The Obligatory Super Hole XVI
It was a weird year, in my opinion. Usually, there are a few really good spots, a few truly terrible pieces, and a vast swath of almost-but-not-quite-there commercials. This year, there are no truly horrific entries. No GoDaddy instant F- ads as in days of yore. Even the gambling ads, which I’ve long grown weary of for various reasons, are decent enough to not make me pull an Elvis on my flat screen. And pretty much every spot left its budget on the screen. Very high production values all around. Which I appreciate, but, well, shiny without substance is still substandard.
The biggest issue I have with the majority of the spots is that they confuse creating something grandiose with crafting something great. There are a lot of attention-grabbing spots that don’t know what to do with people’s attention once they have it. Which, during one of the few times you don’t actually have to fight for people’s attention, is a sin against Ogilvy. The man, not the agency.
One of the biggest culprits in a great number of spots is that they don’t go anywhere. Rather, they go many places but wind up without, well, winding up. If you’ve ever written a story or a script, you know how easy it is to get excited about a killer opening. The challenge is always figuring out the ending and how to get there in a satisfying way. Yes, some great authors will tell you they just start writing and let the words or characters guide them. But first, they’re great authors and can do whatever works for them. Second, you can’t do that in advertising. Your ad always has a goal – to sell something. Either a product, a brand, or an idea. Somehow, someway, you’ve got tie together everything and make it about those things. Too many spots this year started with decent enough ideas, but then went nowhere and ended up forgettable.
This lack of direction was highlighted and exacerbated by an over-reliance on vignettes. So many spots set up a premise and then cut to assorted vignettes to reinforce that premise. Now, that’s a viable way to structure a commercial. But if you’re going to make it work, those vignettes can’t just be variations on a theme. They have to move the narrative forward. Ratcheting up the wackiness may be fun, but unless you’re hitting a comedy home run with each one, they grow tiresome quite quickly.
In other words, a great beginning is nothing if you can’t stick the landing.
A few other things of note:
- Can we please retire the use of Lionel Ritchie’s “Stuck on You” and The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”? Please?
- If you’re going to employ Morgan Freeman, don’t waste his golden tones on some nonsense about Pangea.
- Matthew McConaughey can’t save everything.
- Snoop Dog and Martha Stewart are not legally bound to only appear in spots together.
- WeatherTech needs to start from scratch next year.
- No idea why Amazon chose to go full-creep.
Now then. On with the sixteenth annual Super Hole.
As always, my top five spots aired during the actual game itself, so no pre- or post-game ads. Local/regional ads, TV show promos, and movie trailers are likewise ineligible for inclusion in this esteemed pantheon. I judge ads by whether they have good strategy, a good idea, and a good execution of said idea. Usually, if they don’t have the first one, they have little hope of the last two.
No. 5: Lay’s, “Big Day” – This spot qualifies for the “Best of the Vignettes” award. And if that sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, you’re very astute. The spot wisely focuses on the friendship between impossible-to-hate Paul Rudd and the impossible-to-love-unless-you’re-high (I am not) Seth Rogen. The vignettes are all silly, of course, but they do remember to include the products in goofy ways and amp up the wackiness with each successive bit. The stinger is a total waste, however. In other years, this would’ve been midpack. And it barely eked out all the other similarly-constructed spots. When in doubt, Rudd for the win.
—No. 4: Rocket Homes, “Dream House” – Yes, this spot has a strong “how to we make this terrible creative brief with 18 mandatories work” vibe to it, but it still beats out all the other spots with “let’s just get a celeb and let wackiness ensue” ads. Sharp writing, save for the missed opportunity for something funnier with the competitive bidders (especially Cash Offer Carl), and an obvious connection to, you know, the product. As far as Barbie tie-ins go, it doesn’t beat the 1997 Nissan 300ZX spot starring her and G.I. Joe. But then, few ads do.
—No. 3: Taco Bell, “The Grande Escape (Doja Cat)” – What is, in the end, an overachieving swipe at McDonald’s, this spot is full of nice little digs at the double arches. Will everyone get the “the ice cream machine is still broken” bit? No. But if I, a diabetic lactose bigot, does, then I suspect enough people will to warrant the joke. (And it’s still funny even if you don’t know the backstory, which is how you want things to work in a commercial.) I’m not sure why Doja Cat is involved beyond being able to say Taco Bell is cool enough to get Doja Cat. And maybe that’s it. But not making it about Doja Cat herself was smart. As was the use of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” and the excellent editorial decision to cut out a half-beat before the refrain of “when I wake up in my make up.” Because not wearing the clown paint ever again is kind of the point. Subtle? Yes. Sublime? Compared to the spots that surrounded it, very.
—No. 2: General Motors, “Dr. EVil” – I suspect this spot will not be very popular among the ad cognoscenti. But I am man of the people. Also, the appropriate age to be an Austin Powers/Dr. Evil fan. Which is fitting because electric vehicles are, by and large, still priced so only those of a certain age (or, fine, tech bros) can afford them. The spot is pitch-perfect with regard to the now 20-plus-year-old characters, and I applaud the use of dialogue over, yes, vignettes or a not-really-inspirational voice over. The “Baby Me” ending was a bit flat. Could’ve used a last-second appearance from Mr. Bigglesworth VIII.
—No. 1: Toyota, “Brothers” – A quasi-sequel to last year’s “Jessica Long’s Story,” this spot acts as a powerful, mini-documentary about brothers Robin and Brian McKeever, the latter of whom lost most of his eyesight to an inherited form of macular degeneration. They went on to win 10 Paralympic medals with Robin acting as Brian’s eyes. Now, you could say this spot is mainly a montage. And you could say this spot doesn’t tie into anything really related to Toyota (at least nothing that most of the public will associate it with). And you’d be right. But when you produce something this strong, it doesn’t matter. Is it as powerful as “Jessica Long’s Story”? I’d say no. But it would be difficult to top that piece without turning its incredible production setup into a cheat, which would lessen this story’s impact. I did find it odd that the piece forgot to mention Robin’s name, and I still cringe at the “start you impossible” tagline. But I’ll remember this spot and remember that Toyota created it. In a good way. Which is what advertising is supposed to do, right?
—Honorable Mention: Samuel Adams, “Your Cousin from Boston (Boston Dynamics)” – This was a regional ad (and thus not eligible for my top five per my own, antiquated rules), but I liked it enough to include ityou’re your amusement. Instead of going for something quote-unquote Super Bowl-ian, Sam Adams opted to try and create a good commercial. And they succeeded. Yeah, it’s just a goofy beer ad that continues their “your cousin from Boston” schtick, but it’s a hoot. Unlike the Amazon Alexa ad that focused on the one thing everyone finds creepy about the product, this spot turns something that everyone fears will one day kill us all (the Boston Dynamics robo-doggos) and turns them into party machines. Spuds MacKenzie would be proud. If he hadn’t stumbled off the rainbow bridge long ago.