Every year America posts a bunch of selfies in the form of Super Bowl ads. If culture holds up a mirror to the society that creates it, the commercials produced for the annual big game are the heavily filtered equivalent of our collective national Instagram feed; a projection of how we want to see ourselves as much as any reflection of reality. Still, if you look close enough you can glean a lot about who we like to think we are.
We’re afraid of what we have made.
One of the biggest themes of the night was obvious by the end of the first quarter as spot after spot pitted humans against artificial intelligence (AI) for comic effect.
Amazon set the tone early (and often) with a star-studded send-up of Alexa-enabled device “misses” showing the lighter side of smart technology running amok—Harrison Ford’s dog ordering truckloads of food, and Alexa knocking out worldwide power grids (funny, eh?). But that was just the beginning of a series of commercials by different brands delivering dark humor about machines failing to be well, human.
From Intuit TurboTax’s Pinocchio-esque “RoboChild” being told he will never be a real CPA to the depressed voice assistant and robots of Pringles and Michelob Ultra, the unease of humanity’s relationship with AI in 2019 took center stage throughout the game.
In perhaps the most straightforward expression of our collective technophobia, SimpliSafe’s ad featured the line “I’m just saying, in five years robots will be able to do your job,” while a creepy device eavesdrops on the man’s wife – this from a spot trying to sell us a virtual home security system. You know, to make us feel safer.
Of course, humanity prevails over the soulless bots in each spot but by the end of the night, we are left to wonder if these nervous bits of humor will still be funny just a short time from now.
We’re not crying, you’re crying.
While smart devices were being prodded skeptically by many brands, Microsoft delivered a pro tech ad that was one of best spots of SBLIII.
“We All Win” is a heartwarming bit of storytelling about the empowerment of video gaming for children with physical disabilities. The ad shows us how Owen and his friends use XBOX adaptive gaming controllers to compete on the same level as everyone else. When Owen’s father says, “He’s not different when he plays,” it just might be the best headline ever uttered in favor of video gaming.
Beyond that standout spot, and maybe the one from Verizon (reuniting first responders with an NFL coach whose life they saved) there was a noticeable decline in ads that tugged at our heartstrings. In a time when the audience is exhausted by division and political uncertainty, the market research told brands to “make ’em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh.”
We’re still sexy (but we’re weird about it).
It was only a handful of years ago that GoDaddy girls, Carl’s Jr. models and Victoria Secret angels were a staple of big game spots. While overtly using sex to sell has been steadily on the decline for the last couple of seasons, this year’s post-#MeToo, pro-feminist zeitgeist has brought us the least sexualized collection of commercials in memory with one notable exception – fetishes.
Both Devour and Michelob Ultra Pure Gold created Super Bowl ads that placed their products squarely in the context of the niche obsessive genres of food porn and autonomous sensory meridian response or ASMR.
The Kraft-Heinz frozen food brand, Devour delivered a satire about a woman’s struggle to deal with her man’s frozen food porn addiction. The brand deftly skirted the fact that the word porn is not allowed in Super Bowl ads, and offered uncensored, “hotter” versions online, even creating their own food porn hotline: 1-83-FOODPORN
Michelob skipped the whole satire angle completely and went straight to creating their own ASMR or “whisper porn” spot featuring Zoë Kravitz. For those who are not familiar, ASMR is defined as a tingling sensation that can be felt on the skin, usually in the scalp, upper neck and spine. This sub-genre has exploded in popularity according to PornHub (hey, they’re experts).
So, while hiring beautiful women to titillate viewers with their bodies has gone out of fashion, brands are finding new ways to get us . . . excited about their products.
We’re still star stuck.
Over 80 celebrities appeared in this year’s ads (44 of them in this NFL spot alone). America loves familiar faces but the sheer number of celebs did not quite make up for a noticeable lapse in real star power during SBLIII.
There were no Beyoncé or Lady Gaga cameos and not a Kardashian appearance in sight. Yes, we got to see (and hear) a handful of fine actors like Tom Hank’s voicing powerful Washington Post ad (“Democracy Dies In Darkness”), but for the most part we got lesser stars who stuck to their lanes: nostalgic boy bands, and 90s sitcom stars in familiar roles. And none of them came close to Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman spitting old school rap lyrics for Doritos last year.
The biggest, and by far the most memorable use of a star this year was completely CGI driven—the shocking appearance by the Game of Thrones dragon in the HBO/Bud Light ad.
The Shyamalanian twist of Game of Thrones’ mountain crushing the Bud Light knight, and a dragon flying in to incinerate everyone will surely be the one spot that will be remembered from this year’s crop of ads. And it might be the most revealing selfie for an America that seems ready to burn it all down. RIP Dilly Dilly.