TV audiences keep getting pulled in different directions, but every year more than 100 million Americans still come together to watch the Super Bowl. And that means the ads retain their cultural and commercial clout, this year selling for a record $5.6 million of 30 seconds.
The big news in this election year is that presidential candidates Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg both bought in, joining the usual assortment of high-concept charmers and low-impact duds. Celebrities, as always, abound, from Maisie Williams to Missy Elliott, and there’s even a dog that’s been cured of our cancers.
Here are my rankings of the ads that have been released so far, starting with what came out first and caught the eye first. This will be updated as new ones show up throughout the weekend and, finally, during Sunday evening’s game.
Saucony - “One Small Step”
This simple spot from the respected but second-tier running-shoe company, a first-time advertiser, is just about perfect. Old sneakers in a gymnasium filled with them start heading skyward. Piano music gives the discarded footwear uprising enough poetry that you don’t even bother to think what that gym must smell like. “What if the shoes we threw away actually went away?” says the voiceover. Saucony, we learn, has developed a line of biodegradable shoes. It’s a brilliant idea (assuming the degradation doesn’t happen while the wearer is out training for a marathon) and it’s backed by the sharp tag line, “It’s one small step toward reducing our footprint for good.” Also, I now know that it’s pronounced “SAUCK-uh-knee.”
Donald Trump for President - “Stronger, Safer, More Prosperous"
Separate out your feelings about the 45th president -- which almost assuredly run red-hot or ice-cold -- and this is a competent bit of broad-strokes political theater. Those amenable to Trump’s version of leadership and who follow what he does only through the occasional headline will likely buy his message here that the country is stronger and safer -- as it backs those assertions only with the president acting like a strongman at rallies and pictures of military ships and airplanes. It skips the apologetic language (“He’s no Mr. Nice Guy, but”) that shaped Trump’s TV spot during last fall’s World Series, but it does echo Trump’s habit of referring back to his 2016 election win. Most of the ad focuses on the “more prosperous” part of the commercial’s claim, touting wage growth and low unemployment -- although critics would point out that wages also grew during most of George W. Bush’s presidency and that current low unemployment is following a downward trend line that has continued from Barack Obama’s presidency. But political ads are for puffery rather than caveats, and this one huffs and puffs plenty.
Walmart - “Famous Visitors”
It may be an obvious concept to have a bunch of movie characters stop by Walmart to demonstrate the retailer’s curbside pickup service. But the details here keep it engaging: Can the Lego character’s little C-shaped hand handle that big blue bag? But Bill from Bill & Ted as the only flesh-and-blood human? Seems a shocking dip into the past until you discover there’s a new BT movie coming out this summer.
Amazon Alexa - “Before Alexa”
The German carmaker isn’t the only Porsche starring in this year’s Ad Bowl. In this further attempt to put a “smart speaker” on every counter, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi wonder what people did before Alexa. And so launches a series of imaginings that run at 90 seconds in the preview ad but will pare down for the actual in-game spot. They’re mostly clever, with people asking or telling folks named “Alex” or “Alexi” or the like to perform tasks the digital assistant now can do: give the news, play songs, turn down the temperature (by tossing a couple of logs out of the fire and the window of a Victorian home). But the spot neglects to point out that before people began anthropomorphizing a Web-connected speaker, they also did not fret about a ubiquitous company eavesdropping on their home lives.
Mike Bloomberg for President - “George”
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When Bloomberg announced he was running a Super Bowl ad, his longshot and late-entry campaign suggested it would be another in his series of big-money shots across the president’s bow. Instead of trying to get under Trump’s skin again, however, this goes in another direction, using the game’s mega-platform to introduce Bloomberg as an activist with an anti-gun-violence track record. The commercial is basically Calandrian Kemp telling about her late son, George H. Kemp Jr., who aspired to football greatness (Super Bowl tie-in) but was shot to death one Friday morning in 2013. While there are statistics in the form of on-screen text, the ad sticks with the grieving mother’s emotional message highlighting the devastation guns can cause and her endorsement of Bloomberg as “a dog in this fight.” Rather than the opposite, she asserts, the “gun lobby” is “scared of him" -- although his side’s victories, while increasing in recent years, have still tended to be on the less controversial issues and only in certain states. Bloomberg’s big hope here, it seems, is that people will extrapolate from this one cause to see him as a man of empathy and action.
