5 best and 5 worst Super Bowl LIII commercials
What makes for a good Super Bowl commercial? Advertising exec Dan Granger tried answering this question for Vox in February 2019, noting that viewers don’t particularly like “being beaten over the head with a message” and vastly prefer ads that are “entertainment-driven.” If that’s true, it goes a long way in explaining why so many Super Bowl commercials rely on stunt cameos by A- and B-list stars to make an impression. Stakes are unbelievably high, too: As the Boston Herald reports, “the pressure on each actor to help their specific ad stand apart … is fresh every year.” In 2019, these actors included the likes of rapper Cardi B, crooner Michael Bublé, actor Steve Carell, and actress Sarah Michelle Gellar, to name but a few. As in previous years, some of these commercials crushed it, others were quite insufferable, and many were merely meh.
With the game behind us, let’s break down the five best and five worst commercials of Super Bowl LIII. Brace yourself for humanoid peanuts, a thoroughly depressed Alexa-type device, and Sex and the City‘s beloved Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) causing a considerable rumpus simply by ordering Stella Artois. Consider yourself warned.
Worst: ‘Food Porn’ by Devour Frozen Foods
Sex sells … but will it sell frozen food? According to Delish, Kraft Heinz is banking on a 2019 campaign that takes the term “food porn” quite literally. On Jan. 23, 2019, the “60-second uncensored version” of the ad premiered on YouTube and a blessedly shorter version played during Super Bowl LIII. (As Adweek reports, you “can’t say ‘porn’ in a Super Bowl ad,” so please plan accordingly.)
Pushing the envelope is great in theory, but both versions of the “Devour Food Porn” commercial aim for cheekiness and land with a squelch. “My boyfriend is addicted to frozen food porn,” says a concerned woman at the beginning of the uncensored version. (This turns into “My boyfriend has an addiction” in the edited spot.) Meanwhile, said boyfriend sits on the couch beside her, staring balefully into his plastic bowl of food. The unedited version includes a montage of stuck-together magazine pages, wadded-up napkins under the bed, and highly evocative hand movements as the guy prepares a meal. The edited version still includes a scene where the man lustily sniffs a box of White Cheddar Mac and Cheese. We imagine children had some questions that parents weren’t prepared to answer.
Katy Marshall, one of the marketing people behind the ad, told Yahoo Finance: “Some may say our new commercial is too hot for TV. We’ll let the audience decide.” Audiences may decide this is the most unappetizing food commercial of all time.
Best: Pringles ‘Sad Device’ commercial
“How many Pringles flavor stack combinations are there?” That’s the question posed in the Pringles “Sad Device” commercial, which finds two men sitting around their apartment performing dangerously delicious feats of potato-chip alchemy like “stacking cheddar, jalapeño, and sour cream and onion.”
Alas, the big “Pringles flavor stack” question prompts a curiously passive-aggressive response from a device meant to be the Amazon Alexa, or perhaps Alexa’s mentally uneven sister: “Three-hundred eighteen thousand,” she chirps, promisingly enough. Things quickly devolve from there: “Sadly, I’ll never know the joy of tasting any… for I have no hands to stack with, no mouth to taste with, no soul to feel with.” One particularly piquant touch: The mournful background music accompanying this tale of woe comes from inside the device. Sadly, the neurotic robot is quickly banished for being a bummer: One of the men barks, “Cool, play ‘Funkytown’!” And … she does.
With nary a celebrity cameo in sight, Pringles managed to make a memorable spot that’s breezy, effortlessly funny, and filled with some good old-fashioned techno terror. Subtle shades of Black Mirror mixed with all that crunchy goodness and a groovy bass line from Lipps Inc.? That’s a winner in our book.
Worst: Yellow Tail wine ‘Tastes Like Happy’
Where to even start with this one. The Chicago Tribune noted that “the recent trend toward sincerity continues” in this latest jumble of Super Bowl commercials … but so-called “sincerity” can easily come across as cloying and condescending if not handled with finesse. This ad for Yellow Tail wine attempts to describe exactly what “happy” tastes like in 2019. (Spoiler alert: According to this commercial, “happy” tastes exactly like Yellow Tail wine.)
We, the unsuspecting viewers who didn’t ask for any of this, are barraged by an onslaught of middling imagery that looks like several Shutterstock photos come worryingly to life. One woman, evidently moving into a new place, is delighted to find the packing box containing her wine glasses. Another lady is overjoyed about her promotion at work, celebrating the coup with coworkers over a few glasses of Yellow Tail wine. A gentleman “crushes” his best man’s speech at the world’s most bro-ey wedding, commemorating the occasion with high-fives, Yellow Tail wine, and what might be an attempt at The Hustle. Most bizarre vignette: Two women unexpectedly bump into each other in what looks like a public park, seemingly determined to share a bottle of Yellow Tail wine right then and there, which … isn’t that illegal?
