What They Want Us to Believe: Our Takes on the Most Noteworthy Super Bowl Commercials

What They Want Us to Believe: Our Takes on the Most Noteworthy Super Bowl Commercials February 4, 2014

Every year, we watch the Super Bowl for the football, talking through the whole thing, yelling at the television, marveling audibly at the half-time spectacle, and then shushing one another to a hushed silence during the commercials. It’s a time that, for better or worse, both reflects and influences the attitude and mood of the general public. It takes our culture’s temperature, and it writes a prescription for what ails us. Here, have some Taco Bell and call us in the morning. Drive this car and then see how you feel. Hmm, you look pale. You need some Axe Body Spray.

None of these commercials are telling the whole truth, but some of them are telling some truth. Others are just outright lies. We thought we’d sort through the nonsense and get down to reality.


AXE PEACE Body Spray: “Make Love, Not War”
// review by Martyn Jones

I’m all for a good surprise, and this ad surprised me.

The commercial runs thusly: We see images of war and the machines of war—helicopters, tanks, a nuclear device, a military parade—and the men who seem to be calling the shots. Apocalypse seems imminent, like, in triplicate. A woman steps into a war-torn street and a tank levels its barrel at her. She stands in defiance (calling to mind another such famous tank stare-down), and wow, do things seem bleak until the hatch pops open and hey, it turns out that guy was just returning home for a smooch from his girlfriend! Other scenes in the montage resolve with similar up-endings of our expectations. Make love, not war. Wear Axe. Eat your vegetables.

More surprising than the (structurally sorta predictable) reversal in the commercial is the about-face of the company itself. Axe‘s ads are notorious for pandering to wildly hormonal 13 year old boys—or the idea of one, anyway. Men in these earlier ads mist themselves with magical pheromones and woman fall over themselves (and fight each other) to rip off the men’s clothes. It’s the television commercial version of a guy who makes a misogynistic joke and laughs with an affected hillbilly backwardness, as though he can excuse himself for the offensiveness of his joke by making a show of his self-awareness.

The fantasy of the war ad moves away from the recalcitrant idiot territory of the early commercials and into the domain of sickly sweet romance. Lust gives way to love and this will save the world, because a powerful man has never launched a thousand ships in pursuit of his beloved or anything. So while there are definitely still problems with the ad—let’s also not miss the move from man-as-irresistible-sex-dynamo to man-as-woman’s-protector/keeper/warrior—I have to say, baby steps are always worth encouraging.


Chrysler 200: Featuring Bob Dylan
// review by Jewel Evans

Since I didn’t have a dog in the fight on Sunday night, I was only partly committed to watching the game. I was chatting with a friend when I faintly heard Dylan’s tune “Things Have Changed” and his well-known (to me) voice saying, “Is there anything more American than America?” I perked up and started watching; I had already seen the Chobani commerical using his ’66 hit “I Want You,” but this commercial was new to me. The commercial was for the Chrysler 200, and a push to buy what they’re selling: the car. And yet, Dylan’s not just advertising the car—he’s going to bat for a downtrodden U.S. city. So much of what we enjoy in this country (beer, watches, and phones) aren’t even made within our borders. So, Dylan essentially says, let Chrysler, let America, let Detroit, build your car. The legacy, the conviction, the drive that Chrysler started with in the car industry is still happening in the struggling city. Why did Chrysler pick Dylan? It makes sense that an artist who also embodies legacy, conviction, and drive in his craft would be the face and voice of their commercial. Sometimes we need someone else to go to bat for us, don’t we?


Coca-Cola: “It’s Beautiful”
// review by Tyler Glodjo

“#AmericaIsBeautiful if you belong here.” So goes the conservative siren-call and surprising backlash against Coca-Cola‘s Super Bowl ad “It’s Beautiful” that aired Sunday night. The advertisement features the much-beloved anthem “America the Beautiful” sung in seven different languages, and according to the soft drink company, its purpose was to showcase our country’s “incredible diversity.” But rather than unify, the ad has divided. Fox News’ Todd Starnes branded Coke as the official soft drink of “illegals crossing the border”; others accused Coke of defacing an “AMERICAN song in a terrorist’s language”; and a number of other disgruntled folks took to Twitter, trending the hashtag #f*ckcoke to express their anger.

