Selling dystopia: Ad Man X (p)reviews this year’s Super Bowl commercials

Selling dystopia: Ad Man X (p)reviews this year’s Super Bowl commercials

This is PLAYOFF Doink-O-Rama, John Teti's column about pro football.

For the Doink-O-Rama Super Bowl preview, I once again enlisted our anonymous ad-industry executive, "Ad Man X," a longtime creative director who has written and produced a number of Super Bowl ads himself—although he does not have any spots in this year’s game, which frees him up to talk trash about everyone else’s work.

I sent Ad Man X a half-dozen Super Bowl ads that were “leaked” to YouTube (almost none of the ads actually premiere on Super Bowl Sunday anymore) so that he could give you advance insights into the consumer-capitalist pap that will subliminally dictate our purchasing decisions during this year’s “The Big Game.” But first, we begin with a reflection on the status of the Super Bowl commercial as an overall genre.

Doink-O-Rama: Before we get into the specific ads, I want to first ask you, what is the state of the Super Bowl ad in the industry? Does it hold as much cachet as it used to?

Ad Man X: It’s this odd combination of, it’s the most important thing in the world, and yet, everybody says they always suck. [Laughs.]

DOR: By “everybody” you mean ad people? They hate them too?

AMX: Yeah. There’s this tremendous sense of, like, “It’s OUR Super Bowl! We, as the creative people, are driving business! Nobody watches the game. They only watch it for our ads!” And then the next day, everybody’s like, “Well, that sucked.”

The real heyday of Super Bowl advertising is behind us. Yet we keep propping it up as this thing that we should all hold on to as the greatest night of our lives. It’s like the Oscars. Every year, we’re like, “Yay, Oscars!” Then the next day it’s, ugh, yikes.

DOR: Speaking of the heyday, a couple of weeks ago you were talking with me about a shared acquaintance of ours, an advertising creative who used to work on Bud Light, like in the ’90s, early 2000s? And you said they would just churn out a ton of Super Bowl ads every year.

AMX: Before the cost consultants came in and ruined everything, the clients—they would actually treat it as the Super Bowl. They would say, “We’re going to throw a ton of money at this. We’ll shoot 10 commercials and only air two or three [during the Super Bowl].” You know: “We want to do the thing everyone’s talking about the next day. Let’s push ourselves.”

Now we’ve fallen into this sort of Marvel movie-studio world where they’ve kind of figured out what works for people. And they’ll say, “Okay, there are five things that work for every Super Bowl commercial, and if we can get them in this, we’re in good shape.” And then the Ad Robot 2000 can crank these things out. You can feel it this year, in the ads we’re going to talk about, there are a few that feel like they were built by Ad-Bot. And it does end up feeling like Marvel—“We know these three things can get us $200 million on opening weekend, and that’s fine by us, because our stock’s gonna go up.”

Amazon Alexa: “Mind Reader”

Professional attractive person Colin Jost invites his wife, professional attractive person Scarlett Johansson, to witness the capabilities of his Amazon Alexa home-privacy-invasion device. He merely has to say, “Alexa, it’s game day,” and all manner of gadgetry around the house springs into action. (Not pictured: The endless hours of tweaking and troubleshooting required to make all that home-automation horseshit function properly this one time, after which it will never quite work right again.) A thought experiment ensues. Wouldn’t it be awful, Jost and Johansson muse, if Amazon Alexa knew more about us than we would like, and if it operated contrary to the interests of the humans who supposedly command it? But that is certainly not the case, Amazon assures us! It’s just a silly fantasy these two celebrities dreamed up! Where do they get these crazy ideas?

DOR: I don’t know what Amazon is getting at here. I watch this commercial, and I see an Alexa device misbehaving, being creepy, revealing people’s secrets—all the worst qualities of the product are on display. And apparently all of this is supposed to be wrapped up in the three seconds at the end where they’re like, “No, that’s not how it is at all!”

AMX: I felt like this was an absolute nightmare. I think Ad-Bot said, "We’re going to get this wonderful, beautiful Scarlett Johansson and the potato she’s married to, and we’ll surround them with Alexa." But then it came to, wait, what are we going to say, or do? And they just lost the plot immediately. I mean, talk about playing into our terror. After I watched the video you sent me, I started looking side-eyed at the Alexa in our kitchen. That little devil machine.

DOR: Oh yeah. Throw that thing in the trash.

AMX: So I have no idea what they were trying to get at, aside from, “Do you want to be like this incredibly rich couple?”

DOR: To me, the actual commercial is the first three seconds, where he says a thing, and all this stuff in the house lights up. Everything beyond that muddles the message.

