By Steve Johnson Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune shares his five favorites from two decades of watching the ads more than the game.
It's been more than two decades that I've been reviewing Super Bowl commercials for the Chicago Tribune, I was a little surprised to realize the other day.
That's a whole lot of seeing guys getting hit in the crotch to sell snack chips. That's many minutes of women first being paraded in swimsuits and, more recently, told they have the power to change the world.
That's a lot of shiny new sedans rolling down suburban streets and past amber fields filled with shimmering waves of grain.
Don't even get me started on the endless parade of Clydesdales, Budweiser's corporate mascot but to my mind, something of a dullard in the equine world. And the dogs! Give an advertiser a big budget, a blank space in the Super Bowl telecast to fill and not a single creative thought, and inevitably it will plug those voids with a canine.
So there's been plenty to observe and to grumble about as these pure expressions of the American impulse to sell have flickered by. But which commercials have truly stood out from the mostly mundane horde.
Which have etched themselves into my memory?
These are my five favorites from two decades of watching the ads more than the game (and if the number were six, I'd have included last year's brilliant "It's a Tide ad" series):
1. Monster.com, "When I Grow Up." In 1999, Monster.com, an internet job-search site, left an indelible impression and probably inspired the following year's "Dot-Com Bowl," where internet startups seemingly blew all their VC money in one, failed shot.
The Monster spot, though, was the exception before the rule of bad web ads could be proven. In it, a succession of children deliver their vocational aspirations, deadpan, in black and white, to the camera: "When I grow up, I want to claw my way into middle management," "I want to be a yes man," "Anything for a raise, sir" and the like. It is funny and poignant and strongly suggests you should use the website if you desire something better than "Office Space"-style drudgery.
2. Volkswagen, "The Force." In 2011, VW delivered what remains the best car ad of this century. A little kid in a full Darth Vader costume tries to use the Force on household objects. He has no luck, alas, and grows despondent _ until the family VW miraculously starts up at his gesture (thanks to dad's pressing the remote from the kitchen).
This is superb, wordless storytelling that builds dramatic tension using a well-cast kid in an amusing and recognizable pop-culture scenario. The payoff completes the story and manages to showcase both the looks and an attribute (technological advancement) of the vehicle.
3. EDS, "Cat Herders" If people knew the data-management company at all, it was because 1992 independent presidential candidate Ross Perot was behind it. But that number was small and in 2000, as Internet upstarts gained fame, this long-standing firm decided to explain itself a bit.
Its agency hit on the sparkling idea of illustrating a metaphor: What EDS does is like the old saying about trying to herd cats. So they filmed a bunch of leathered cowboy types talking about how hard and rewarding it is to keep those critters together on the dusty trail. "It ain't an easy job," says one cowpoke, "but when you bring a herd into town, and you ain't lost a-one of 'em ... "
The execution is note-perfect, and, unlike so many Super Bowl commercials, the humor exists in service to an actual commercial message.
4. Chrysler, "Imported from Detroit." Another 2011 car ad jolted viewers with a patriotic message from a surprising source and inspired, for better and mostly worse, a spate of subsequent car-company "manifesto" ads.
This one, though, delivered at the perfect historical moment messages of grit and pride: It was a bold, two-minute, industrial-chic-beautiful film statement on behalf of hard-times Detroit, and it came just as U.S. carmakers were tentatively recovering from near collapse in the previous decade's economic meltdown. Damaged Detroit became a metaphor for a damaged industry and, indeed, nation.
"Now we're from America. But this isn't New York City. Or the Windy City," the narrator says. "And we're certainly no one's Emerald City." Midway through, the pulse of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" starts playing in the background. The last shot is the Detroit rapper himself walking onstage at the Fox Theatre and stirring middle America with the words, "This is the Motor City. And this is what we do."
5. Heinz, "Wiener Stampede" Would there be a condiment commercial in this compilation, you've probably been wondering? Oh, yes, there is a condiment commercial.
In 2016, ketchup giant Heinz turned Harry Nilsson's "Without You" on and delivered a deceptively simple, appealingly goofy, disarmingly elegant and strangely emotional delight. As this perfect-for-the-moment song plays, a horde of dachshunds in hot dog buns, "wiener dogs," right?, runs through a field, toward... grown humans wearing Heinz condiment costumes of the type you might put on to drum up store sales in picnic season. The ketchup people display surprise and ecstasy as they realize what is coming their way.
That the best spot of a Super Bowl could be made so simply (and so inexpensively) had to have other advertisers tearing their storyboards into little pieces. No celebrities. No massive, befuddling production that looks lifted from an action movie. Just the courage to go all-in on an offbeat high concept. For that this Chicagoan is even willing to accept the implication that ketchup on a hot dog is acceptable. It's only a shame that Heinz didn't spring to air the full, 60-second version of the ad.