Every year, two football teams claw their way to the top of the NFL to tear each other to pieces on live television for our viewing pleasure. And every year, millions of Americans watch the game less for the actual football than because they want to see the commercials everyone will be talking about the next day.
Sometimes these exorbitantly expensive ads do little more than bombard us with celebrity cameos and anthropomorphized animals. But sometimes they’re more ambitious than that, and serve to capture a certain mood that exists within the country at large — see Apple mimicking George Orwell’s 1984 to sell cutting-edge software, or Budweiser targeting vulnerable heartstrings with Clydesdales kneeling at ground zero, or Army veterans returning home to drink Bud with their friends and family.
Many of Super Bowl 51’s commercials fell squarely into the latter camp. In fact, there were several ads that — despite undoubtedly being conceived and filmed months in advance — dripped with winking, even pointed subtext regarding the current US political climate.
So let’s take a look at this year’s game through the eyes of its commercials. Because it’s the Super Bowl and competition is the order of the day, we’ll be breaking things down by crowning some winners and pitying some losers.
Winner: patriotism through diversity
Before the game started, Hamilton’s Schuyler sisters — Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Phillipa Soo — sang “America the Beautiful” and slipped in the word “sisterhood” right after “brotherhood” to resounding cheers.
At the time, this inclusive addition seemed like a pleasant surprise. But the commercials that aired throughout the game’s first quarter soon proved that an emphasis on #diversity and America needing to embrace people from all different backgrounds would be a theme of the evening.
Google showed people driving past rainbow pride flags, walking into their homes past hanging mezuzas, and making dinner with a photogenic group of multiethnic friends that would make any network sitcom proud.
Budweiser shared the story of Adolphus Busch, the German immigrant who made a harrowing journey to the United States to eventually co-found the Anheuser-Busch brewing company.
A Michelin commercial showed a diverse array of people just living their lives while inspirational music swelled in the background, then cut to a speeding car, because America is a diverse country and diverse people need tires, or something.
But perhaps the most blatantly political commercial to air during Super Bowl 51 came courtesy of Airbnb.
In captions that played over footage of several — say it with us — multiethnic faces, the company revealed a mission statement: “No matter who you are, where you're from, who you love, who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” Even outside of the words themselves, this commercial felt like a particularly pointed one, given that the company recently came out against President Trump’s refugee ban, insisting that it would pay for refugee housing if need be.
Even if making veiled statements about Trump’s recent crackdown on immigration wasn’t the original intention, the sheer number of ads preaching the importance of loving thy neighbor as thyself — even if thy neighbor looks nothing like thyself — made for a powerful statement nonetheless.
Loser: Donald Trump (and the timing of his presidential win)
Around the middle of the first ad break, one idea began circulating on social media, came up in staff chatter at Vox, and set up near-permanent shop in many people’s brains: Were this year’s Super Bowl ads subtweeting Donald Trump?
It’s easy to see why anyone might think so. A significant number of the commercials that aired throughout the game hit the “patriotism through diversity” theme outlined above. But even ads that didn’t hit that beat overtly featured occasional moments that felt like snipes at the president. Multiple ads dealt with the immigrant experience in the US. And in one otherwise anodyne ad for Mobile Strike, well, there was Trump enemy Arnold Schwarzenegger!
But it would be shortsighted to make a huge a deal about this. Super Bowl ads are typically conceived months and months before the actual game, and the production of many (if not most) of this year’s commercials likely began before the election. You could make a great argument that Super Bowl 51’s ads are one of the last reminders we’ll have that essentially everybody paid to predict the 2016 election thought Hillary Clinton was going to win it.
However, even that’s taking things too far. Schwarzenegger has been the spokesperson for Mobile Strike for a while. And diversity has been a big theme in Super Bowl ads for several years now. Yes, Coke’s “America the Beautiful” ad angered some on social media, but remember that it was already angering people back when it debuted. This isn’t a sudden advertiser invention; it’s an ongoing trend.
If you’re a massive corporation, saying, “We like diversity,” in an America that’s only growing more diverse is a relatively noncontroversial stand to take in order to keep making money. You might even get some nice free coverage in the bargain, from websites pointing out yahoos who take issue with the idea of embracing a more diverse America.
