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What this year’s Super Bowl ads get wildly wrong

Brands such as Squarespace, Robinhood, and Michelob Ultra offer up a pep talk for almost every aspect of your life.

What this year’s Super Bowl ads get wildly wrong
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You have a job, but it’s not your life. Your workday doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. That’s just when you stop working for The Man and start grinding for yourself. All you need to succeed is a bit more time, some luck, and of course, a reasonably priced website.

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Enter Squarespace and its Super Bowl ad.

Imperceptibly directed by Oscar winner Damien Chazelle, we see commercially beautiful people slog away at their drab, gray, cubicle-bound existence. But when that clock hits five, a rainbow of new entrepreneurial possibilities comes to life. Dance fitness, creative shrubbery, painting, woodworking, hair styling, and more are all just a click away.

“You’ve got passion and a vision / because it’s hustlin’ time, the only way to make a livin’! / Gonna change your life, do something that gives it meaning! / With a website that is worthy of your dreamin’ . . . You keep workin’ workin’ workin’ . . . You keep dreamin’ dreamin’ dreamin’ 5 to 9, 5 to 9, you can do it!”

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Beyond pitching website hosting and design services by way of a complete and utter blasphemy of rewriting music history, the commercial is appealing to our innate desire to improve. In this case, it’s to improve our work life, but in teasing an escape from the gray existence of unfulfilling employment, what Squarespace is really aiming at isn’t you, but a Better You.

And it’s not the only one that’ll be doing it on Sunday.

One thing you won’t see during the Super Bowl are a lot of references to the pandemic, its influence on society and culture, or the havoc it’s wreaked on so many lives by way of illness, mental health, and job loss. Amid the celebrities, the blatant nostalgia plays (thanks for ruining Wayne’s World, Uber Eats), the closest Super Bowl commercials will come to addressing life in 2021 are a handful of thinly disguised pep talks designed to talk about the pandemic-without-talking-about-the-pandemic.

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Advertising has long revolved around aspiration, selling an idealized version of life. Use this soap and you’ll feel so clean you’ll lure a mate. Drive this car and you’ll be more successful. Wear these shades and you’ll be cooler. The people in the ads are more beautiful, their houses spotless and more stylish, and their wit perfectly timed. We’re so entrenched in this dynamic that advertising spoofing it nears consumerist high art. See Tide’s 2018 Super Bowl winner with David Harbour or just about any ad starring Ryan Reynolds.

It’s a tried-and-true formula that brands are more than happy to trot out during their highest-profile TV opportunity of the year, aiming to fill you with emotion and inspiration, hoping that will translate into sales.

Employment app and website Indeed is perhaps the one that swings the hardest for your cryballs, showing the sheer scale and broad sweep of people looking for new jobs at any one time. We see men, women, high school graduates, and parents in scenes of joy, sadness, struggle, and determination. The only hint that it was made this year is the man doing a job interview over Zoom. Called “The Rising” and set to the tune of Christian Shelton’s cover of the Andra Day hit “Rise Up,” it’s putting an emotionally uplifting spin on the search for your perfect job.

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Over at Logitech, the tech accessories brand enlisted Lil Nas X to narrate and star alongside 13 other artists and creators in a spot that’s going for what I’ll call the Generational Anthem genre of advertising. “We stand in defiance. We the makers. We the ground-breakers. We the creators, the screamers, the dreamers. We defy expectations, perceptions, and misconceptions. We defy the logic of what we should look like, sound like, be like. We defy genres, algorithms, and entire industries. See us defy that little voice that says, ‘Oh no, we can’t,’ with a roar back that says, ‘Oh yes, we will.’ Because to create the future, you must defy the logic of the past.”

It’s a common approach, used to sell just about anything, even sneakers.

Freelance working platform Fiverr will be using Four Seasons Total Landscaping to show how to take your small business and make it big. Because that joke didn’t get old after, say, November 8.

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Robinhood, meanwhile, decided to just play the plug-ears-la-la-la card and pretend that the last two weeks didn’t even happen, to drop a spot that’s looking to show you that you’ve always been an investor—that haircut, that new dog, the 6 a.m. jog,  relationships, new businesses—and now it’s time to take that experience into the stock market. Thankfully, those call options I had on that buzzcut from a barber with diamond hands didn’t bankrupt my whole family.

Guinness recruited NFL legend Joe Montana to invoke the famous 1979 Cotton Bowl comeback by his Notre Dame Fighting Irish (the Chicken Soup Game) in which he fought off cold conditions and scored three touchdowns in the last eight minutes of the game, as a metaphor for dealing with the flaming pile of bad situations that was 2020. “You wanna be great?” Montana asks rhetorically. “Make everyone around you better.” Sure thing, champ, but two screaming elementary-school kids during a Zoom meeting is a more formidable threat than the Houston Cougars defensive backfield.

And lastly, Michelob Ultra showcases a laundry list of famed, successful athletes, but highlights their more candid moments away from competition to ask us to focus on our own personal happiness. The commercial asks if stars such as Serena Williams, Peyton Manning, and Anthony Davis were happy because they were winning, or winning because they were happy.

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Insecurity and uncertainty have always been fertile ground for any advertiser to manipulate for commercial purposes. But this year was not the one for the Super Bowl ad breaks to be life-coaching sessions. So by Monday, these marketers will all be singing their own version of another Dolly hit: “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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