An audience expected to be around 100 million. Big companies paying as much as $5.6 million for 30 seconds of advertising time. In addition to deciding the National Football League champion, the Super Bowl is the biggest event of the year for TV commercials.
The commercials Sunday were mostly light and bright.
Blasts From the Past
Nostalgia was a big theme, with companies marketing their products with ads that showed love for the ’80s and ’90s.
Cheetos had rapper MC Hammer and his zoot-suit-inspired pants in an ad about the orange dust the snack leaves in its wake. Squarespace sent Winona Ryder, the Gen X star who has made a comeback thanks to Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” to Winona, Minnesota, where she was born.
Bill Murray, with a sidekick from the rodent family, relived the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day” for Jeep, and Mountain Dew Zero riffed on the 1980 film “The Shining” with an assist from “Breaking Bad” actor Bryan Cranston. A commercial for Avocados From Mexico features Molly Ringwald, the star of “Pretty in Pink” and other ’80s comedies.
The nostalgia mixed with sentimentality. And several heartfelt commercials, from companies like New York Life Insurance and WeatherTech, seemed to have left the deepest impression on viewers. A spot from Google — about the 85-year-old grandfather of a Google employee searching for ways to remember his partner, Loretta — inspired a flood of “I’m not crying, you’re crying” social media posts.
“The ads that people remember most over time are the simplest ads with human stories, and that was missing for the most part,” said the longtime ad executive Donny Deutsch.
Much of the gameday advertising, he said, “was a manic, overproduced celebrity cornucopia, to the point that some of these ads didn’t mean anything and you didn’t really remember who was with who.”
The Streamers Are Here
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady spent this Super Bowl as a Hulu spokesman, saying in a commercial for the streaming service that “it’s time to say goodbye to TV as you know it” before slyly adding, “but me, I’m not going anywhere.”
An ad from the short-form streaming service Quibi, featuring bank robbers who pause to watch a quick show on their phone screens, made one thing clear: how to pronounce “Quibi.” (It’s kwi-bee, not kwee-bee.) Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus also plugged their offerings.
Unity Amid Diversity
In other Super Bowl ads, Verizon, Bud Light and other companies emphasized — and celebrated — what Americans have in common beneath their differences. Don’t we all complain about the same things? Don’t we all defy cultural stereotypes? And don’t we all love hummus?
Those were some of the messages that figured in the sunny portrait of a nation that emerged from the more than 80 commercials during the Super Bowl broadcast.
“We’re at a moment in the country where it’s important that we all contribute to things that unite as opposed to things that separate,” said Diego Scotti, chief marketing officer of Verizon.
Sabra cast two former contestants from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Kim Chi and Miz Cracker, making it possibly the first Super Bowl commercial to feature drag queens. One Million Moms, a conservative activist group that recently pushed the Hallmark Channel to pull ads featuring brides kissing each other, circulated a petition demanding that the Sabra spot be removed, to no avail.
Companies are also slipping into other companies’ commercials. Pringles paired up with the animated Adult Swim series “Rick and Morty” for an ad filled with horrifying child robots. Tide, which overran the Super Bowl 2018 with crossover commercials, teamed this year with Bud Light, the upcoming film “Wonder Woman 1984” and the Fox show “The Masked Singer.” Pop-Tarts, which featured the flowing hair of Jonathan Van Ness of “Queer Eye” in its commercial, called out Hyundai’s Boston-accented spot “Smaht Pahk” by posting on Twitter: “Pahp-Tahts.”
Politics Crashes the TV Party
The first of two 30-second ads from President Donald Trump’s campaign, which together cost more than $11 million, aired at 6:55 p.m. Eastern time in the first commercial break after kickoff. The spot focused on Alice Marie Johnson, a woman who was serving a life sentence in federal prison on charges related to cocaine distribution and money laundering when her case was brought to Trump’s attention by Kim Kardashian West, the reality television star. Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence in 2018.
It was the first Super Bowl to feature national ads from two presidential candidates, and the political tone of the ads has stood out in a broadcast filled with companies trying to avoid sensitive topics the day before the Democratic caucuses in Iowa.
Before the second half kickoff, billionaire presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg presented an ad about gun control that featured Calandrian Simpson-Kemp, whose football-loving son died in a shooting in 2013. Bloomberg has swarmed the Democratic field with more than $275 million in advertising, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. This was not his first Super Bowl commercial touching on gun laws — he did the same in a 2012 ad with Thomas M. Menino, who was then the mayor of Boston.
The Jay-Z Influence
Another exception to the escapist fare is a spot on police shootings. Surprisingly, it comes from an organization that has shied away from the issue: the National Football League. The spot shows the retired San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin reflecting on the 2015 death of his cousin, who was shot by a police officer, and it includes a dramatic reenactment of the killing.
The commercial promotes the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, a social outreach program that the league has put together with Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded by Jay-Z. Colin Kaepernick — Boldin’s onetime 49ers teammate — set off an uproar a year after the killing by kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. The NFL struggled with its response for years.
A Stunt Ad Lights Up Social Media
After days of hype, Planters ran a commercial showing the funeral of its monocled mascot, Mr. Peanut. Other brand avatars stood at the grave site, including Kool-Aid Man and Mr. Clean. After the Kool-Aid Man shed a tear, something sprouted in the dirt. It was a baby version of Mr. Peanut, squeaking like a dolphin and saying, “Just kidding, I’m back.” The reaction on social media was not kind.
But the great majority of Super Bowl spots were jaunty and optimistic. TurboTax has a commercial involving people of many races, genders, ages and walks of life dancing to a bounce-inflected earworm of a jingle, “All People Are Tax People.”
The mood continued the trend toward tonally light commercials that came to the fore in 2018. In 2017, the first year of Trump’s administration, Budweiser and Coca-Cola, among other brands, touched on immigration, equal rights and fair pay.
Martin Scorsese, who is nominated for an Oscar this year for “The Irishman,” was also involved in a Super Bowl commercial, but not behind the camera. Instead, he appeared in an ad-from Coca-Cola, waiting anxiously at a party for Jonah Hill, whom he had directed in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” to muster enough energy to join him. Hill, who was cast first, suggested Scorsese when the company asked him to recommend someone to play the out-of-place friend.
While many ads looked to the past for inspiration, Walmart and others were fixated on the cosmos. Olay alluded to the first all-female spacewalk last year in an ad featuring Lilly Singh and Busy Philipps with retired astronaut Nicole Stott. A spot from home carbonation company SodaStream, with Bill Nye, showed astronauts finding water on Mars.
Facebook’s first Super Bowl ad included a cameo appearance by Chris Rock and the “Rocky” actor Sylvester Stallone. Microsoft’s ad features Katie Sowers, the 49ers assistant coach who was the first woman and openly gay person to help lead a team to the big game.
The Super Bowl ad hullabaloo will not end with the Super Bowl. On Monday, Snickers will release several 15-second TV ads referring to its surreal game-time commercial, which pondered whether the world’s problems can be fixed by dropping an enormous Snickers bar into a gaping hole in the ground.
And in the coming months, the Super Bowl commercials that were rolled out with so much hype will dissolve into the general advertising atmosphere, appearing in the act breaks of sitcoms, police procedurals and reality shows, all but unnoticed.