Taylor Swift’s new television special Sunday, aka Super Bowl LVIII, carried live from Las Vegas on CBS and Paramount+, came with a football game attached, a musical production number and a host of comedy sketches masquerading as commercials — and they said variety was dead!
I have been asked here, however, to discuss only the commercials, which are granted a newsworthiness they rarely enjoy elsewhere in television, based entirely on their proximity to this one event, the big money involved and the big stars who pick up big money for a day’s work, if that. Major American celebrities — from Audrey Hepburn and Marlon Brando to Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts — who wouldn’t think of appearing in a domestic TV commercial have for years snuck overseas to get that check, but the Super Bowl provides a certain amount of cache and cover — it’s an event! (Even so, one might point out, these are mostly not superduperstars — many are TV people, but no less familiar or useful for that.) Sports stars (current and retired), cozy with endorsements, seem happy to play along.
Surveys have suggested that something like a quarter of Super Bowl viewers come mainly for the commercials. I admit that I find them more interesting than the game, though I just admit as well that this was a particularly interesting game; still it’s hard to imagine sitting through four hours of football just for the ads when the buzziest ones are already plastered all over the internet, and the ones that aren’t yet will be. I mean, it feels like a poor use of time. That said, the frequency of cutaways could make one feel at times that the game was interrupting the commercials. (That there are those who come only for the halftime show goes without saying, but you can arrive late and leave early for that.) People are funny.
Many of these campaigns, whether as teasers or full-length ads, or lengthier ads than would appear on the actual broadcast, or minus some final tag or punchline held back until Sunday, had been underway online for more than a week; network morning shows gave them “exclusive” premieres, and under the guise of “news” offering advertisements free advertising — which, yes, print media is also happy to provide.
After an extremely vague tease with Tony Hale, a spot starring Beyoncé premiered in the third quarter of the game, with the singer attempting to “break Verizon” — by playing the saxophone, opening a lemonade stand running for “Beyoncé of the United States,” and going to space. A second airing suggested new music was coming, later confirmed via Instagram. My takeaway was that I’d like to see her do more comedy.
That the investment was overwhelmingly in comedy is sensible: Funny spots are more likely to be remembered, talked about, reposted and if brevity is the soul of wit, as it certainly is of the modern attention span, repetition is the soul of advertising.
Here is an incomplete accounting of humorous commercials aired during the game.
LL Cool J driving a beer can-shaped train for Coors Light. Martha Stewart, Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson for BIC Lighters, because weed. Anthony Hopkins delivering a dramatic soliloquy (“To act is to deceive, and to deceive one must forget oneself”) before he puts on the head of Wrex the Dragon, mascot of the Wrexham football club (the other football, the one they play everywhere) in an ad for Stok Cold Brew Coffee. Ken Jeong, out of cryogenic suspension, for Popeyes.
Chris Pratt in a handlebar mustache for Pringles. Eric Andre paired with a creepy little plastic figure, Dr. Umstick, for the Drumstick ice cream cone (the day’s weirdest spot) Self-described “America’s sweetheart” Aubrey Plaza deadpanning through a series of stressful or dramatic situations (child’s party, stuck elevator, alien abduction, professional wrestling, riding a dragon) for Mountain Dew. Zac Braff and Donald Faison back singing and dancing for T-mobile, joined now by Jason Momoa. Dan Levy and Heidi Gardner doing on-the-spot neighborhood research for Homes.com. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were back for Dunkin Donuts, with Matt Damon along; they are legitimately big stars, but they’re also down with Dunkin Donuts, so, you know, regular. Actors from “Suits” showed up in a couple of ads (e.l.f. Cosmetics and T-mobile), because that is where we are now.
An Oreo spot in which important decisions through the ages are made according to whether the “creme” (hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin and vanillin, if you’re interested) winds up on the left or right when the cookies are twisted apart. Avoiding controversy, M&M’s posted an ad for peanut butter M&M’s in which diamonds formed from compressed peanut butter, “polished with the sighs of those who almost won a Super Bowl — and Scarlett Johansson” are used to make The Almost Champions Ring of Comfort. Especially wonderful is a Kate McKinnon in a Hellman’s Mayonnaise spot, in which she believes her cat can talk after she takes its “meow” for “mayo;” the cat becomes famous, addresses world leaders and dates and dumps Pete Davidson.
The Uber Eats ad, predicated on the idea that new information pushed out old featured Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer, Posh and Becks, Jelly Roll and Usher, who didn’t remember he was performing the halftime show. Usher also made a cameo appearance at the end of Christopher Walken’s delightful BMW commercial, in which people imitated his way of talking as he went through his day. The tolerant exasperation of his reactions was a highlight of my over-engagement with these commercials.
There were, naturally, a few non-comical ads sprinkled among them. The beautiful Budweiser Clydesdales delivered beer in the snow. A little girl skated on an icy pond as her housebound grandfather watched through a window in a Kia spot. Dove went to bat for girls in athletics. The “Jesus, he gets us” campaign, which debuted last year, returned with a pair of ecumenical, elegant, photo-based spots on a theme of loving one’s neighbor, which is to say, anybody. And Mark Wahlberg promoted Hallow, a Christian/Catholic prayer app.
What can we say about this year’s spots that says anything about the rest of us? That many are for beer, junk food, gambling and television itself, suggests a society desperate to anesthetize itself in a burning world? (Some might argue that the Super Bowl itself represents a misdirection of human energy, a distraction from what really matters — not that you’ll catch me saying that.)
Special musical guest Travis Kelce performed “Viva Las Vegas” in the postgame, while Swift looked on. Earlier he gained 93 yards on nine receptions, also while she looked on.