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Super Bowl Ads 2020: Strange, Serious, Smaaht, And So Very Expensive

This year's Super Bowl commercials were packed with superstar cameos and in-your-face messages — from Ellen DeGeneres speaking up for Amazon's Alexa to an ad about organic farmland. But they had a few unintended messages, too.

These were the stories America's largest corporations developed to entertain, inform and sell products on the biggest stage in television – costing as much as $5.6 million per 30 seconds this year. Sometimes, those stories said a lot more than their sponsors may have intended.

Consider Kia's spot, featuring Raiders running back Josh Jacobs driving an SUV, imagining what advice he would give his younger self. Jacobs grew up homeless on the streets of Tulsa, Okla.; in the ad, he's watching a young black boy sprint across the broken streets of Tulsa's struggling neighborhoods. "Push yourself to be someone," Jacobs says, "and I promise, someday, you will."

It's nice message for a day centered on scarfing snacks and watching football. But for anyone who knows how unlikely it is for a kid to actually become a pro football player, it's also a sobering reminder of how much young people who aren't blessed with NFL-level athletic skills will have to achieve to escape similar circumstances.

Here's a look at some other ads that sent double messages, along with some of the more entertaining, provocative and just plain weird commercials aired on the biggest global showcase for TV advertising:

Oddest use of vaguely nationalistic language to sell beer: Budweiser's "Typical American"

The self-styled "king of beers" offers some championship-level pandering in this ad, which features a gritty-voiced announcer sarcastically noting how "typical Americans" are always showing off their strength — as images of a heroic firefighter in action play across the screen. The ad urges viewers to celebrate the nobility of "typical Americans." But I couldn't help wonder who the narrator was referencing when he said, "they call us 'typical Americans.' " Who exactly is "they?" And why is Budweiser developing brand loyalty by urging "typical Americans" to rise up against this unnamed source of insult? Vaguely nationalistic, condescending and solicitous all at once — hardly a regal combination.

Best wishful thinking: Little Caesars' "Best Thing Since Sliced Bread"

A customer getting a Little Caesars pizza delivered calls it the "best thing since sliced bread." This sends a company called "Sliced Bread" — led by an increasingly grizzled Rainn Wilson — into a panic, which involves crying jags and chaotic office meetings with one employee riding an ostrich around. (Really.) But anyone who has tasted Little Caesars' takeout pizza knows sliced bread probably doesn't have much to worry about.

Savviest use of a billionaire's pizza money: Michael Bloomberg's campaign ad

A Washington Post analysis found that if Bloomberg spent $11 million on his Super Bowl ad, it would impact his net worth like the average American buying a pizza. For that pocket money, Bloomberg crafted a spot focused on his efforts to secure tougher gun laws, featuring the mother of George Kemp Jr. — a young black man who dreamed of playing in the NFL, shot dead after an altercation in 2013. The ad doesn't mention Trump or any Democratic contenders and barely features Bloomberg, who has faced sharp questions over how his stop and frisk policies disproportionately affected people of color while he was mayor of New York. A bold example of buying your way past racial controversy and into the political conversation.

Look on the bright side award: Donald Trump's campaign ad

The president aired two ads during the Super Bowl; one featured Alice Johnson, a woman whose life sentence Trump commuted after lobbying from Kim Kardashian. The other was a more traditional campaign ad with shots of the military and Trump at his beloved rallies, as complimentary economic statistics displayed on the screen featuring the tagline "Stronger, safer, more prosperous." One ad seemed aimed right at his base supporters, while the other was a rare pitch to those who might not be among his core voters. Impeachment? What impeachment?

Weirdest use of a celebrity, Part 1: Post Malone for Bud Light

There were actually two ads created starring the heavily tattooed rapper/songwriter: Fans picked the one that would land in the game. Both took viewers inside Malone's mind as various characters debated his reaction to drinking Bud Light hard seltzer. My fave, which didn't air during the Big Game, shows Malone, who has tats around his eyebrows and eyes, decked out in a white sweater yelling at his spleen in a bar, like an accountant on mescaline.

Weirdest use of a celebrity, Part 2: MC Hammer for Cheetos

Hammer's head pops out of a rolled-up carpet and a coiled water hose as his signature hit "U Can't Touch This" plays. The joke: A young guy eating new Cheetos popcorn can't touch anything — declining to help somebody move furniture, for example — because his fingers are coated in yellow dust. Why Cheetos would remind us of one of the most annoying elements of its product in a mega-expensive Super Bowl commercial is beyond me. But I'm glad to see Hammer can still squeeze into those genie pants.

Best use of a '90s movie to sell a modern product: Jeep's "Groundhog Day"

Bill Murray provides one of the best celebrity Super Bowl ad appearances this year, re-creating his 1993 movie Groundhog Day with a twist. This time, he steals the groundhog in a Jeep Gladiator truck, living a new adventure every day thanks to his great car. The scene where Murray is playing a Whack-A-Mole game, assuring the groundhog it's nothing personal, was simply priceless.

Best use of a Boston accent since The Departed: Hyundai's Smaaht Paahk

The carmaker won the pre-Super Bowl competition for attention with this ad — featured in loads of preview stories about the game's commercials — with Chris Evans, Rachel Dratch and John Krasinski deploying their best Boston patois. They're touting Hyundai's "remote smart park" feature, which guides cars into tight spaces on its own, while lampooning all the cartoonishly thick accents actors take on for roles set in Beantown. (Best of all, the ad has subtitles with words like "caah," "paahk" "smahtypants" and "clickah.")

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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