Super Bowl Ad Review: A Good Night for Dragons, A Bad Night for Robots

Sunday's spots mixed nostalgia, escapism and purpose—but no real eagerness for the future

They say the Super Bowl commercials reflect the times in which we live. But Sunday's grab bag of spots seemed more concerned with where we've been—and, with no small amount of axiety, where we're headed. 

On a night when the game was boring in the extreme, the ads had a chance to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, they weren't at their best either. There was nothing on the level of last year's Tide campaign, for example—even if some individual spots stood out here and there. 

There was plenty of simple escapism—formulaic comedies with celebs, animals or both—and also room for a few expressions of social good and brand purpose, which brought a bit of gravitas to the proceedings.

None of which managed to save the telecast, which will go down as one of the weaker Super Bowls overall. Still, here's what struck us most as we watched 2019's batch of commercials:

Beer and Burgers

Bud Light led the onslaught with four ads, beginning with an amusing attack on Miller Lite and Coors Light for using corn syrup (which felt like an oddly esoteric complaint, but anyway). After the opening spot, a Monty Python-esque :60 in the first quarter, the brand began the second quarter with some serious fire—a tie-in with Game of Thrones that took everyone by surprise and was delightfully well-timed ahead of the show's return in April. 

Bud Light | Special Delivery
Bud Light x Game of Thrones | Joust

A Dilly Dilly/GoT partnership is so obvious, and yet it's still so brilliant—especially given how complicated it must be for two big brands like AB InBev and HBO to do anything together, much less a Super Bowl spot that somehow never got leaked. (They must be taking lessons from the GoT showrunners.) Bringing advertising's most viral catchphrase to television's most beloved show, on the advertising's biggest night, was an irresistible alchemy—kudos to Wieden + Kennedy and Droga5 for helping to make it happen. 

For us, the other real show-stopper of the night (if a polarizing one) was Burger King's high-concept Andy Warhol spot from David Miami, which was a real throwback—all the way to 1982 and Swedish filmmaker Jørgen Leth's footage of the Pop artist eating a Whopper. 

The mostly silent :45 was everything you wouldn't expect from a Super Bowl ad. To some, it was just baffling, though it undeniably commanded attention—and was itself a kind of Warhol-esque exercise in mixing advertising and art to generate an interestingly layered pop-culture moment. 

Burger King | #EatLikeAndy

In a strange coincidence, Coca-Cola's pregame spot was also inspired by Warhol. Coke built a whole sugary animated spot around his idea of the democratizing effect of mass consumer goods (with platitudes in the voiceover about how the very act of drinking Coke somehow promotes equality). By contrast, BK left all that unspoken, opting instead for the simple, stark found footage and the hashtag #EatLikeAndy. 

In a telecast full of so many disposable ads, the strangeness of the BK work was compelling. And Warhol's own obsession with advertising added a fun layer—he'd surely be tickled by the notion of being in a Super Bowl ad, even if he was actually more of a McDonald's fan (and was annoyed at first, during filming, that Leth gave him a Whopper to eat). 

The BK spot may not be well loved (for that, you tend to need crowd-pleasing emotion, à la Volkswagen's "The Force" or Chrysler's "It's Halftime in America"), but I'll bet it will be well remembered. 

A Trip to the '90s

There was more than enough nostalgia to go around this evening—an obvious pining for the way things used to be (which, of course, is a theme of lots of advertising generally, but is often even more pronounced in the Super Bowl). 

The golden era of choice this time was the late '90s. 

Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges resurrecting Carrie Bradshaw and the Dude for Stella Artois (via Mother New York) was charming enough, even if the spot didn't really go anywhere. (As pop-culture compatriots, though, they were a fun match—and Sex and the City and The Big Lebowski did premiere exactly three months apart back in 1998.) It was also nice to see Jonathan Goldsmith—in his classic role as Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man in the World—in a brief cameo that wasn't in the earlier pre-released spot.

Stella Artois | Change Up The Usual: Full Version

The Doritos ad by Goodby Silverstein & Partners featured the always endearing Chance the Rapper, who got his Backstreet Boys on with a remix of their 1999 hit "I Want It That Way." The :30 was entertaining, though perhaps not quite on the same level as last year's epic :60 with the Doritos-Mountain Dew lip-sync battle between Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman. 

Doritos | Chance the Rapper x Backstreet Boys

Sarah Michelle Gellar, meanwhile, revisited her '90s horror roots (Buffy premiered in '97, as did Scream 2) in an Olay spot from Saatchi & Saatchi. Creatively, it wasn't spectacular—though it was nice to see an expressly female-targeted ad on the big game. (The same can be said for Bumble's spot with Serena Williams.) 

Olay | Killer Skin
Escapism and Comedy

Elsewhere, as usual on the game, there was lots of cartoony comedy. 