AMX: After that, it turns into a dystopia. I pride myself on understanding what an advertiser is trying to communicate, and I had no idea. If you’re a casual viewer, you must be thinking, “Oh… is this a new thing they’re doing with Alexa? They’re going to be able to predict what you want?” And Amazon is like, “No, of course not. We just listen to you while you’re talking.”

DOR: They could have used a little more, say, harp glissando, and wavy video effect, to indicate that we have crossed the line into fantasy. Because the “Wouldn’t this be crazy?” part looks exactly like the happy-rich-couple part.

AMX: I think those of us who have experienced, late at night, when their speaker does a reboot or something, and it goes “Bleep bloop!” and you think, “What is it doing down there?”—this ad is reminding me that I should take your advice and chuck it in the garbage. But then, who would tell me what channel Derry Girls is on?

Meta: “Old Friends. New Fun.”

An animatronic dog and his gang of non-trademarked sidekick characters entertain the patrons at a Chuck E. Cheese-style pizza place (but NOT Chuck E. Cheese®). He sings the song “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” so you know what’s about to happen: They’re gonna forget about him. Sure enough, the dog suffers a series of escalating indignities until he ends up serving as glorified signage at a space museum. But then he and his non-trademarked friends discover that, while they all were busy being crushed in industrial trash compactors, the corporate hegemony conjured a simulacrum of their former life! “This is good!” they all say, by way of their body language. “It’s a good thing that our bright, vivacious social existence has given way to a reality where we don electronic blinders to experience sterilized, hollow simulations of past joys! We love it,” they all say, because nobody wants to be sent back to the crusher.

DOR: Let’s keep that creepy train rolling as we look at the ad from Meta. The pitch here seems to be, “Remember how great things used to be, before everything? Now, you can get a shitty computer version of those old pleasures by strapping this device on your face.”

Five Nights at Freddy's

AMX: If this ad had actually featured the characters from Chuck E. Cheese, I would have given it an A-plus. Instead we have these horrors—what’s the video game?—Five Nights at Freddy’s. I felt bad for the dog. I wondered why the manufacturer had put a soul in it. It was almost crushed! It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever—and the payoff is, you get to live in a video game loading screen? I guess I haven’t done enough research into what Meta is, but when the path leads to—a bunch of disembodied things waiting to get into Mario Kart? Is that what the future is?

DOR: Yes, it appears so. And when we see this, we’re supposed to say, hooray! Everything worked out great, and maybe it’s even better than before, now that the lovable animals have inserted themselves into this windowless Facebook machine that pumps a colorful purgatory directly into our eyeballs.

AMX: It felt like this creature had a redemption story of being saved, and now it can live its life. But then they stick it in the Meta. It was better off getting crushed, in my opinion.

I want you to put in a link to The Simpsons—“You’re the birthday boy or girl”—in this part.

DOR: Okay, done.

BMW: “Zeus & Hera”

The Greek gods Zeus (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Hera (Salma Hayek) retire to Palm Springs. They fit in well there. Zeus’ finger lightning is handy for charging lawn equipment and golf carts, and his neighbors appreciate him for it. But one day, Zeus can’t operate the microwave—uh-oh, his fingers are running out of electricity! Then he causes a citywide blackout as he fumbles with a light switch. So, scratch that earlier statement about his fingers running out of electricity. The problem, apparently, is that he can’t control his electricity, or it’s the incorrect voltage or something. Next, Salma Hayek gives him a new BMW, which… fills him with electricity, maybe? Thrilled by his restored ability to maintain an electricity erection, Zeus disobeys some traffic laws, on account of he is driving a BMW.

DOR: One theme running through a lot of these commercials for me is, I have to watch them more than once. When the creatives try to cram a premise and some plot into 60 seconds—a premise, a plot, and oh by the way sell the product—it seems extraordinarily hard for them. Harder than it used to be? In this BMW ad, I find Arnie and Salma Hayek amusing, charming. I actually think this is a funny premise for a movie—Arnold Schwarzenegger as Zeus the retiree. But I don’t understand what Zeus’ problem actually was. Does he have not enough electricity? Too much? He’s losing his electric mojo? Um—I don’t know what the story arc is here, despite watching it a bunch of times.

AMX: Thank God you said that, because I was utterly lost by it. We sometimes convince ourselves—and by “we,” I mean assholes in advertising—convince ourselves, “We’ll make a mini-movie! It’ll be a cinematic masterpiece!” And Ad-Bot says, “If you give me $10 million, I will create a celebrity-filled premise.”

I was with the concept until his retirement started. I believe what they wanted us to think was, Zeus is bored and miserable in his retirement. But somewhere along the line—and I don’t want to point fingers, but I guarantee you it was a client—said, “Let’s have him not be quite so miserable. We don’t want the people to be saddened by this! How about we make it just kind of miserable.”

