Pepsi should have chosen a different slogan for its ads during this year’s Super Bowl.
The company’s slogan was “More than OK.” Well, not really. In fact, most of the high-priced commercials we saw between the football plays were just OK. They were so careful to avoid scandal and backlash that they felt leached of originality or bite.
That’s pretty much what Greg Lyons, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo Beverages North America, predicted when I asked him last week what this year’s spots would look like: nothing controversial.
“The Super Bowl is a time for people to enjoy themselves and enjoy the ads,” Lyons said, deftly avoiding direct mention of the elephant in this particular room — allegations that the NFL blackballed former quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his silent protests over social justice issues, leading to the hashtag #Imwithkap trending before the big game started.
Super Bowl ad time was costly — CBS charged up to $5.3 million for each 30 seconds of time — so the commercials sidestepped anything that might offend. That left viewers with a lot of spots centered on emotional tributes to first responders and soldiers; artificial intelligence and robots acting out; and awkward celebrity cameos. One example: Charlie Sheen reading a newspaper as Mr. Peanut speeds by in a car shaped like a peanut, looking up to say, “And people think I’m nuts.” Really.
Here’s my take on what worked — and so much more that didn’t — on the world’s biggest showcase for TV advertising:
Best argument for a free press: The Washington Post’s spot “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
Yeah, as a journalist and sometimes media critic, I’m a little biased. And at a time when journalists are enduring layoffs across many outlets, the price of a Super Bowl ad may seem foolish. But The Washington Post spot reminded us how journalism informs every facet of our lives, with clips of deceased reporters such as Marie Colvin and Jamal Khashoggi with the reassuring voice of Tom Hanks telling viewers that “knowing keeps us free.” Would an “enemy of the people” do that? I don’t think so.
Best mashup of two things that probably shouldn’t be mashed up: Bud Light and HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Last year, Bud Light featured a bunch of ads in a medieval setting with characters saying the catchphrase “dilly, dilly.” This year, they upped the ante by showing one of their Bud Light knights killed in a jousting contest by a character from Game of Thrones — The Mountain — before a dragon from the show sets everyone on fire. I’ll give Bud Light points for teaming up with a cool, highly anticipated TV event. But in a Super Bowl advertising environment that’s mostly about humor and sentimentality, selling your beer with a commercial that shows scores of people getting killed feels a bit, well, off brand.
Good try making the best of a bad thing: “Is Pepsi OK?”
Props to the company for not shying away from something that could be considered a serious weakness: the fact that waitstaff often ask customers “Is Pepsi OK?” when customers ask for a Coke but the restaurant serves only Pepsi products. The ad featured Steve Carell berating a waiter before rappers Cardi B and Lil Jon show up bellowing “OK” in their signature styles. Carell’s patter did feel a little like watching your dad joke about a pop music video. But at least he admits trying to cop Cardi B’s style is probably a bad idea.
Best use of celebrities: Harrison Ford, Forest Whitaker, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Mark and Scott Kelly coping with Amazon fails
Give Amazon points for making Harrison Ford’s increasingly curmudgeonly style look charming. The premise of the ad is simple: After showing off a microwave with Alexa, the commercial features celebrities trying other Alexa/Amazon products that didn’t turn out so well. It’s cute seeing Forest Whitaker struggle to hear a podcast through an Alexa-enabled toothbrush stuck in his mouth, while the stars of Broad City, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, get accidentally ejected from an Alexa-powered hot tub. But it’s Ford jousting with his dog, who keeps ordering stuff through his Alexa-outfitted dog collar, who steals the show. (I think he just might have found his partner for the next Indiana Jones movie.)
Worst use of a celebrity: Jason Bateman for Hyundai
Jason Bateman is an underappreciated talent with a skill for serving up dry humor. So it’s sad to see Hyundai stick him in a role anyone could have played: an elevator operator descending with a car-shopping couple, going past floors with awful activities such as getting a root canal or attending a vegan dinner party, until they finally land in the basement, where there’s a car dealership. Frankly, I expected him to pass a floor where people were watching this commercial, which might have rescued the whole thing.