Among the more palatable confections were Hyundai's "Elevator" spot by Innocean USA starring Jason Bateman (which was packed with funny-enough jokes); bubly's goofy spot from Goodby Silverstein with Michael Bublé (a great example of a dumb idea executed really, really well); and Pepsi's "More Than OK," also by GS&P, mixing Steve Carell, Cardi B and Lil' Jon (it did the multi-celeb thing about as efficiently as can be done—even if it was surely the first Super Bowl ad ever to open with a character eagerly requesting a rival's product). 

None of these spots were classics in the vein of a Snickers "Betty White" or "Brady Bunch," but they all managed to evoke a smile or two.

Hyundai | The Elevator
bubly | Michael Bublé vs bubly
Pepsi | More Than OK

We also enjoyed Expensify's offering with 2 Chainz and Adam Scott, even if the full-length music video is wayyy more fun—an incredible piece to check out. (See below.) 

The NFL spot, too, was very entertaining—and surely an incredible piece to pull off logistically—though it got a little bit lost at halftime, and the slapstick chaos of the scene felt like well-worn territory.

NFL | The 100-Year Game

Mobile carriers also went for humor, but mostly had an off night. 

T-Mobile ran four spots, one in each quarter, but the device of showing text messages—the jokes were cute here and there—didn't feel Super Bowl worthy. 

Then there was Mint Mobile, a first-time Super Bowl advertiser that somehow made the baffling decision to gross out 100 million people with a broad parody involving chunky, spoiled milk. A gross, epic fail (and not a spot we'll be embedding here, sorry). 

Finally, there was a whole swath of other comic ads that just felt phoned-in: Avocados from Mexico (which usually does much better work than this for the Super Bowl), Planters (are there two more irrelevant celebs than A-Rod and Charlie Sheen?), Devour (ew) and Colgate (probably the best of this bunch, though that isn't saying much). 

A Return to Purpose

Purpose-driven ads made a big impression during last year's game. A number of spots continued the theme this year—in the wake of Nike and Gillette's high-profile efforts in the area—by eschewing spectacle and comedy for a more heartfelt commentary on the state of the world. 

Chief among these was Microsoft, which rolled out a wonderful :60 (by McCann) featuring kids with disabilities—promoting the brand's adaptive controller for video games. It's rare to see such a straightforward and joyful celebration of difference, with such a seamless and positive product tie-in. It was surely the heartwarming ad of the night. 

Microsoft | We All Win

Meanwhile, Google brought not one but two feel-good :60s to the party (both were made in-house). The first, for Google Translate, pulled off the neat trick of using data to help us see some hope in humanity. (It said the most translated phrases globally are "How are you?" "Thank you" and "I love you.") The second promoted job searches for veterans—another worthy cause. 

Neither spot was creatively breakthrough, but they both helped to anchor the telecast in positivity. 

Google | 100 Billion Words
Google | Job Search for Veterans

Toward the very end of the game, the Washington Post aired a brooding :60, created by trailer editing firm Mark Woollen & Partners and narrated by Tom Hanks, that called for press freedoms in the age of Trump. To some, that's a partisan message—though frankly, freedom of the press is about as solid of a social good as it gets. 

There was some debate on Twitter about whether the Post should be shelling out money for a flashy Super Bowl ad, rather than using it for reporter benefits. But the ad's message was certainly a welcome one, not just for the Post but for journalism generally. 

Washington Post | Democracy Dies in Darkness

Meanwhile, Kia, traditionally a stalwart celebrity/comedy advertiser on the Super Bowl (it's used Melissa McCarthy, Pierce Brosnan and Christopher Walken on recent games), this year rolled out a more thoughtful piece instead—a :90 focusing on the workers of a Kia plant in West Point, Georgia, with no celebs at all. 

The quiet, cinematic spot (from David&Goliath and John Hillcoat, who also directed the celebrated 48-minute Montefiore film Corazón last year) was Chrysler-esque in its celebration of hard work and the indomitable American spirit—an approach that seemed appropriate for the first Super Bowl in a decade without any actual Chrysler ads. 

2020 Kia Telluride | Give It Everything

It wasn't a hit with everyone—some questioned why a child was narrating it, and whether it celebrated or insulted rural Georgians—but it felt like a good venue for Kia to introduce not just a new vehicle (the Telluride SUV) but a whole new brand positioning emphasizing its challenger-brand status under the Avis-esque tagline "Give It Everything." 

Verizon took a similar approach in its :60 from McCann, focusing on first responders. It's the same topic Verizon addressed in last year's Super Bowl, but the brand has expanded the campaign immensely—and wisely tied the idea into its NFL sponsorship. 

Verizon | The Coach Who Wouldn't Be Here

Neither Kia nor Verizon pre-released their ads, and both campaigns include longer-form documentary elements—evidence of how some advertisers are building out their Super Bowl campaigns and not relying so excessively on a single spot to carry the day. 

Female empowerment was another theme of the evening, though a muted one. Bumble's spot (a :60 from FlyteVu and VMLY&R) featured Serena Williams waxing poetic about taking power rather than waiting for it, while one of Toyota's two :60s (this one from Burrell Communications) had Jim Nantz telling the story of Antoinette "Toni" Harris, who hopes to become the first woman to play in the NFL. 

