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Super Bowl commercials, from Adam Driver(s) to M&M candies; the hits and the misses

Squarespace's<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIf27sHt2QA"> "The Singularity"</a> ad featured many (many) Adam Drivers.
Squarespace's"The Singularity" ad featured many (many) Adam Drivers.

Hefty as the fees were for advertising time on this year's Super Bowl — up to $7 million per 30 seconds — there weren't that many commercials whose concepts and execution seemed worthy of the price tag.

Instead, viewers were stuck watching commercials that stranded some big name celebrities in thoughtless concepts (Jon Hamm and Brie Larson inside a giant refrigerator for Hellmann's mayonnaise?) or spots which made the products they were advertising look bad (Jennifer Coolidge getting her face stuck to a glass door by e.l.f. Cosmetics).

And, after cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase made waves with a QR code embedded in a Super Bowl ad in 2022, it felt like every other advertiser this year found a way to stick them inside their commercials.

Ironically, this year saw almost no crypto ads — perhaps the only good outcome from the spectacular collapse of FTX (seems their Super Bowl ad last year with Larry David expressing a comical level of skepticism about the company was right after all). We also saw lots of nostalgia and more partnerships, including Netflix passing up ads of its own to partner with GM and Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra.

Another trend also stuck out: a rise in ads for products normally considered adult vices, including liquor (via the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl for Crown Royal), sports betting and a wider variety of beers (since Anheuser-Busch gave up its exclusivity, allowing Molson-Coors to come play).

Here's a sampling of what worked — and didn't — in the most expensive advertising showcase on American television.

Best culture war head fake: M&M's "They're Back for Good"

M&M's cultivated a controversy announcing they would pause use of their animated "spokescandies" — pundits like Tucker Carlson had criticized changes in the characters as being too "woke." New pitchwoman Maya Rudolph was selected to take over, but her ad during the game changed the name of the candies and put clams in the center of every pellet. After the game, M&M's aired their spot with the punchline: The candies were coming back for good, with the purple M&M, which Carlson had specifically criticized, saying, "I'm glad to be back, because this is what I was made for." Well played, candies.

Best "I'm not crying, you're crying" ad: The Farmer's Dog's "Forever"

The company, which specializes in fresh dog food, didn't create the Super Bowl's most moving ad by hiring a famous pitchperson or filling their spot with fancy effects. They traced the story of a woman who promised to love her dog forever, starting when she was a little girl and the dog was a puppy and ending when the owner has a baby of her own and her trusty pet is still there — but with a little gray in his coat. Viewers on social media said the ad brought them to tears. (I just got a speck of dirt in my eye while watching it. Honest.) The buzz proved that strong storytelling and a cute puppy trumps most other advertising gimmicks come Super Bowl time.

Best team up: GM and Netflix's "Why Not an EV?"

There may be no surer sign of tightening belts in showbusiness than Netflix teaming with GM to share the cost of a Super Bowl ad. But this one's a winner, with Saturday Night Live alum Will Ferrell inserted into Netflix shows like Squid Game and Army of the Dead, promising that the streamer will feature more electric vehicles in their shows (okay, probably not a period piece like Bridgerton, though seeing Ferrell trying to pronounce "shan't" in a frilly shirt and fancy coat was still kind of funny.)

Best use of nostalgia, Part I: PopCorners' "Breaking Good"

It may be a little odd to call an ad centered on characters from a show that ended barely 10 years ago "nostalgic." Still, this hoary TV fan couldn't help feeling a thrill, watching Bryan Cranston's Walter White, Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman and Raymond Cruz's Tuco Salamanca revive the spirit of Breaking Bad while pretending air popped crisps are some kind of controlled substance. And it's a pleasure to see a Super Bowl ad used to remind viewers of one of the best TV series ever to hit the small screen.

Best ad that probably came from a hallucinogenic experience: Squarespace's "The Singularity"

Having Adam Driver in your Super Bowl ad is cool. So I don't blame Squarespace for deciding even more Drivers would be even cooler. But the ad that resulted, featuring multiple copies of the actor standing in a desert field muttering about the wonder of a "website that makes websites" before getting sucked into a giant glowing ball called The Singularity....? It's an ad that tells you almost nothing about the product, with a storyline that looks like it was hatched during a peyote bender. (I liked the "teaser" ad featuring multiple Drivers hanging out backstage much better.)

Best use of a superhero catchphrase: Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Flash"

This film has been plagued with problems, including the public meltdown of star Ezra Miller. But the Super Bowl ad for The Flash is so packed with compelling revelations — from the return of Zod to a new Supergirl — that it seems more understandable why Warner Bros. is committed to getting this movie in theaters. And after I saw Michael Keaton utter the words he first made famous back in 1989 — "I'm Batman" — I decided they can have all my money.

Best use of nostalgia, Part II: Michelob Ultra's "New Members Day"

If someone had told me Michelob was planning a homage to Caddyshack with Serena Williams as Chevy Chase's character, Brian Cox as Ted Knight's character and Tony Romo doing a passable Bill Murray impression, I would have told them to save their $7 million. And I would have been wrong. Because somehow this ad — with an added cameo from original co-star Michael O'Keefe — references just enough of Caddyshack's absurdly fun spirit to be entertaining, while stacking the cast with faces the Netflix generation might actually know.

Weirdest use of a Travolta: T-Mobile's "New Year, New Neighbor"

Much as I love me some John Travolta, the bald, bearded guy who keeps making uncomfortable appearances in Super Bowl ads — he did the Grease dance with grown daughter Ella in a spot two years ago — is not my favorite. This year, he recreated the classic number from Grease, "Summer Nights," with Scrubs co-stars Zach Braff and Donald Faison. Viewers got a multi-generational shot of nostalgia and celebrity, but it mostly just reminded me of how strange Travolta seems these days.

Worst use of nostalgia (tie): Rakuten's "Not-so-Clueless" and Uber One's "One Hit for Uber One"

Points to Rakuten for realizing Alicia Silverstone could easily slip right back into the red beret of her Clueless character, Cher. But those points fade once you realize they don't have much of idea what to do with her, once she's used Rakuten to rack up purchases at a few big retailers. As if...that would fly in a Super Bowl ad.

Uber One suffers from the same problem; snagging a cool celebrity — in this case, Sean "P.Diddy" Combs — and then trapping that Big Name in a terribly unfunny commercial. In this case, Diddy is asked to write one hit for Uber One, so he turns to a bunch of artists considered one hit wonders for terrible, Uber-centric versions of their old hits. Unfortunately, I don't think most viewers are going to recognize the current look of artists like Montell Jordan — and the cheesy jingle they make out of Haddaway's dance classic "What Is Love" just makes Diddy look like the derivative hack his critics have always said he was.

Ad where the teasers were better than the commercial: Pepsi's "Great Acting or Great Taste?"

This is another problem which often crops up in Super Bowl ads; in this case, the "teaser" spots — short blips of content, usually dropped early to preview the Big Game ad — are more entertaining than the actual commercial. Steve Martin and Ben Stiller are the stars here, and the teaser featuring them bickering over who is the better actor is way funnier than Martin's spot, where he's in various locations daring the audience to guess if he's acting. Stiller's Super Bowl spot is more entertaining, in part because he calls back to his Derek Zoolander character — more nostalgia! — and he's in funnier situations overall.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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