Viewpoints: Super Bowl LV ads, the biggest hits and misses

GM Super Bowl commercial with Will Ferrell. Image from YouTube.

Last updated on February 10th, 2021 at 11:33 am

John Maxham

“How much of 2020 is going to wind up in the 2021 Super Bowl ads?” That was the question on my mind going into the game.

Mercifully, it wasn’t all that much. Not that there weren’t important issues to talk about, there certainly were. But advertisers leaned so heavily into messaging around the pandemic and social issues this past year, was there really anything left to say?

Three hours of escapism in a year dominated by stress, upheaval and loss seemed like the right way to go. There were a few exceptions that, for me, came off as rather preachy and self-serving, but overall, the tone was light and breezy.

That said, it was just an average year for the quality of the commercials. But that’s coming off of 2020, one of the strongest years in Super Bowl advertising memory. Wow. Something redeeming to say about 2020. Who would have thought?

Here are some of the commercials that caught my attention this year. Some for the right reasons, and some because they were all kinds of wrong.


Reddit: Five seconds

We didn’t see a lot of unconventional approaches to the ads this year, but this one deserves praise. Reddit bought the shortest amount of airtime in Super Bowl history– 5 seconds. It had a very “pirate radio” feel, like they were hacking the broadcast itself. Even though it was hard to get the entire message in that short span, it got a lot of follow up online. Extremely timely given the attention around r/wallstreetbets.

GM: No Way Norway

It was refreshing to see an effort to advance a serious cause– protecting the environment– in a way that was genuinely funny, absurd and not preachy. The carbon footprint of making the commercial itself? Not so sure.

Rocket Mortgage: Certain is better

Funny. But not as funny as last year’s Super Bowl entry. Still, Rocket Mortgage succeeds again and again by making a simple point and driving it home. There’s a lesson in there for our entire industry.

Oatly: Oat Milk

This oddball spot is being simultaneously regarded as one of the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of all time. The ensuing discussion and heated online debate make it a resounding success in my book. It was written by the CEO himself and seems totally on-brand for what a quirky oat milk company would do.

Toyota: Jessica Long’s Story

While it’s hard to do comedy well, it’s really hard to do emotional ads well. This ad actually made me feel something and told a story we hadn’t heard before. Not easy in the year of COVID. Beautifully executed and powerful.


Doritos: Flat Matthew

I didn’t think anything could make me miss Matthew McConaughey’s ponderous, nonsensical Lincoln commercials. This spot managed to do it.

Jeep: The Middle 

Two American icons, Jeep and Bruce Springsteen team up for a message about common ground. No brainer, right? But Springsteen as the emissary of middle America? Donning a cowboy hat? When did we forget this guy is from New Jersey?

T-Mobile: Bad Connection 

So… having a bad network connection leads Gwen Stefani to serendipitously meet the love of her life and now husband? Please explain why I need a good network? Not sure they’ve got the whole benefit/consequences thing figured out.

Uber Eats: Wayne’s World

I wanted to like this ad, but it just seemed old and tired. This in turn caused me to feel old and tired. It also shows how a brand can throw everything and the kitchen sink into a Super Bowl spot (nostalgia, celebrity, visual effects, memes) and still come up short.

Bud Light: Legends

This just seemed like the ad industry winking at itself. Does anybody remember the Bud Light Legends? Does anybody care?

Every Single Spot You and I Can’t Remember: And there are a lot of them. This is perhaps the ultimate fail. Given the amount of money brands invest in this platform, it’s truly unforgivable.

All in all, it felt like the cultural output of a country seeking to find its legs again after an unbelievable ordeal. And while nothing truly mind-blowing came out of this year’s Super Bowl ads, there was something satisfying about just taking those first few wobbly steps, hopefully on the path to recovery.

John Maxham is the chief creative officer of Milwaukee-based Laughlin Constable

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