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The best (and worst) Super Bowl commercials: Lizzo, cranky Zeus and more

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Salma Hayek play the Greek gods Zeus and Hera in a Super Bowl ad for BMW.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Salma Hayek play the Greek gods Zeus and Hera in a Super Bowl ad for BMW.

As the country's biggest celebration rolls out on TV's most-watched platform, this year's Super Bowl had to overcome an awful lot of bitter realities to focus on entertaining America.

There are recent allegations that the NFL has shortchanged Black candidates for head coaching jobs. Ongoing concerns about the long-term effects of head trauma on football players. And the general, disruptive state of the pandemic amid worries about inflation.

What's obvious when looking at the commercials that ran during the Big Game: Most advertisers decided to punt on just about all this, using celebrity, humor, special effects and nostalgia to rush past the issues as if they didn't exist.

That may be a little disappointing — but not surprising — given that NBC racked up a high of more than $6.5 million for 30 seconds of advertising time. Sports betting, cryptocurrency exchanges, new electric car models and travel sites made big new appearances; with companies spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per second, it's a small surprise there's no ads with downer elements like facemasks or pandemic talk.

The result was a batch of mostly-middling commercials that didn't really feel tethered to much. They didn't offer unbridled partying or celebration, but weren't often serious or poignant enough to speak to the modern moment, either.

Strategies for releasing ads also differed. Sam's Club posted its ad online with Kevin Hart back in January; E-Trade saved the reveal of its ad's special guest star for Super Bowl Sunday — yes, it was the financial advice-spewing E-trade baby — and Miller Lite stuck a virtual, Super Bowl "adjacent" commercial inside an area of the metaverse for online consumers.

There's not enough space to take apart all the notable Super Bowl ads — Jim Carrey reprising The Cable Guyfor Verizon and Mike Myers playing Dr. Evil in an electric car for GM were great spots that didn't make my list.

But here's a sample of the hippest, most entertaining, most telling ads of the Big Game.

Best use of a celebrity power couple: Amazon Alexa's "Mind Reader"

Jost and Johansson may sound like a Swedish law firm. But they're also a puzzlement for some fans who can't help but wonder what superstar actress Scarlett Johansson and Saturday Night Live star Colin Jost's marriage must be like behind closed doors. So props to the couple for scoring a Super Bowl-sized platform to joke about what it would be like if their Alexa digital assistant could read their minds (for example, Alexa, ever the tattletale, reminds Jost to fake his own death on the debut date of a horrible stage project Johansson is rehearsing around their house). Funny and full of fan service, this spot works well, even if it does commit one of my pet peeves about some Super Bowl ads; making the product they're advertising look not that great to buy.

The "C'mon Guys" award for straining credulity: Sam's Club's VIP with Kevin Hart

Sure, it's funny to see Hart cluelessly asserting that Sam's Club's new Scan & Go app was developed just for a VIP like him. But it's tough to imagine a VIP like Hart spending any time shopping inside a Sam's Club – even if he thinks the patio display at the center of the store is a lounge area made just for him.

Best rehabilitation of a celebrity's image: Planet Fitness' "What's Gotten Into Lindsay?"

For someone who has watched Lindsay Lohan struggle with fame over many years, it was kind of cool to see her starring in an ad – narrated by William Shatner, no less – featuring Lohan living a healthy life. She's making paparazzi cry by sleeping in instead of partying late, outscoring Dennis Rodman on Jeopardy questions about his own life and bejeweling an ankle bracelet for Danny Trejo while her life is narrated by Captain Kirk. Great message for the benefits of exercise and personal change.

Most horrifying ad that isn't meant to be: Pringles' "Stuck In"

We've all had that moment where your hand gets stuck in the Pringles can and you wonder if you can ever get it off. But this ad, featuring a guy who leaves the can on his right hand through dating, marriage, the birth of his child and death, feels more like a snack-centered Twilight Zone episode. Especially when it ends with another young man getting another can stuck on his hand at the first guy's funeral. I half expected a voice over from the Crypt Keeper. Ugh.

