Super Bowl LI: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Last night’s Super Bowl lived up to its name, delivering a spectacular comeback and the first-ever overtime in the game’s history. But did its ads do the same?

The mood of this year’s ad crop felt very different from past years. Where were the puppies? The monkeys? The sweeping patriotic tributes? There seemed a striking absence this year of the standard themes we’ve come to expect: cute animals, smiling babies, and slapstick humor—three tropes that Mountain Dew combined into a single, indelible ad last year with its #PuppyMonkeyBaby spot.

Mtn Dew Kickstart: Puppymonkeybaby | Super Bowl Spot

This year, advertisers appeared to have grown a few years older, perhaps because these politically fraught times make things trickier for brands. We all wondered how political the ads would really be—and many were. But the ads that treaded on political turf veered away from the rousing American patriotism of past years in favor of a global embrace of diversity and inclusivity, a balm to soothe political schisms.

Ads that stayed away from politics trended toward concise, on-brand messages that were strikingly gender neutral: think Skittles, King’s Hawaiian, Wendy’s, and the NFL. Even beer ads seem to have grown up, favoring friendship and social gatherings over traditional beer themes.

Here are four standout moments—both positive and negative—from last night’s #BrandBowl.

1. Audi

One of my favorite ads of the evening, Audi’s spot didn’t show off sleek design or high-tech features—it brought us the rough, visceral thrill of speed. And it did so with a twist: a girl wins the race, as a father speaks about how he wants his daughter to see the world. The spot was held together with a brilliant tagline: #DriveProgress. Not only did the commercial tap into public sentiment behind the Women’s March, it also stuck vividly in my mind because of the poignant story it told.

Audi #DriveProgress Big Game Commercial – “Daughter”

My rating: A solid thumbs-up.

2. Mercedes-Benz

Contrast Audi’s ad with Mercedes-Benz’s spot: The world of driving couldn’t be more different in each. Beautifully constructed, Mercedes opens with a reference to Easy Rider and concludes with a cameo of Peter Fonda. A huge win—if you’re of a certain age. But I can only imagine that it left many millennials scratching their heads in confusion. With this ad, Mercedes cements itself as the car for wealthy boomers.

My rating: For its target audience, A. For everyone else…questionable.

3. Yellow Tail

This was hands down, by far, the biggest bomb of the night. With increasing numbers of women watching the Super Bowl each year, you might expect a well-known wine brand like Yellow Tail to produce an inclusive ad that resonates with diverse audiences, especially since women are some of its core consumers. Instead, the spot felt like an anachronistic, sexist beer ad from 10 years ago—while the beer advertisers did nothing of the sort.

Yellow Tail Wine Super Bowl Ad - Yellowtail Wines Commercial w/ Ellie Gonsalves

My rating: Is there something below an F? How about a lifetime Super Bowl ban.

4. It’s a 10 Haircare

The biggest surprise of the evening, this ad found a way to be on-brand, political, inclusive, and funny—all at the same time. With its clever opening, “We’re in it for at least four years of awful hair,” the spot had viewers laughing while looking at striking images of people wearing all kinds of hairdos. The baby under the blow-dryer was the cherry on top of a fantastic ad.

It's A 10 Hair Care Super Bowl Commercial

My rating: The brand’s name says it best: It’s a 10.

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Header image courtesy of Flickr user Lorie Shaull.

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