Super Bowl LIV Ad Review: The Return of the Celebrity Comedy

Nostalgia and escapism eclipsed (almost) anything serious on Sunday

On a night when the Kansas City Chiefs won their first NFL title in 50 years in a thrilling game, the commercials of Super Bowl LIV also took dead aim at the past—relying on the kind of broad, nostalgic celebrity humor that had taken a bit of a backseat to purpose-based work in recent years. 

A celebrity is not a concept. But it can pay off a concept when you have a decent one—as Jeep did with its "Groundhog Day" spot from agency Highdive. For our money the best spot of the night, and a nice return to the Super Bowl spotlight for Fiat Chrysler, the piece revisisted the 1993 Bill Murray film, with the twist being that the Jeep Gladiator ensures "no day is the same." 

Jeep | Groundhog Day

It was great timing. Super Bowl Sunday and Groundhog Day were sharing the same date for only the second time in history. The idea was communicated nice and simply, which was something a lot of Sunday's spots lacked. And Bill Murray is the ideal celebrity get for the Super Bowl—a beloved figure who brings a smile in almost any circumstance (and who was appearing in his first—and, he's already said, last—national ad). 

Still, while it was way cuter and more clever than most celeb spots on the game, the Jeep spot was certainly part of a trend. Mountain Dew also used celebs, Bryan Cranston and Tracee Ellis Ross, to revisit an old movie, The Shining, in an entertaining spot that was likewise pleasantly simple and straightforward in its execution. Squarespace, meanwhile, was less successful with its Fargo-referencing Winona Ryder spot, which really didn't go anywhere. 

MTN DEW Zero Sugar, As Good As The Original

Cheetos and Avocados From Mexico both retrieved their celebs—MC Hammer and Molly Ringwald—from the '80s. The stupid humor of the Cheetos concept worked well enough, while the Avocados spot was overly busy and a second straight big-game disappointment (after last year's Human Canine Show) from a usually more sure-footed brand that's made the Super Bowl its tentpole. Sabra hummus crammed no fewer than 19 celebs and influencers into its Super Bowl campaign—a poppy piece that was a lot to digest, though we appreciated the cameo by Kombucha Girl. 

Lots of other spots employed goofy celebrity humor, with varying degrees of success. On the more successful end of the spectrum were Doritos with Sam Elliott and Lil Nas X; Little Caesars with Rainn Wilson; Hyundai with Chris Evans, John Krasinski, Rachel Dratch and David Ortiz; and Bud Light Seltzer with Post Malone. Less fun, in our opinion, were Michelob Ultra with Jimmy Fallon and John Cena; Toyota with Cobie Smulders; Hyundai Genesis with Chrissy Teigen and John Legend; T-Mobile with Anthony Anderson; and Coca-Cola with Martin Scorsese and Jonah Hill.

For us, the Coke spot—for Coca-Cola Energy—was the most disappointing ad of the night. After taking last year off, this once-marquee Super Bowl advertiser's return fell completely flat. 

Coca-Cola Energy | Show Up

Amazon and Snickers also embraced humor. Remarkably, even the Amazon spot, touting the futuristic tech of Alexa, managed to be nostalgic—by focusing on life before Alexa. With its ridiculous but well-crafted comic scenarios, the spot was generally a crowd-pleaser. Snickers, meanwhile, with its Coke-"Hilltop"-by-way-of-Old-Spice musical number, was the most absurd spot of the evening. And while it felt more loosey-goosey and random than the "You're Not You When You're Hungry" stuff, it was still silly and goodhearted enough to be memorable. 

Amazon Super Bowl Commercial 2020 - #BeforeAlexa
#SnickersFixtheWorld – Full Version

Food brands Pringles, Reese's Take 5 and Pop-Tarts all aimed for the funny bone with appropriately snackable commercials, though none of them rose above perfunctory in terms of quality. 

Two Game of Thrones actors, Jason Momoa and Maisie Williams, also popped up, bookending the telecast with spots for Rocket Mortgage and Audi, respectively. (Yes, we can apparently even be nostaglic for a show that ended nine months ago.) The Momoa spot was visually fun, but does anyone recall what it said about the brand? The Williams ad, too, was a mixed bag—admirably straightforward and comprehensible (again, an underrated virtue of Super Bowl spots) but lacking something in the concept. 