Best use of a celebrity, Part 1: BMW USA's "Zeus & Hera"

The only thing better than Arnold Schwarzenegger as a retired Zeus in a midlife crisis — bummed that everyone is asking him to charge their portable hedge clippers and golf carts — is Salma Hayek as his foxy wife, who knows a cool new car will recharge his batteries. Having them sing along to Eddy Grant's Electric Avenue while they tool down the road in their new all electric BMW was a bit much. But it was also a stylish way to pitch a cool new electric car to the demographic most likely to buy it.

Best nod to Black folks: Google's "Lizzo in Real Tone"

This ad aired not long after the most Black-centered Super Bowl halftime show in history — a deft move which made its message of inclusion even more powerful. As the commercial notes, Black folks have often struggled with cameras and photography technology aligned to work better with white faces, making it tougher to capture dark skin. Google's Real Tone software, included on its Pixel 6 phones, promises to capture Black skin tones better. As Lizzo sings a poignant new song ("If you love me, you love all of me / Or none of me at all,") the commercial's final line of text says, "everyone deserves to be seen as they truly are." A really touching ad that stands out in a sea of performative, less than relevant nods to diversity.

Best low key shade without talking specifics: Salesforce's "The New Frontier" and Planters' "Feed the Debate"

I am all here for commercials offering low-key shade to others without naming them outright. Which is why I liked Salesforce's ad, featuring Matthew McConaughey in a hot air balloon sticking it to Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk by telling viewers, "while the others look to the metaverse and Mars, lets stay here and restore ours...Cause the new frontier? It ain't rocket science. It's right here." It's also a commentary shading public support of rich technocrats' space ambitions — which also warms my heart coming from a company that can afford millions to air a Super Bowl commercial.

Planters' ad centers on an argument between Ken Jeong and Joel McHale, former co-stars on the NBC sitcom Community, clashing over the best way to eat mixed nuts. When they take their argument to social media, it sparks worldwide rioting. "Who knew America would tear itself apart over a relatively minor difference of opinion?" cracks McHale, conjuring images of crazy school board meetings and pandemic protest blockades without directly referencing anything. Well played, sir.

Best nod to classic quality TV that still might not work: Chevrolet's "New Generation"

I just finished a rewatch of HBO's mob drama hit The Sopranos, so it was a kick to see co-star Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played daughter Meadow Soprano, driving around one of Chevrolet's all-electric Silverado trucks until she met up with the guy who played her brother A.J., Robert Iler. (Guess they didn't get whacked in the finale after all?) But this feels like an odd generational play; consumers old enough to know who they are – and buy the trucks – aren't part of the "new generation." Consumers young enough to be part of the new generation might not know who these actors are. Unless they read a piece like this, I guess.

Worst commercial that insults its own product: Cutwater Spirit's "Here to the Lazy Ones"

As I noted earlier, my biggest pet peeve is commercials that insult the product — or its customers — for the sake of a clever idea. This ad lionizes folks who cut corners like using lawn sprinklers to wash their car or grab icicles off their house to cool a drink rather than use ice from a cooler. The visuals are funny, but I'm not sure it makes sense to compare knuckleheads like this to customers for the product, which promises bar-quality cocktails in a can.

Best use of a celebrity, Part II: Nissan's "Thrill Driver"

Yeah, it's kinda goofy Nissan thinks we should find it awesome that driving the Nissan Z sportscar would turn Eugene Levy from an exemplar of urbane cool into an action star with hair like a graying Fabio. But it was kinda fun to see him blow by Catherine O'Hara, drive off a roof Fast and Furious-style and open the passenger door for a tumbling Dave Bautista in midair. Nissan definitely crafted a commercial cooler than the car it's selling, which may be the greatest Super Bowl TV triumph of all.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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