NewCo Shift
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NewCo Shift

Best and Worst 2018

This Year’s Super Bowl Was All About Rehab

Clearly, we’re tired of politics. Bring on the escapism, please!

Was it me, or did the Super Bowl feel … less frantic than usual this year? It was as if the collective will of capitalism — because let’s face it, that’s pretty much what the Super Bowl has become — had decided to ignore the anxiety of our political climate, and instead focus on the essence of entertainment: Humor, shared values, and advertising for advertising’s sake. The point is to sell stuff, after all. And given we’ve all been addicted to a potent and poisonous political drug for the past year, it seems we’re all in the mood for some serious group rehab. The ads didn’t disappoint. (The game was damn good too, and that certainly helped immensely.)

Another major theme was corporations touting their essential goodness — Bud sending water to disaster zones, Hyundai saving kids from cancer — but these well intentioned approaches failed to truly land their punches (more on that in a second). I watched the entire five or so hours — it was strange to release my thumb from hovering over the fast forward function on my DVR remote. And while plenty of the ads elicited eye rolls, very few were out and out duds. Here are some of my picks.

Overall winners: Amazon and Tide

The Tech Rehabilitation Award goes to Jeff Bezos, who looked like he knew how to act. That perhaps should spook all of us, come to think of it. I can’t imagine Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg slipping so gracefully into a cameo for Google or Facebook, can you? But Amazon’s Alexa ads managed to deftly humanize the concept of an all knowing piece of technology that monitors our every move inside our home. And Bezos’ decision to play a central part in the campaign humanized his role in our lives as well — a canny calculation given Amazon’s building narrative as a 900-pound gorilla upending industry after industry on its way to dominating every sector of the economy.

The Multi-brand Rehabilitation Award goes to P&G, which had a massive problem on its hands with the Idiots Eating Tide Pods meme. Instead of steering directly into the problem, P&G focused on the core promise of laundry detergent: It cleans your clothes. It then took that to an extreme, deftly playing off our shared grammar of typical Super Bowl spots (the beer ad, the deodorant ad, etc) to subvert all Super Bowl advertising as possibly Tide ads, because, well, all the people in the ads have really clean clothes, no? Tide is one of P&G’s largest and most important brands, and my guess is there’ll be a lot of high fiving going around P&G headquarters this week. It was a huge gamble, likely costing close to $100 million all in (half of which paid for four different spots). But if we learned anything from this Super Bowl, it’s that when a gamble pays off, it can pay off big (that’s a reference to this play, in case you missed the actual game).

Category Winners: NFL, Doritos, and Australia

The League Rehabilitation Award goes to the NFL, which honestly has a lot more work to do, but its Eli Manning/Odell Beckham Jr. spot continued a trend of humorous, surprisingly effective meme mixing: Two well known NFL stars turning a Dirty Dancing reference into a touchdown celebration routine. Sure, the NFL faces an existential crisis called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), but this year was not the year to deal with it. We have much larger existential crises on our hands, after all. Let’s watch Eli lift Odell up, shall we? I’m in.

Speaking of meme mixing, the Damn Can Dinklage Really Rap Like That? Award goes to Doritos/Mountain Dew, which dropped a culturally resonant rap battle between Dinklage and Morgan Freeman (Dinklage won by a landslide). Sure, Pepsico, which owns both brands, is existentially threatened by the fact that its products are the standard bearers for a massive sugar and processed food-based health crisis across the developed world, but, well, just like the NFL, we’re tired of being told how bad everything is for us. Because, you know, North Korea. Or Trump.

And continuing the theme, the Knowing Head Fake Award goes to Tourism Australia, which traded off yet another old meme — Crocodile Dundee — to promote an entire continent. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sequel actually does get made now.

And the losers…

Even the ads that forced pained eye rolls kept to the winners’ themes — nostalgia for simpler times and less corrosive memes, for example, or the positive role of corporations in our society. Here are a few ads that didn’t quite hit their marks:

The Aging Rock Star Can’t Turn Back The Clock Award goes to Kia, which employed a lizard-faced Steven Tyler slamming his Kia into reverse so he can relive a simpler time when he was a fresh-faced rock god and groupies (yes, all beautiful women) threw themselves at his feet. The whole thing felt depressing, but perhaps that’s my age speaking.

The Well Intentioned Idea That Fell Flat award goes to Hyundai, which highlighted its CSR efforts around childhood cancer with a spot shot in real time right before the game. The ad ended up scratching heads rather than pulling heart strings, unfortunately, because at the core of Hyundai’s message is an important idea: Companies need to be about more than selling stuff. That theme was evident in many of the spots (Toyota, Dodge, Budweiser) but most of those efforts fell flat.

The WTF Is That About Award goes to Diet Coke, which featured a painfully skinny woman dancing a gulp of Mango soda down her throat while spouting non sequiturs. I watched this with the three women in my life — two daughters and my wife — and they all cringed. Read the comments on the YouTube page…yikes. Maybe that was what they were going for? I have no idea.

No matter what, for the first time in many years, I found the Super Bowl a welcome relief from the corrosive national dialog dominating our daily lives. Perhaps by next year, we won’t need this kind of a break, and we’ll be back to fart jokes and celebrity pratfalls. We can only hope.

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John Battelle

A Founder of The Recount, NewCo, Federated Media, sovrn Holdings, Web 2 Summit, Wired, Industry Standard; writer on Media, Technology, Culture, Business