So then, he has this beautiful life, where he’s playing golf, he’s got these awesome neighbors, he’s helping everybody out. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him? I would kill to have that retirement. And then Salma Hayek gives him this car, which I guess is supposed to fulfill his late-life crisis, but there’s not much crisis happening! It’s like, just add this car on to my awesome house and golf course, cool neighbors, coffee shops.

They couldn’t commit to the bit. Somebody along the way couldn’t commit to the bit. So it ends up being kinda, sort of, something. “Idris Elba Says Things”

Idris Elba describes the concept of a travel booking website while having a sauna and chopping some wood. At the end, he smiles and points at a family of people.

AMX: Hmm, I wonder which came first, Idris Elba or the ad? Because I can guarantee you it was the ad. They were like, “Let’s cram a whole bunch of words into an ad, and then we will make it into a Super Bowl ad by spending $4 million on an actor.”

Where the Zeus ad tried to have a plot and didn’t succeed, this one purposely didn’t have a plot. And succeeded! Idris Elba, maybe the most charming man in the world, is reduced to, like, cardboard in this. We’ve taken this unbelievable actor, this charm machine, and—congratulations, Ad-Bot, you’ve destroyed him in a mere 30 seconds.

DOR: It doesn’t even take 30 seconds. Right from the outset. You see Idris Elba. You’re not thinking “” at that point. You’re thinking, “There’s handsome and charismatic celebrity Idris Elba.” And he says, “We have never been accused of being flashy.” He uses the word “we.” And as the viewer, I’m thinking, is Idris Elba referring to himself with the royal “we”? And then you realize, oh, no, he’s just speaking as if he works for Which I find a strange writing choice, because obviously he doesn’t. It’s a clumsy start.

AMX: That probably goes back to having a script that they had written a long time ago. This is my guess. I imagine this thing was on the shelf, this script that describes exactly who they are. They probably were originally going to have some inoffensive nobody deliver the script to camera. But then—“Wait a minute, we could be in the Super Bowl! Our media guys say we could be in the Super Bowl!”

Then they’ll say, “What can we do to this script?”—which they probably already tested, and the testing results were in the green, so they’re like, “Well, we can’t touch the script, because Ad-Bot says it’s a success. So what can we do to this script to make it Super Bowl-worthy?” And Ad-Bot said, “BEEP BOOP BEEP BOOP: CELEBRITY.” So they just went down the list of people who were [available]—weren’t shooting a movie—and who score high on the celebrity likability, Q-scores. And Idris Elba was just like, “Sure, I’ve got half a day. Why not?”

Flamin’ Hot Doritos: “Push It”

A snack food enthusiast drops a couple bags of nacho chips and spicy cheese puffs on the forest floor while trying to get a good look at a bird. An ecological catastrophe ensues as chemicals in the snacks’ artificial flavoring enter the bloodstreams of the local fauna, who develop a panoply of behavioral tics and abnormalities. Hoping to contain the damage, or at least destroy the evidence, our wilderness tourist attempts to retrieve the bags that she so carelessly littered on this pristine ground. An aggressive, possibly rabid sloth makes this cleanup effort impossible. Once you open up some Flamin’ Hot Doritos, the horrors you unleash cannot be so easily stuffed back in the bag.

DOR: I included this one to represent the computer-generated-animals contingent. As for this particular example of CGI-animal advertising, I have to imagine the guys who created the Budweiser frogs will watch this one and say, “Hold on, what the hell? We did that 20-some-odd years ago.”

AMX: I was wondering if the creatives had the discussion where they’re like, “What percentage of the American populace is still alive and would remember the Budweiser frogs? Nobody under 50 will remember the Budweiser frogs, right? So, fuck it.” If they had included a Budweiser frog…

DOR: Oh! That would be a great touch.

AMX: I would have loved it. But yeah, with the talking animals, we’re back to Ad-Bot.

DOR: That’s definitely one of the five things.

AMX: Yeah. Throw in a baby, a cute animal, a celebrity—you’re pretty well golden. They put the punchcard into Ad-Bot, and it said, “Go with animals this time.”

DOR: There was a stretch of time in the 2010s where it felt like every Super Bowl commercial had to be about the fact that it was a Super Bowl commercial, winking at you as it checked off all these cliché boxes. I thought this Doritos ad was going to be one of those: “Hey, we made another talking animal commercial, can you believe it?” But nope, Doritos plays it straight. Even though this is a creative field with very little in the way of shame, I was surprised to see them go back to that old saw so earnestly.

