There were many Super Bowl firsts during Sunday’s telecast from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium: Civil rights icons Andrew Young, John Lewis and Bernice King opened the game. Performers Maroon 5 topped Coldplay as the blandest halftime act of all time. And advertisers paid the highest price ever — $5.25 million — for the chance to wow America with a 30-second ad.
Never mind that Super Bowl LIII was also the first time that neither team scored a touchdown during the first three quarters. It was the scripted moments, and those pricey ads in between, that captured the confusion of our times, where a national demand for social change is met by equally fervent calls to pull culture backward. That tension has created one of the more uneasy playing fields in Super Bowl memory for the event’s planners and advertisers, both of whom have to appeal to a wide swath of America while avoiding political tripwires along the way.
The pre-game opening, which also included snippets of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches about unity, was most certainly in response to a Super Bowl boycott movement organized against the NFL. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay encouraged other celebrities to boycott the game because of the NFL’s policy against players who were taking a knee and what she called its “racist” treatment of quarterback Colin Kaepernick
Advertisers took several tacks in addressing the world outside the Super Bowl, and it made for a truly bizarre run of commercials that ranged from freakishly funny to downright maudlin.
For starters, the advertising staple of scantily clad women was utterly absent from 2019’s round of ads. Victoria’s Secret didn’t advertise, which is perhaps the reason Bob Dylan shilled for Budweiser this time around. “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,” he sang as a Clydesdale team pulled the beer wagon through a field of wind turbines because, as we learn, Bud is “now brewed with wind power.” It’s good for the planet.
The ads starring women were of a different sort. Dating app Bumble featured Serena Williams in an inspiring spot aimed at young women: "Make the first move.... Don't wait to be given power because here's what they won't tell you: We already have it," she says. The sleek bodysuit Brie Larson wears in the “Captain Marvel” trailer is, in fact, a kick-butt superhero unitard. And then there was the commercial for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Season 3.
The ad takes its inspiration from Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” presidential campaign commercial and opened with an uplifting tune and optimistic narration: “It’s morning in America, and today more women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history.” But the images are from the dystopian series, where Gilead’s women are enslaved as handmaids and Marthas. Then the scene abruptly stops and June (Elisabeth Moss) appears: “Wake up, America,” she commands. “Morning’s over!”
The other overtly political ad of the night, President Trump’s pre-game interview with CBS’ Margaret Brennan, was less impactful though it lasted much longer than 30 seconds. It was his second pre-game sit-down since taking office; he declined to speak with NBC last year in protest of its coverage of his presidency. It was softball fare for a hardball POTUS and uneventful enough that the Flamin’ Hot Nacho Doritos ad starring Chance the Rapper and the Backstreet Boys seemed incendiary in comparison.
The other big themes among Super Bowl ads played off the reality that we live in a confusing and divisive time. Products that tapped that vein seemed to say “buy this and we’ll help you make sense of it all.”
SimpliSafe’s home security satirical ad opened with a newspaper headline that read “It’s worse than it was yesterday” and TV anchor saying “What you don’t know about your garage door will kill you.” It goes on: Don’t eat wheat bread. Porch pirates are stealing your packages. Robots will be able to do your job in five years.” But at least SimpliSafe is a sure thing
Google claimed to be bridging global and religious gaps through its translation app.
And then there was the Scientology TV ad: “It’s a force more powerful than armies. It has vanquished ignorance and intolerance and expanded our horizons… scientology TV.com. Curious?”
Patriotism and apple-pie nostalgia, other Super Bowl ad staples, were also scant. In their place were messages of perseverance in the face of adversity. Female football star Toni Harris spoke of dashing expectations in a Toyota ad while Microsoft ran a touching spot showing how new gaming hardware helps kids with disabilities do what all their peers love to do — play video games. "He's not different when he plays," says the father of one child.
The best, or at least the funniest ads, were the ones that had fun with our daily chaos, and they of course featured more celebrities than a halcyon-era Lakers game. Hyundai featured Jason Bateman as an elevator operator shuttling occupants to different levels of awful experiences – root canal, middle airplane seat, vegan dinner party. Car shopping was the bottom floor.
Pepsi tapped Steve Carell, Lil Jon and Cardi B; Stella Artois had Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges. Turkish Airlines had a bizarre spot supposedly directed by Ridley Scott that seemed more foreboding than inviting. And Burger King manipulated old footage of Andy Warhol eating a burger and suggested we all #EatLikeAndy.
Amazon won for best oddball humor in its add themed “Not everything makes the cut.” It listed all the ways Alexa didn’t work when embedding in various devices: in a toothbrush (powered by Forest Whitaker), in the dog collar of a pup owned by Harrison Ford. Never allow your dog to do the ordering or you’ll end up with a truckload of gravy and sausages.