence can't compete with Wix.com's Statham-and-Godot ass-kickery.
Alfa Romeo, Dear Predictable
The Richards Group
Better than the second-quarter "Riding Dragons" but weaker than the fourth-quarter "Mozzafiato," the third-quarter "Dear Predictable" doesn't quite make sense. The narrator's "Dear John" letter to boredom isn't that interesting itself. And it's signed "Giulia," the name of the car being promoted, as if it had somehow been a less-fun car until now, or was dating a dull driver, or ... something. No time to figure it out before the ad is gone. Luckily the car looks great.
Febreze, America's Halftime Bathroom Break
Possibly effective, and well-tailored to the Super Bowl, but ultimately a little unpleasant for the communal viewing going on around the country on Super Bowl Sunday.
Nintendo, Always Exploring
You can't call it big-game advertising per se, but it will engage anybody who cares about console gaming and/or a step above mobile gaming. It helps to have a product that's new and different, a prime use case for a $5 million Super Bowl buy.
KFC, Colonel vs. Colonel
Wieden & Kennedy
The advantage of a strong campaign, full of rotating Colonel Sanders portrayals and jabs of sunny humor, is also a bit of a disadvantage for KFC on Super Bowl Sunday, when people want to see something they haven't before. Even if the ad is new (new-ish: it was released the Tuesday before the game), it continues a campaign that grabbed you more when the whole idea was new. Georgia Gold Colonel Billy Zane made his TV debut late last month and Kentucky Buckets Colonel Rob Riggle has been on the air this whole NFL season. So it works but it also squanders the chance to let viewers consider commercials special again, returning them to the mindset of the other 364 days a year, when an ad is just an ad. At least at 15 seconds it's pretty snappy.
King's Hawaiian, False Cabinet
It's hard to avoid comparing "False Cabinet" with Bud Light's 2006 Super Bowl ad "Secret Fridge," both of which involve hiding stuff behind a wall where little moochers get the last laugh. It's too bad they weren't a series, actually, moving from kids who love bread and miracles to dudes who love beer and miracles. And it's tempting to hold it against King's Hawaiian that the ad was already airing before Super Bowl Sunday, which deserves new creative. But like "Secret Fridge," "False Cabinet" is entertaining on the first couple viewings, and of course many Super Bowl viewers have never seen it before.
Alfa Romeo, Riding Dragons
The further the night's Alfa Romeo spots stray from focusing on the car, the worse they are. The first of three to air, "Riding Dragons" is done in by the hackneyed introspection of the voiceover -- do not get stuck talking to this guy at a party. It isn't helped by the cliched piano soundtrack and gender stereotypes about power (boys/men) and grace (girls/women). The new Alfa Romeo Giulia punches through whenever it's on-screen, but every second that it's out of sight is lost time.
Proactiv, Towel Drop
Olivia Munn's comedic skills and teen boys' insecurity combine well for a good-but-everyday acne-treatment ad. Not something that says "we conceived this for TV's biggest night."
The lender's second big-game ad was made in a week, using photos and video that "members" (ahem, borrowers) sent in during a #WhyISoFi contest, and the coherence suffers compared to the Super Bowl 50 debut. An opening about how great 2016 was, in terms of student loans refinanced by SoFi, turns to the remaining debt holding people back. "It's time we did more," it says on-screen, confusing viewers about who's supposed to be doing something here. If "we" means SoFi, well, go ahead and do it. You don't need a Super Bowl ad to motivate yourself.
Wonderful Pistachios, Treadmill
The Wonderful Agency
Wonderful Pistachios has already turned out sharp creative starring Ernie the Elephant, voiced by the WWE's John Cena, like the 15-second commercial about Ernie getting "randomly" strip-searched at airport security. And Apple already made the falling-off-a-treadmill ad of the year with Taylor Swift in "Taylor vs. Treadmill." Wonderful Pistachios can (and will) do better than this.
If you can't get enough of Snoop Dogg pot jokes or his odd-couple pairing with Martha Stewart (they have a VH1 series called "Martha & Snoop's Pot Luck Dinner Party"), this is the Super Bowl ad for you. Otherwise it's hard to get much out of this one.
H&R Block, Future
In trying to excite taxpayers about the application of IBM's Watson AI technology to H&R Block tax prep services, which really is a good marketing proposition, the ad winds up resembling the video you watch at the museum before you're admitted to the planetarium. The tone is wondrous, the substance is light.
Michelin, I Need You
A globe-spanning commercial shot in France, China and South Africa shows people uniting via cars on Michelin tires, with flashes of the cartoon Michelin Man. Its innocuous good feelings accrue to the Michelin brand halo, but almost imperceptibly in one showing. Expect heavy frequency in the campaign's TV schedule to build a cumulative effect.
American Petroleum Institute, Power Past Impossible
"This ain't your daddy's oil" -- really? This isn't my dad's ad for oil, with some modern-ish deisgn and color, so it's good in that respect. It still focuses too much on what oil's good for, which as we already know is just about everything except the future of the planet, and only very passingly on the assertion that "Oil runs cleaner."
"Evony: The King's Return," The Battle of Evony
Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners
Top Games spent almost enough money to promote a reintroduction of its Evony multiplayer game, and hired nearly big-enough stars in Aaron Eckhart as George Washington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as King Arthur and Fan Bingbing as Empress Wu Zetian. But the promise of spectacular action is never fulfilled, unlike the "Mobile Strike" ad starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's reminiscent of a major battle long in the making early in HBO's "Game of Thrones" -- and then conducted off-screen.
"Mobile Strike," Arnold's One-Liners
Speaking of the action in mobile-game Super Bowl 51 ads: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rest of this just-fine "Mobile Strike" spot hit their marks perfectly -- he his prior one-liners, the game its enemy targets. If only this was one of those Schwarzenegger classics, or even last year's "Mobile Strike" Super Bowl ad, instead of execution over ideas.
"World of Tanks," Teensy House Buyers and Real Awful Moms
Back-to-back 15-second spots execute the same gag -- spoofs of reality-TV shows are suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a tank -- but one might have been better. It's pretty funny to break the "tension" of teesy home-buying decisions, but the "Awful Moms" bit channels the negative vibe of "Real Housewives" shows a little too effectively.
Fiji Water, Nature's Gift
The Wonderful Agency
Kid narrators aren't persuasive when they talk like they're slowly giving an adult lecture. It doesn't happen in real life, outside plays maybe, and there's not even an analogue. "Fiji Water is a gift from nature to us," a very young person says breathily, as a bottle of it onscreen represents the good cop of "Koyaanisqatsi" to the surrounding cityscapes' bad cop. Maybe the Fiji Water Foundation's good work is a reason to pick this bottled water over another, if your tap isn't good enough, but this ad doesn't make that case.