Serena Williams | Bumble Commercial
Toyota | Toni

Neither spot was mind-blowing—the Bumble ad was perhaps too vague about its product offering, while Toyota, by contrast, was clunky in shoehorning the product in. But in a batch of celebrity ads where the men clearly outnumbered the women, it was refreshing to have these spots pick up the mantle of 2015's Super Bowl-winning spot "Like a Girl" and run with it. 

Environmental messaging had its moments, too. Budweiser brought back its Clydesdales (who weren't in last year's game), and added a dalmatian and the music of Bob Dylan, to push wind power in a grand :45 (from David Miami). And Audi tried out some comedy in a :60 (from Venables Bell & Partners and director Ringan Ledwidge) that teased the gorgeous-looking Audi E-Tron GT—a concept electric sports car that likely won't even go into production until 2020. 

Budweiser | Wind Never Felt Better
Audi | Cashew
Fear of the Future

While Bud and Audi presented a rosy view of tomorrow, many other advertisers on Super Bowl LIII leaned into the growing unease about the future—mostly for laughs, but still—in the wake of Facebook's annus horribilis and the disillusionment around technology generally. 

Hulu kicked things off in style in the very first ad break, with a wonderful spoof of Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election spot "Morning in America." Halfway through a seemingly uplifting tale about the country's renewal, things suddenly get dark—and we realize we're watching the horrors of Gilead in a tease of The Handmaid's Tale's third season. 

"Wake up, America. Morning's over," Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) says bleakly. We chatted briefly tonight with Tom Messner, one of the admen who worked on "Morning in America." "Who remembers that?" he quipped of the classic campaign ad voiced by ad legend Hal Riney. "They must have some fogies at Hulu." 

The Handmaid's Tale | Season 3 Teaser

Other future-focused spots were more about the foibles of technology—robots in particular. 

Most effectively, Amazon got into the act with a commercial (by Lucky Generals and in-house shop D1) built around Alexa being embedded in devices where she has no business being. A decent sequel to last year's "Alexa Lost Her Voice," the spot was entertaining—with its big, multi-celebrity comic set pieces, Amazon has picked up where erstwhile Super Bowl advertiser Samsung left off—and Harrison Ford and his dog will surely be battling Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges for the title of the night's cutest couple. 

Amazon | Not Everything Makes the Cut

Elsewhere, fear of robots—or at least, distain for them—was everywhere. 

Michelob Ultra (via FCB Chicago) suggested that since robots can't drink beer, they're essentially pointless. Pringles (via Grey) comically depicted a voice assistant's existential crisis. And SimpliSafe (in agency Preacher's throwback to home security's classic fearmongering days) presented robots as flat-out villains and the internet mostly as a place to buy snakes. (And by the way, the fact that two home security companies ran ads on tonight's game—ADT was the other—probably tells you all you need to know about the psychology of the nation at the moment.) 

Michelob Ultra | Robot
Pringles | Sad Device
SimpliSafe | Simply Feel Safe

But it was TurboTax (via Wieden + Kennedy Potland) that dreamed up the most disturbing robot of all—"RoboChild," who just wants to work as a TurboTax CPA but can't because he doesn't have human emotions. In a night full of woeful bots, RoboChild's confused cackling is surely the sound most likely to haunt our dreams. 

TurboTax | RoboChild

On the plus side, the bot-populated Sprint ad (by Droga5)—while generally baffling, and featuring an underwhelming use of Bo Jackson—had a silver lining for advertising people who were watching. Within the ad, at least, it was the robots who were coming up with the lame creative ideas. Thus, with luck, they won't be taking your jobs anytime soon (especially with lines like "Bo does know!"). 

Mercedes-Benz and Skechers, meanwhile, both seemed sanguine about technology in their advertising plots tonight—though the ads (by Merkley+Partners and Siltanen & Partners, respectively) were, in the end, mostly forgettable. 

Did We Mention Skittles?

We don't have much to say about the ads we haven't mentioned yet—Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer, Norwegian Cruise Line, Persil, the second Toyota ad with the pinball game, WeatherTech, Wix.com. None of them really took any creative chances, and thus, they largely failed to connect. 

The one spot we haven't mentioned that was a little different was Michelob Ultra Pure Gold's ASMR spot with Zoe Kravitz, created by FCB Chicago. It was by no means revolutionary, but it was an interesting idea—and most living rooms across America were so quiet by the fourth quarter of this wretched game that the ASMR effects probably worked. 

Michelob Ultra Pure Gold | So Pure (194)

Finally, we can't sign off without one other brand mention: Skittles, which didn't run a commercial during the game but did put on a delightful little one-show-only, one-act Broadway musical this afternoon. For us (and granted, we were one of the few who were privileged enough to attend), the idea and execution were brave, weird and wonderful—a great diversion on a quiet afternoon before the game. 

If only the Super Bowl itself, and more of its ads, had measured up to it.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards.