Super Bowl LIV Ads

As an important cultural critic, I’d like to begin my magnum opus by declaring that there are three genres of Super Bowl ads. Over and over again, Super Bowl advertisements fall into three discrete categories. There’s some overlap in which generic tropes are used in a commercial — imagine a Venn diagram.

In the first circle, there is the All-American ad. This commercial is nostalgic for those olden days of Americana. It’s Iowa. It’s farm hands and rootin’ tootin’ cowboys. There’s a Sam Elliott voice-over, an American flag, and a pickup truck. Really, it’s America.

At their best, these commercials are about beer and trucks. The Budweiser Clydesdale commercials fall into this category. This past year, Budweiser ran a “Typical American” commercial, and really, it’s a typical American Super Bowl ad. At their worst, these commercials are political advertisements (looking at you, Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump).

The second category is the musical commercial category. These commercials feature famous musical artists or songs, or use a sick beat to sell a product. With the recent growth of hip hop, these commercials often feature artists like Beyonce, Rihanna, Missy Elliott, or Jay-Z. They’ll sing a little ditty, and the salable product will be bright and very visible.

A fine specimen of the musical commercial is Missy Elliott’s Pepsi Zero commercial this past year. It isn’t particularly interesting, but it is the perfect example of a musical commercial. They take a famous song (”Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones), make it into a ‘hip hop’ remix, and put a famous hip hop artist on it to perform. All the while, the product is made into an interesting visual element. In this scenario, a red cola can is painted black and turned into Pepsi. Frankly, it’s hard to get a musical commercial wrong. It’s simple. You just have to make sure you’re not going to pick a song from Loveless.

Finally, the last grouping is the Hollywood group. The Hollywood group uses famous actors, allusions to famous movies, or a combination of both (recognizable actors that act as allusions to their movie) to sell their product. It’s great to have fame on your side. This past year alone, there were a series of allusions to westerns, The Shining, Men in Black, Fargo, Stranger Things, and many, many more.

What makes the Hollywood commercial special, however, is the dependency on the allusion to sell the product. For example, Chris Evans in the “Smaht Pahk” commercial is what’s being used to sell cars in the ad. There was a parody of The Shining, too, where Bryan Cranston played all parts: the twins, Jack Torrance, etc. Commercials like this can even be just a choice of color palette or design of the commercial. There were an odd amount of commercials that looked like Stranger Things or similar futurist horror designs.

There are also commercials that overlap in their generic tropes. Some commercials are musical and Hollywood commercials. They use famous actors as dancers in the ad, or they have a famous actor lip-sync the song. Some commercials overlap by using famous actors who represent the core values of America—Clint Eastwood, Sam Elliott, etc. Some commercials are American through and through, so they include famous American folk and country music like “Yankee Doodle” or “America, the Beautiful” or “Old Town Road.”

Speaking of “Old Town Road”, the Doritos commercial with Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Sam Elliott epitomized the center of this venn diagram where American, Hollywood, and musical commercials overlap. It features a western generic trope reference, Sam Elliott, and a famous hip hop and pop cultural song that features a famous country artist. It even begins with an iconic reference to a western that surely everyone remembers: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That commercial is peak Super Bowl advertisement.

While breaking down the Super Bowl commercials was a fun exercise in cultural analysis, it’s really not that real. More frequently, it seems like these commercials and their related cultural items come from a singular brain of gelatinous goo filled with the musical trills and special visual effect elements that titillate our sensory receptors. Even then, it’s, like, whatever man. We like it. So like, stopping looking that deep, bro.