Super Bowl commercials: Stunts, slapstick and some serious issues

The goal of Super Bowl commercials has always been to stand out from the pack. But for 2017, companies are going even further with envelope-pushing live stunts and ambitious campaigns that extend beyond TV across social media and online.

Humour and socio-political messages figure in the standout ads released so far

High-profile commercials for Super Bowl 2017 feature a host of stars including, from left, dancer Lil Buck, actor Melissa McCarthy, singer Justin Bieber and NFL QB Tom Brady. (YouTube)

An epic Super Bowl commercial — reportedly costing about $5 million US for a 30-second window — is a complex confection requiring just the right balance of ingredients: great writing, plus a dose of humour or a dazzling feat, with a sprinkle of surprise. A tug of the heartstrings, a large helping of celebrity and a pinch of nostalgia never hurt.

Think Old Spice's ideal man. Volkswagen's darling Darth Vader. Remember Apple's 1984-inspired Macintosh mini-movie or Larry Bird taking on Michael Jordan for a Big Mac?

The goal is always to stand out from the pack. But for 2017, companies are going even further with social and political messages, envelope-pushing live stunts and — for most — campaigns that extend beyond TV across social media and online.

This year also marks the first time Canadians can actually tune into these big-budget American spots (when watching on Fox), thanks to a CRTC decision banning simultaneous substitution for the championship match. The move has riled Canadian advertisers, Canadian broadcast rights holder Bell Media and the National Football League itself.

Sure, the matchup of the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots is undoubtedly the main event and the often-outrageous Lady Gaga's halftime show a major draw, but millions will also be tuning in for the commercials. Here are standout ads, released early online, that have already made a splash.

On the message track

Budweiser: Call it prescient, defiant or just plain coincidence, but Budweiser's cinematic, months-in-the-works mini-movie Born the Hard Way — about co-founder Adolphus Busch's arrival in the U.S. as an immigrant — has definitely struck a chord, arriving amid the furor surrounding the Trump administration's travel ban.

Audi: Expectations were high for Audi after its moving 2016 ad The Commander (memorably set to the late David Bowie's Starman) and the German carmaker has followed it up with a powerful, already controversial spot targeting gender inequality — a stronger message following an animated holiday season spot skewering gender stereotypes. 

Kia: Choosing a more lighthearted approach for a spot highlighting environmental activism, Kia enlisted slapstick queen Melissa McCarthy to pitch its hybrid crossover. 

Hulu: While this message is not directly socio-political, the streaming service has nonetheless grabbed a Super Bowl commercial slot to promote its anticipated series The Handmaid's Tale, based on the Margaret Atwood story that's among the dystopian classics that are resonating anew for audiences.

Going for laughs

Mercedes-Benz: Marking the 50th anniversary of its AMG high-performance line, Mercedes-Benz nabbed some heavy hitters from the past for its Super Bowl pitch: Easy Rider star Peter Fonda, Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild and acclaimed sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen — with their quirky humour. 

Intel: In a casting coup, Intel landed Tom Brady for a spot touting its 360-degree camera technology — typically used to replay thrilling sports moments — with some not-so-exhilarating scenes at home with the Patriots QB.

Squarespace: John Malkovich + a frustrating web domain situation (based on a true story!) = audience win. And, in case you're wondering, the actor, filmmaker and designer really does have his own fashion line.

WIX: What do you get if you mix Wonder Woman, Frank Martin from The Transporter and a budding chef? Apparently an action-packed, increasingly incredible series from web development firm WIX.

Bud Light: Building on its latest motto "Famous Among Friends," Bud Light has several new offerings that toast friendship, including this bromantic best-man speech. 

Mr. Clean: A famous American mascot gets sexy for Mr. Clean's latest Super Bowl spot. Long overdue or kinda creepy? You decide.

T-Mobile: A "serious" Justin Bieber, "celebration expert," explores the so-called history of the touchdown dance with the help of NFL stars Rob Gronkowski and Terrell Owens. 

Buick: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Since the model + NFL star pairing worked well in 2016, Buick returned to the winning formula this year, casting Miranda Kerr and Cam Newton for its latest spot. 

Live experiments

Snickers: A western theme, Adam Driver and a horse: That's what we know about Snickers and the Super Bowl's first-ever live commercial, a 30-second ad that will be shot and broadcast in real time during the game's third quarter. It's a neat gambit that's worked for Target in the past (see Gwen Stefani and Imagine Dragons). We may just be seeing more of these. 

Hyundai: Betting on Deepwater Horizon and Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg and Super Bowl attendees themselves, Hyundai is gambling on getting good footage from the stands in Houston to craft a 90-second commercial that will air immediately after the Super Bowl ends.

Dazzlingly simple

Lexus: Sometimes a straightforward concept is best. Lexus is offering up a sizzling Sia track, the spectacularly sinuous Lil Buck and a smooth star voiceover thanks to Minnie Driver. 


Jessica Wong

Senior writer

Jessica Wong is a senior writer for CBC News, based in Toronto.


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