That an advertisement for a soft drink could spark such a firestorm over immigration, national security, and patriotism is a shame. Such reaction only exposes how deeply divided and partisan we remain as a country. As a Christian, however, I choose to view this commercial through a different narrative than the conservative political one held by those outraged. I choose to see it through the lens of a gospel story in which the Creator of all peoples and tongues comes down to earth to rescue us broken and divided people. When I hear languages not my own, my heart rejoices because it’s a taste of the kingdom to come. Instead of enraging my identity as an English-speaking American, Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” stirred my identity in Christ. It prompted me to anticipate the coming day when believers from all peoples, languages, and nations will gather together, not to sing the praises of a country or a product, but to declare in unison, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”


Radio Shack: “The Phone Call”
// review by Geoffrey Reiter

In 2009, Domino’s Pizza began their rather brilliant campaign to acknowledge publicly what everyone already knew—their pizza just wasn’t that good. By simply admitting the truth and pledging to improve, the chain saw a dramatic increase in sales following this strategy. In this year’s Super Bowl commercial “The Phone Call,” Radio Shack attempts a similar task, albeit in delightfully comic fashion, as one outlet is ransacked by ’80s icons who want their store back.

It is a canny marketing gimmick, and it remains to be seen whether a tech company can reinvent itself as successfully as the pizza chain did. But I will never discourage any individual or corporate entity from the virtue of self-reflection. Advertising or no, at the core of “The Phone Call” lies a recognition of a company’s shortcomings, and such self-mortification is as Christian as it is pragmatic. Americans love to complain about others’ lack of forthrightness, but we are slow to point the finger at ourselves. Radio Shack’s ad reminds us that sometimes we need look no further than ourselves to discover where our faults lie, and only then can we proceed in sanctification. And this spot has ALF—if nothing else, there’s always that.


Squarespace: “A Better Web Awaits”
// review by Erin Straza

Freaky was the first word that came to mind while viewing the Squarespace ad titled “A Better Web Awaits.” The spot features everything that is terrible about the Internet alive and closing fast upon the ad’s hero, who needs a Web site.

The emotional appeal is fear—fear that you and your site will find itself in the middle of the Internet freak show. Although the natural instinct may be to run and hide to keep your distance, Squarespace offers its designs as a solution. You now have hope for a site that won’t be a circus-like mess; Squarespace designs allow you to enter the fray with courage. The voiceover message is strong: “We can’t change what the Web has become, but we can change what it will be.”

That’s when it hit me: This is a message Christians need to hear about engaging in culture. Although fear may tempt us to run and hide from the crazy to keep our distance, there is another option. Like Squarespace, we have something beautiful to offer. I agree with Squarespace: A better Web starts with us. We can send out the light and life of Jesus to the ends of the Internet’s darkest corners. When we are Internet-present, we can change what it will be because of who goes with us.


Wonderful Pistachios: Featuring Stephen Colbert
// review by Marybeth Davis Baggett

With his first Super Bowl commercial, Stephen Colbert proves once again to be one of the most watchable people in America. The two-part ad for Wonderful Pistachios capitalizes on Colbert’s command of parody, his childlike celebration of life, his generous spirit, and, of course, his inimitable eyebrow raise.

Behind a large desk, ensconced in a formal office, with an eagle in matching outfit perched at his side, Colbert invites viewers to laugh at our world’s incongruities: a spokesman who must do more than affirm a product’s quality, a fast-paced media that runs roughshod over reason, the equivocating language of consumer capitalism, and a spectacle masquerading as branding.

Part 1 is understated, with clear tension between Colbert’s deadpan delivery and knowing smirk. Nods to good natured silliness are apparent, as in Colbert’s congratulating the eagle on his performance. Part 2 ups the absurdity, but joyously so. Wonderful Pistachios branding lights up every surface while the entertainer comically panders to the market’s demands. The scene culminates in Colbert’s most charming moment: reducing his skull to a shell complete with miniature pistachio-Colbert inside. Colbert’s generosity delights as he graciously submits to an apparent indignity for his audience’s amusement.

Ultimately, Colbert’s ad is revelry at its best—warm, humble, communal. In a word: wonderful.

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