Potential misdemeanor notwithstanding, the commercial is mawkish and overly sentimental; a bonafide clunker. Wake us when the happiness is over.
Best: Hyundai, ‘The Elevator’
Going up? In this perversely funny spot for Hyundai, actor Jason Bateman plays the spiffy old-timey operator manning a supernatural elevator that either whisks inhabitants up to life’s loftier moments or down to some severely sorry scenarios. (But, again, funny.) “Folks, what floor?” Bateman asks, as a happy couple wanders inside. “Oh, we’re car shopping,” the woman responds. Bateman ominously says, “Ah, you’re going down. Way down.”
The fun starts as the elevator stops on various floors, each representing increasingly dour life situations: A root canal, jury duty, a middle seat on a commercial flight, having “The Talk” with your awkward dad, and, best of all, a “vegan dinner party” serving up “beet loaf, Sergio’s specialty!” But when the couple mentions to Bateman that they’re purchasing a Hyundai — and using “Shopper Assurance,” which makes it all so damn simple — Bateman corrects the elevator’s course: “Hyundai … going up.” The couple is promptly whizzed up to a heavenly Hyundai lot, where they presumably purchase a $30,850 Sante Fe XL and live happily ever after.
Barney Goldberg, the “executive creative director of Innocean USA,” the agency behind the ad, told USA Today that viewers will be rewarded by repeat viewings. “We think there are little things people will catch,” he said, “on their second, third and 12th viewings.” In reality, one viewing is enough (and twelve viewings is eleven too many), but it’s unmistakably a clever ad.
Worst: Stella Artois, ‘Change Up The Usual’
Here’s how not to handle celebrity cameos: With “Change Up The Usual,” Stella Artois tried courting our nostalgia for two beloved pop-culture characters. Sarah Jessica Parker enters an upscale dining establishment, in full Carrie Bradshaw mode. A string arrangement of the “Sex and the City” theme swells. “Cosmopolitan?” the waiter asks knowingly, but Bradshaw demurs: “Nope, tonight I’ll have a Stella Artois.” The uncharacteristic order startles everyone: The string trio flubs its song, waiters drop glasses, overhead lights sputter out, the kitchen stove spits fire, and a rift presumably tears through the space-time continuum.
And then? Jeff Bridges enters the establishment as “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski, and instead of ordering his signature drink, the White Russian, he demands a Stella Artois (or “Stella Ar-toes,” as the case may be). The Dude sits next to Bradshaw and they enjoy their beers, the tagline “Change up the usual” flashes on the screen, and viewers are likely left feeling underwhelmed.
The ad drummed up plenty of ire, with Slate calling it “a crime against humanity,” and Cosmopolitan sniping that “some iconic characters just don’t need to be revisited.” (That includes “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” in our opinion.) One way this ad could’ve been salvaged: If Parker’s estranged co-star, actress Kim Cattrall, entered in lieu of Bridges and shared a Stella with Parker? (The reconciliation tack worked wonders for that Late Show spot back in 2010.)
Best: Michael Bublé vs Bubly
Whose side are you on? On Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, Super Bowl LIII viewers were treated to an altogether different side of ubiquitous Canadian crooner Michael Bublé, by way of this taut 30-second spot for Bubly sparkling water. The commercial finds Bublé in a convenience store, initially delighted to find rows of “blackberry Bublé, my favorite.” He’s thus corrected by a fact-checking fellow customer: “You mean Bubly. … You’re Michael Bublé, that’s a Bubly.” After a clerk confirms that theory, confusion mounts: A young fan emerges from the potato-chip stacks to ask, “Can I have your autograph, Mr. Bubly?” The ad concludes with Bublé hitting rock-bottom, rebelliously scrawling acute accent marks across Bubly cans with a sharpie.
The spot must have helped get the brand’s name out there … and it sounds like Bubly needs the publicity (even if Bublé doesn’t). Talking to CNN, the “four-time Grammy winner” revealed: “The truth is, I had never heard of Bubly water.” Bublé clearly appreciated the commercial’s absurdist humor: “I love the concept of the ad. I loved that it was making fun of the name.” In fact, he says he was just as “giddy” reading the script as when he first “read the (Bubly) script” for the 2010 Saturday Night Live sketch, “Hamm and Bublé.”
The commercial succeeds largely because its celebrity cameo is baked right into the overall concept, unlike, say, Harrison Ford’s grumpy presence in Amazon’s Alexa spot, or Charlie Sheen’s random appearance in the Planters commercial.
Worst: Amazon, ‘Not Everything Makes the Cut’
Is this the future we’ve been waiting for? Amazon’s Super Bowl LIII ad imagines an escalating series of so-called “fails” as the company aims to insert its Alexa technology into a range of household appliances, gadgets, and doodads. Watch carefully, or you might miss the hilarity. (We did.)