Jason Momoa Super Bowl Commercial 2020 | Rocket Mortgage

Purpose wasn't completely absent from the game. Olay and Microsoft both aired female empowerment ads. The former, starring Busy Philipps, Lilly Singh and astronaut Nicole Stott, unfortunately undercut its own message with an ill-advised gag ending. Microsoft's spot, though, was solid, focusing on the wonderful story of Kate Sowers, the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl game, and continuing Microsoft's tradition of supporting the underdog. 

Microsoft Super Bowl 2020 Commercial: Be The One / Katie Sowers

Kia, Michelob Ultra, Verizon, WeatherTech and the NFL itself also aired spots around issues—homelessness, organic farming, first responders, cancer treatment for animals, and police shootings of black men, respectively. And while it's nice to see these brands committing resources in these areas, creatively the spots had difficulty breaking through. The NFL did have a clear winner, though, with its electric pre-kick spot that ended with the kids rushing live into the stadium in Miami.

The Trump and Bloomberg campaign spots likewise dealt with issues, but on a night when people generally want to escape politics, it was easy enough to tune them out. 

NEXT 100 | NFL Super Bowl LIV Commercial

Google and New York Life slowed things down with a pair of tear-jerkers, with Google's being the more successful. Its "Loretta" spot proved a worthy successor to the "Parisian Love" ad from way back on the 2010 Super Bowl. And Budweiser got patriotic with "Typical Americans," a spot that was a bit too cliché to connect (and made us wish for a Clydesdales sighting). 

Loretta | Google Super Bowl Commercial 2020

There were some more experimental efforts, too. Procter & Gamble was at the forefront of this, beginning with a series of four Tide spots, which recalled the amazing "It's a Tide Ad" work from 2018. While the ambition was admirable, and the executions were decent enough, the #LaundryLater series just didn't seem to land all that well—and unlike in 2018, throwing characters like the Bud Knight and Wonder Woman into the mix just made things harder to follow. 

Tide | Super Bowl now, #LaundryLater
Tide | Bud Knight now, #LaundryLater
Tide | Wonder Woman now, #LaundryLater
Tide | Coming Up Next, #LaundryLater
Tide | Finally Later, #LaundryLater

Still, the Tide stuff held together much better than the P&G spot, featuring seven of its brands. It was also experimental, involving a kind of choose-your-own-adventure voting mechanism online in the days leading up to the game, but ended up collapsing under its own weight and lack of any coherent narrative. 

Likewise, the Heinz spot—which was four ads in one, each taking up one corner of the screen—ended up just being confusing. The P&G and Heinz work all failed to follow a cardinal rule of Super Bowl advertising: Don't overcomplicate it. 

TurboTax and Pepsi both got musical with above-average spots. Porsche was more successful than Kia at stirring emotion. And Sodastream and Walmart delivered respectable (if predictable) lighthearted diversions—the latter, in its first Super Bowl appearance, decently following up its "Famous Cars" spot from last year's Oscars with "Famous Visitors," a spot that was also heavy on the movie references. 

Walmart | Famous Visitors (Extended Cut)

For us, the least notable spots of the night were Hard Rock, Discover, Facebook, Turkish Airlines and Quibi. The Turkish Airlines work is better in the extended version, but the other four spots ranged from phoned-in (Discover) to incoherent (Hard Rock). 

All of which leaves Mr. Peanut. In a plot twist obviously engineered for social, Planters used the much-anticipated funeral of Mr. Peanut, who had died in the teaser, to reincarnate the mascot in baby form. On a telecast that was surprisingly devoid of babies—and animals, too, for that matter—it was a shameless attempt at generating Baby Yoda-style buzz. And guess what? It kinda worked.

Planters | Tribute

Overall, the ads felt a bit more entertaining than last year's batch, and added some levity to the on-field drama—combining to produce one of the more enjoyable Super Bowl evenings in recent memory. (Thankfully, unlike last year, the ads didn't have to do the heavy lifting for a boring game.) 

Next year, though, let's hope for more ideas that break through—not just celebs willing to fill in the gaps. 

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. Previously, he was creative editor at Adweek.

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