From #AdBowl to #SadBowl: 2015’s Unsettling Super Bowl Commercials

By Guest Comment

nationwide kid

This is a guest post by Tom Siebert.

Before the end of the first quarter, I changed my twitter #adbowl hashtag to #sadbowl — but I had no idea how accurate that theme would turn out to be.

Commercials for the 49th Super Bowl may have been overall better than usual (though there were certainly a couple clunkers, and one disaster for the ages), but it was largely a roster of somber and sometimes unsettling spots.

If advertising reflects the tone of our times, then we live in a wounded and worried nation, concerned God has abandoned us, hungry for a father figure, feeling guilty about how we treat women, and fearful of the sense of loss and even death waiting in the wings.

Disturbingly, the America presented by the collective unconscious of the top minds of the advertising industry in 2015 is not a place you’d want to live. Despite over-the-top absurdist escapism like life-sized Pac-Man games and updated fairy tales in which our tortoise hero cheats to win (in a Mercedes, no less), the protagonists of the 2015 Sad Bowl did not much feel like winners.

The biggest loser of the year was a misbegotten flop of a commercial that should go six feet down in history along with the Just for Feet horror show and GroupOn’s insulting trivialization of Tibet.

No guess is necessary, because we all know it’s the Nationwide Insurance ad that swerved from playful to shocking like a smooth-handling sports car crashing into a tree: a plucky boy informs us that he WON’T experience all the pleasures mentioned over the past thirty seconds, because he’s dead.

At the party I attended, a man literally said, “Holy shit! That was the worst ad ever!”

It was a sucker punch to the heart completely inappropriate for the Super Bowl. It was never a good ad — at its core, Nationwide is leveraging parents’ love to create fear and then pressure to purchase their product — but it’s 100 times worse when slotted among what’s supposed to be America’s biggest secular holiday…and a rare television experience the whole family can share. Truly an epic failure on numerous levels.

The guys at Nissan are breathing a sigh of relief, because the exact same ad pod also included their spot featuring an absent race car driving dad and his perpetually lonely and worried wife and son. The campaign seemed to have learned nothing from its own theme: Harry Chapin’s tragic fatherhood fable of loss and regret, “Cats in the Cradle.”

The smartest takeaway for this downer came from @MaleCopywriter:

It may have been the worst ad of the night…before Nationwide ran and jaws dropped around the room.

The other seriously disturbing ad was for Jeep, which used Woody Guthrie’s patriotic “This Land Is Your Land” to unsettling and perhaps sinister effect, showcasing the beauty of the United States before moving into a global perspective, which sure made the commercial seem like a paean to American Imperialism.

Both Microsoft and Camry ads featured Americans with prosthetic legs. The former was more sincere than the latter, which featured Paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy doing real outdoor stuff and fake ad stuff while Muhammad Ali audaciously skipped some rope-a-dope off the tongue. But there was no connection between the two…and the connection to the Camry — Camrys are safe and reliable, but hardly bold — wasn’t authentic to the brand.

Viewers also endured a parade of freakishly-altered Americans ranging from the only slightly stretched face of Pierce Brosnan for KIA to the Joker-like Katie Couric and the nearly unrecognizable terror who claims to be Bryant Gumbel hawking BMW. Then, of course, the full-on freak show that is Kim Kardashian parodied Save the Children for T-Mobile. As a viewer, I found myself distracted from the message in each of these campaigns by the bizarre countenance of the stars’ faces.

The best cameo of the night came from Liam Neeson, who was perfectly and amusingly cast as a gamer waiting at a coffee shop, for “Clash of Clans,” channeling his best intense Taken persona and bringing something surprising and unexpected to a category that usually falls flat (take last night’s “Game of War” campaign, for example). Jeff Bridges was less personally appealing in the SquareSpace campaign, which may represent the biggest “WTF?” of the night.

A couple of feel-good spots for dads and daughters were great for :50 until you realized that they were advertising Dove for Men and Always tampons (in intrusive cutaways).

The NFL/NoMore.com PSA-ish spot also presenting a jarring contrast between the effectiveness of the ad and the ineffectiveness of the league to convince us it cares about the topic at hand.

Bud did its usual thing with puppies and horses, but the one spot that stood out from the rest (for me) was Carnival’s unexpectedly resonant commercial featuring a voiceover from President John F. Kennedy. Unlike any other Super Bowl ad, it actually sought to express a sense of wonder via the mystical draw of the sea. Part of my pleasure came from the sense of surprise — too many of these damn ads get previewed before the game — but the Carnival campaign was also beautifully shot and emotionally evocative.

Otherwise, most of the highlights leaned toward humor. The much-mentioned Snickers spot may not be the funniest Super Bowl ad of all time, but it built on an already-successful campaign and used special effects for a purpose instead of a gimmick. The Avocado ad was clever and perfect for the game. The Mophie spot was a big budget blockbuster with a dark gag at the end; it was borderline blasphemy, but it was also one of the night’s very best because it seemed to sum up the existential unease suggested by many of the other commercials.

That’s what we’re left with after the four-plus hour high holy day of consumerist capitalism and sport: the game quickly turned from a suspenseful classic to a sour and arrogant show transformed by (arguably) the worst coaching decision in the history of the sport…and a game-ending brawl.

The entire experience reinforced America’s perception of itself as an incomplete people living in a country where Patriots owner Bob Kraft scores the all-important post-game interview before any player. It’s a country in which most of us desperately hope to carve out a little safe space for our children…while a nationwide insurance company suggests we probably can’t (so we might as well buy their product).

It’s going to take more than a hug from a lowest-common-denominator burger joint to make any of us feel better.

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