Audi - “Let It Go”
The German automaker summons carpool karaoke, the movie “Frozen” and even “Game of Thrones” to dramatize the joy of its electric vehicles. “GoT” star Maisie Williams, stuck in traffic in an Audi e-tron SUV, finds happiness by belting out the “Frozen” megahit earworm, implicitly chastising all the drivers of regular cars to “let it go.” The scenario isn’t wholly logical -- how is she suddenly driving again? -- but Williams is as charming singing and driving as she was making a murder list. And, you know what? Maisie’s right. Let’s all let the past go by getting $75,000 state-of-the-art luxury cars so we can “drive to a more sustainable future.”
Michelob Ultra - “Jimmy Works It Out”
Guided by wrestler John Cena -- and the promise of Anheuser-Busch’s crazily popular beer-like product at the end -- “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon learns to get over his distaste for working out. How much you like this one will depend on how charming you find Fallon in physical-comedy mode, clowning amid athletes Usain Bolt (track), Brooks Koepka (golf) and Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat (football). To my taste it’s about as bland and predictable as Mich Ultra itself, but the fact that this “fitness beer” brand can spend $11 million or so on 60 Super Bowl seconds tells you a whole lot of people are very big fans indeed.
Hyundai - “Smaht Pahk”
The new Hyundai remote smart parking feature means its cars can park themselves -- or, in Boston, “pahk.” This ad’s bright scenario shows actors associated with the New England city -- Chris Evans, John Krasinski and Rachel Dratch -- bantering over whether Krasinski will be able to fit into a tight space. The real star here is the Boston accent, getting a workout in words like “smaht,” “pahk” and “hah-bah” (harbor), but not, surprisingly, “Harvard Yard.” Bonus points for use of the all-purpose Beantown celebratory adjective “wicked” and the cameo by Red Sox hero David Ortiz.
Porsche - “The Heist”
Someone quietly steals the new electric Porsche from the Porsche Museum. So the employees all grab Porsches to chase it down in a parade of cool sports cars squealing their tires through Germany. The 2-\u00bd-minute cut released ahead of the game was dull and predictable, with the in-car banter failing to rise even to “Fast and Furious” levels. It’ll get better when trimmed down, I presume, arriving sooner at the decent ending. Spoiler: It’s a game the museum workers play (before they all get fired and/or kill somebody).
Olay - “#MakeSpaceForWomen”
The now “Oil-of”-less skin-care products line is back in the game, this time with a women’s empowerment message that is more potent than the ad’s special effects. Cramming five celebrities into just 30 seconds, it starts with Katie Couric -- apparently at the Olay newsdesk? -- scoffing at news copy, specifically the line “Is there enough space in space for women?” Astronauts Lilly Singh (comic), Busy Philipps (actor) and Nicole Stott (astronaut) banter winningly from atop their liptstick-tube-looking rocket, then let the audience know that tweets using the ad title and @olayskin earn money for Girls Who Code. Coding and space travel sort of align, I guess, but the accidental pushing of the eject button at ad’s end undercuts the female-competence message.
Budweiser - “Typical American”
In Bud’s annual feel-good ad, the message is that “typical Americans” aren’t so typical after all. They fight forest fires, give other Americans the shirt off their backs, and attend big protests where the signage is not quite legible. (“We demand better focus?”) It’s touching enough, although the negative stereotypes the images supposedly undercut aren’t always so negative. And the scene showing a black protester hugging a white police officer, pulled from 2016 Charlotte, N.C., protests over a police shooting of an African-American citizen, simplifies a complex situation -- and commercializes it as well. Indeed, the ad’s subsequent pivot to locker-room scenes and the product pitch -- “typical Americans, always celebrating with their typical American beer” -- is awkward.
Cheetos - “Can’t Touch This”
The snack chip brand built on orange flavor dust wants you to know that it now also offers its familiar powder as a coating on bagged popcorn. Its means of delivering this message is ingenious: Our snacking, every-guy hero learns to raise his fingers, now also bearing the coating, to get out of situations ranging from helping move furniture to catching a boss (I presume) in a trust fall. Better yet, each time he holds up this suddenly potent discolored hand, 1990s hitmaker MC Hammer pops up to sing the title of his best-known tune, “U Can’t Touch This.” This is one of the first ads I watched this year, and I’m already certain it’s going to be the one with the most perfectly used celebrity.