AMX: And this is a brand that has done interesting things with Super Bowl commercials in the past. Ideas that at least could break through, that felt “loud.” The Lil Nas X cowboy one from a couple years ago, the Game of Thrones thing before that, with Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman. They felt loud, they felt cultural—it felt a little like some of the excitement that happens around the halftime show, with Doritos. They were bombastic, visually and audibly entertaining.

This year’s ad felt like, [in the manner of a glum, disappointed trombone] “wah-wah.” Had zero to do with the product, zero to do with anything, except Ad-Bot says let’s do some animals. I feel like creative had the song, and a list of animals, and they just passed it over to [digital effects studio] Weta, or Lucasfilm, or whatever. And then just went on vacation! There’s nothing here. That poor woman who’s having to act on a green screen, she deserves an Oscar, because they’re telling her, “Just imagine there’s a sloth here. And a fox.”

Pringles: “Stuck In”

A young man gets his hand stuck in a Pringles can after he tries to retrieve the last chip from the bottom. Although there is no known cure, he nonetheless overcomes this affliction to live a long and prosperous life. At his funeral, another young man—apparently having failed to learn the lesson prominently displayed in the nearby open casket—gets HIS hand stuck in ANOTHER Pringles can, and the cycle begins again.

DOR: As soon as the Doritos commercial is over, you’ve forgotten it. I won’t say the same for the Pringles spot, which, okay, I’m not turning backflips, but it is certainly the most memorable of the half-dozen ads we’ve looked at here.

AMX: Yeah. I was charmed by it. There’s an idea in advertising that, if you can nail the thing that only your product can do, and do it in a fun and appealing way, then you win. This feeling of getting your hand stuck in a Pringles can is something we’ve all experienced. They did it great—they played it kind of dark, going as far as the casket. I like it. Somebody might have accidentally kicked the cord out of Ad-Bot, because it doesn’t have the celebrity, it doesn’t have the baby, it doesn’t have the animals that you “need.” They just leaned into something that was a charming, well-executed ad.

It goes back to the beginning of our conversation. Why not just do one thought-out concept really well, make sure you have big-room laughs in it, and don’t worry about the Ad-Bot stuff. It felt less Marvel-y, less cynical. Instead, it felt more like, hey, this is something true about the product—it’s even a little bit of a negative, and they turn it into a positive. I really like it.

DOR: Yeah, that’s what I like about it. It’s one idea for 30 seconds. It’s not, “Here’s an elaborate premise! And now here’s every possible permutation of that premise! Now here’s the twist! And here’s the selling points uh-oh gotta go bye!”

It strikes me that the Olympics are on at the same time as the Super Bowl this year, in terms of contrasting the style of ads we see. The style of any Olympics ad is to create a montage of everything on earth, right? Athletes from every nation, of every color and creed, with prosthetics and without, the old, the young, animals, robots, ambition, sorrow, triumph, and finally, the Toyota logo or whatever. A lot of the Super Bowl ads this year are operating in something like that Olympic mode—more playful than the purposely bland Olympics stuff, maybe, but similarly determined to be everything to everyone with an aggressively edited montage. The Pringles ad jumped out at me as a rare example of, here’s a specific idea, we did it for 30 seconds, goodbye.

AMX: I couldn’t agree more. In everyone’s attempt to make every millisecond of their Super Bowl buy “worth it,” they end up making these overblown, bloated things that our pea brains can’t keep track of. By doing the opposite, this Pringles spot is actually more effective at using every second of the ad.


(Photo: Brandon Sloder/NFL)

The infallible DORPFASTCALC football-score prognosticator foresees a victory for the Los Angeles Rams over the Cincinnati Bengals, 33-27.

As for my personal rooting interests, it’s hard to lose this year. I’m pulling for the Rams because I want to see their quarterback Matthew Stafford, a talented player who toiled for so long on a woebegone Detroit Lions team, win a ring. But I would also like to see the Cincinnati Bengals reward the long-suffering NFL fans of Ohio with a Lombardi Trophy. So, it’s a good matchup in terms of football.

In terms of the TV show of football, I’m hoping that NBC unveils a new graphics package that I can enthusiastically dissect for you next week. There’s an “on the other hand” here, too, insofar as I think NBC’s football graphics are fine as they are, but the current visual system has been in place for a long time, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new look unveiled at the big game. In any case, I’ll be back to dissect the broadcast next week. Enjoy this one last football game before we’re plunged into the endless desert of the offseason.

Keep on long snappin'

Doink-O-Rama is a free subscription for the foreseeable future. If you want to help me out, share the column with a friend who might like it.

Reach out with your questions, observations, or doink sightings by emailing: doink at ological dot net.

Thank you for reading. Until next week: Keep on long snappin’.

Show Comments