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Make (Super Bowl) Ads Great Again

Every year, the complaints seem to get louder.

Super Bowl ads never seem to be as good as they used to be.

It’s like the industry pundits and armchair campaign quarterbacks are shouting, “MAGA! Make ads great again!”

When were they so much better?

Snickers this year parodied Coca-Cola’s “Hilltop” ad. I thought the original might have been a Super Bowl ad, but it debuted in July 1971, months after a failed attempt at running it solely on the radio.

I thought Coke’s “Mean” Joe Greene ad, dubbed, “Hey Kid, Catch!”, was a Super Bowl ad. Wrong again — it first aired October 1979.

At least Apple’s “1984” ad was a Super Bowl spot, and it did debut in 1984; that one wasn’t a trick.

Outside of a few standouts like Apple’s, I don’t think most of us can remember many specific ads that were so much better than those that ran Sunday. Maybe we can remember that Betty White was in a commercial or two years ago, and she makes everything better. Maybe we New Yorkers have such fond memories of beating the Brady-era Patriots twice (you’re welcome, the rest of America) that the ads seem to have been more thrilling too.

Or maybe it’s like our nostalgia for America or anything else. Times seemed simpler and better and less convoluted than they do now, even if, say, tens of millions of people faced legal discrimination due to their skin color, or so many millions of people were denied the opportunity to marry their life partners. That doesn’t matter. Our hair was fuller then. We were in charge, with our waistlines not quite as large. Good times.

It’s time for a new narrative, especially this year.

It’s not that the ads stopped getting worse. There might have never been a bottoming out — at least not in any timeframe that I can recall. There have always been great ads and terrible ones, yet despite me being a card-carrying member of the ad industry (well, I do have a punchcard for Tasti-D-Lite), I can barely remember any of them.

This year, quite a few of the ads were very good.

They told stories. They plugged products. They made you remember who the brand was.

Heck, two of the top three commercials by most consensus votes, including USA Today’s Ad Meter, were car ads. Can you ever tell the difference among car ads? And yet, we had Bill Murray loving every extra day braving the elements with his Jeep, and Captain America lauding “Office” Jim on his Hyundai Sonata’s self-parking. I’d watch both on instant replay

After Google’s ad — practically summoning the widower from “Up” as he raced time to fight the onset of his own dementia — was there any doubt that this memory preservation was solely something Google Home could do? I love Alexa, but I can’t imagine her memory’s quite that good (ironically, Amazon’s spokesperson happened to be the voice of Dory, Disney’s amnesiac fish).

After Tide’s ad — I mean ads — would you really believe that any other detergent could erase a stain even it wasn’t pre-treated? Hell no. This is some kind of Procter & Gamble voodoo, and as soon as I’m done consuming my current Tide Pods (in the laundry, of course — not orally), I’m buying whatever platinum plus black card detergent that’s going to save my clothes from extinction.

I’m not going to say every ad this year was that great. Some of the parodies seemed especially weak, including a certain candy bar’s send-up of a soda brand’s iconic ad, and a certain website not being able to determine whether to go all-in with the accents with its Fargo homage. “Office” Dwight’s ad wasn’t as good as “Office” Jim’s, but at least Dwight’s made it clear that Little Caesars now delivers. I’m a New Yorker, so it was news to me that Little Caesars previously didn’t deliver. I almost ate Little Caesars once, last year at a Malaysia rest stop, but the pizza wasn’t going to be ready in the common era, so I had to grab something else.

Congrats to the thousands of people who gave it their best shot to work on these ads that air under such a brutally bright spotlight. Not everyone gets to create work that a hundred million people might see simultaneously. There are no do-overs, even if the 49ers and a few of the advertisers would love another shot. There’s always next year.

For the 49ers, especially with Jimmy Garoppolo leading the charge, there should be quite a few next years. For Assistant Coach Katie Sowers, she opened the door for generations of women and LGBT people to pursue careers that they thought might have been off-limits; kudos to Microsoft for making her name even better known.

Next year, you’ll hear tons of people say the ads keep getting worse. Challenge them on it. When were the ads that much better? What made them so much better? Betty White hasn’t been in every ad every year. And in 2020, we even got Bill Murray. Bill Murray! We also got some memorable performances by J-Lo, Shakira, and that Mahomes kid. Not bad, America.

It all made for a terrific few hours. I’ll take it.

This column was originally published in the newsletter. While I share the introductory column here, other updates such as jobs, events, and commentary on news are exclusively available to subscribers. Sign up now to make sure you receive it.

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