Super Bowl 51’s ad roster wasn’t a series of snide, sarcastic jabs at Trump. It was, instead, a continuing reminder that there are a lot of people outside of Trump’s core fan base who have money to spend on carbonated beverages, tires, and cellphone games too.
(Okay, one ad was a definite Trump subtweet. A commercial for something called “It’s a 10 Haircare” began with the dialogue, “America, we’re in for at least four years of awful hair.” Touché, It’s a 10 Haircare.)
Winner: Bai (Bai Bai)
Celebrity cameos are a Super Bowl commercial staple, so much so that using them in an original way has become something of a competitive sport. But despite Honda tapping a cabal of celebrities from Tina Fey to Viola Davis to voice animated versions of their own unflattering high school yearbook photos and T Mobile making Justin Bieber dance around as the Six Flags man, Super Bowl 51 was fairly low on obviously high-wattage commercials packing celebrities into every corner of a splashy set just to show them off.
So maybe it’s fitting that the ultimate winner of this year’s celebrity ad sweepstakes was a stark commercial from the antioxidant beverage company Bai, which enlisted Christopher Walken to recite NSYNC lyrics with his silken voice while Justin Timberlake blinked at him.
Did what happened in the ad have anything to do with the actual product itself? Nah. But does that matter when you have Christopher Walken reciting NSYNC lyrics? Double nah.
Winner/Loser: 84 Lumber
Some of the Super Bowl’s most intense behind-the-scenes drama started — as all good drama does — far before the event itself kicked off. The building supply company 84 Lumber wanted to air a poignant, weighty commercial depicting a Mexican mother and daughter making their way through the desert toward the United States, only to be stopped by a giant border wall. But instead of turning away, they find a door and walk through the wall, as text appears onscreen: “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”
That’s about as sharp a jab at Trump’s campaign promise (and ensuing executive order) to build a wall on the US–Mexican border as a commercial’s gonna get — but according to the ad agency behind the spot, Fox rejected the ad for being too overtly political.
So instead of airing the full 90-second ad before halftime as planned, 84 Lumber aired a shorter version that essentially ended with “to be continued” and directed people to the company’s website to see the full conclusion. While the ad went up immediately on YouTube, 84 Lumber’s website at first buckled under the strain of curious millions trying to check it out. (A shame, given that the entire point of the commercial throwing to the website was to have people check out the website.)
Still: The ad now lives in full on the internet. And it’s already resulted in plenty of confusion over 84 Lumber’s stance on immigration, as well as some blowback for the company. However, 84 Lumber — which identifies itself as a “2nd generation, woman-owned company” — isn’t backing down on its political stance.
According to AdWeek, the company’s president, Maggie Hardy Magerko, voted for Trump, and the ad’s image of the door in the wall comes directly from Trump himself. She also stated to the Wall Street Journal that the commercial is about opportunity, implying that the “door” represents legal immigration:
“Even President Trump has said there should be a ‘big beautiful door in the wall so that people can come into this country legally.’ It’s not about the wall. It’s about the door in the wall. If people are willing to work hard and make this country better, that door should be open to them.”
It was, and is, a powerful message, even if not everyone who was initially curious about the commercial will ultimately see the end of it.
Winner: Sprint’s morbid reminder of our waning mortality
This commercial, in and of itself, is no great masterpiece. For one thing, as part of Sprint’s ongoing ad campaign utilizing Verizon’s former “Can you hear me now?” guy, it’s actually somewhat easy to mistake it for a Verizon ad instead of a Sprint one.
But boy, oh boy, does the random actor in this ad deliver the line, “Well, kids: Daddy’s dead!” — which he utters as he and his kids attempt to fake his death to get out of his contract with Verizon — with cheery panache. The performance of the night, as far as we’re concerned.
Loser: Sexy Mr. Clean is just creepy Mr. Clean
Setting aside the fact that sharing housework shouldn’t have anything to do with outdated gender breakdowns ... honestly, what even is this?
Corrected to reflect that Justin Bieber starred in an ad for T Mobile, not AT&T.