Witness Forest Whitaker try to brush his teeth and listen to a podcast on the same electric toothbrush. See a flummoxed Harrison Ford try talking some sense into his dog, who wears an Alexa dog collar and keeps ordering dog food, gravy, and sausages. Even Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer make an appearance — just in time to be jettisoned from an “Alexa hot tub” via overzealous water jets. By the time astronaut twin brothers Scott and Mark Kelly have entered the picture for another convoluted chapter of the saga, you’ve officially entered Unfunny Country.
So many questions: Why does it end with strains of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”? Why does Harrison Ford appear to be more unhappy about this commercial than we are? And when were we expected to succumb to peals of uncontrollable, infectious laughter?
Best: Olay Killer Skin
Don’t be frightened. If you heard loud hosannas rising from nearby homes on Super Bowl Sunday 2019, they were likely coming from longtime Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans as they watched this ad for Olay starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. (Are we the only ones who preferred this commercial to the Bud Light/Game of Thrones tie-in, with its cranky dragons and incinerated Bud Knights?)
Watch as Gellar is chased by a masked madman in a yellow rain slicker. She locks herself in an upstairs bedroom with a male companion. “Call someone!” he begs. Gellar scrambles with her smartphone, but it won’t unlock: The technology doesn’t recognize her face. Why? “I’ve been using Olay,” Gellar reveals. “It has totally transformed my skin.” By the time the maniac wrestles his way into the room, the menace has transformed into a mutual appreciation society: “Your skin’s glowing,” he says. “You could be a movie star.”
The whole thing is unapologetically silly and camp; almost throwaway, really … but we like the quick, in-and-out approach and the fact that Gellar appears genuinely thrilled to be there. Talking to Refinery29, Gellar revealed why she was “super excited” about the spot: “You’re talking about a male-dominated sporting event,” she said, adding: “This is a responsibility to be in a female-led commercial, for a female product, during the Super Bowl.”
Best: Pepsi, ‘More Than OK’
Celebrity cameos everywhere. In this spot starring actor Steve Carell, rapper Cardi B, and DJ and rapper Lil Jon, Pepsi basically acknowledges that it plays second fiddle to Coca-Cola, at least in the eyes of many consumers. The basic premise: A restaurant patron gets far more than she bargained for after ordering a Coke, prompting a soft-spoken waiter to offer the oft-heard refrain, “Is Pepsi okay?”
Enter Steve Carell, who happens to be sitting in a booth directly behind this patron, and who evidently couldn’t help but overhear the exchange: “Is Pepsi okay? Is Pepsi okay? Are puppies okay? Is a shooting star okay…?” Before the minute-long spot is over, the waiter has inexplicably lost his shirt, Lil Jon is dinging a diner bell and shouting his signature “Okay,” and Cardi B has sheared through the front door, trilling her trademark “Okuuuuuuurt” and vamping with an ice-cold Pepsi as she struts across the diner. It’s all very much that way.
In a statement, Todd Kaplan, Pepsi’s vice president of marketing, said the spot is “celebrating our fans … by unapologetically letting everyone know that Pepsi is way more than okay” (via Adweek). In truth, the commercial is just slightly more than okay, making our “Best” list based on its sheer audacity … and possibly informed by the fact that we still can’t get Cardi B’s “Money” out of our head. No one said life was fair.
Worst: Planters, ‘Mr. Peanut is Always There in Crunch Time’
True or false: “Mr. Peanut is this year’s real MVP because he’s always there in #Crunchtime.” That’s what Mr. Peanut’s official YouTube channel would like us to believe. However, a passing glance at the Planters ad that ran during Super Bowl LIII may give you pause. As Eater notes, the commercial features a CGI Mr. Peanut careening wildly through town in a giant “Nutmobile,” complete with a “NUTS4U” license plate.
As the “Nutmobile” jumps over a construction site, actor Charlie Sheen looks up from his newspaper. (He’s sitting at a bus stop … license revoked?) Sheen turns to the lady to his right to quip, “And people think I’m nuts.” In the commercial’s second half, Mr. Peanut spares retired pro baseball player Alex Rodriguez from munching a handful of kale chips by switching them with Planters mixed nuts just in time. Mr. Peanut winks (with the eye not clasping the monocle) and tips his hat to Rodriguez, who offers a perplexed thumbs up. We give this whole commercial a perplexed thumbs down.
At the very least, Sheen was delighted to participate, telling People, “The original line was, ‘That guy’s driving like a nut.’ And then as soon as I said [the new line], I could hear the reaction of the crowd around the monitor.” But never mind that alleged zinger: A sentient peanut dressed in Eustace Tilley’s wardrobe driving a monster truck to save Alex Rodriguez from kale? It’s just a lot to ask from us.