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The Best And The Worst Of Super Bowl Ads

Sometimes it's better to leave more to the imagination.

That's the thought I'm left with after watching all of the ads that aired in CBS' Super Bowl broadcast Sunday night.

It may be an accepted truism that the commercials are often more exciting than the game. But this year, viewers watching for the ads sat through an uneven collection of spots — of which many of the best moments had already been revealed days earlier.

In years past, commercials like the Snickers spot inserting Willem Dafoe into Marilyn Monroe's wardrobe malfunction in the Seven Year Itch or the ad with Jeff Goldblum serenading George Washington and Lil' Wayne for Apartments.com would have been standouts.

But these spots had already been featured in televised roundups and online platforms like YouTube days before the game. The media coverage may have spread word about the spots, but they also robbed viewers of the thrill that comes from being surprised by an inventive ad in the moment.

Here's my list of the best and worst commercial moments from the big game:

Best use of animals in a Super Bowl ad: Heinz "Weiner Stampede" and Honda "A New Truck to Love"

My two favorite ads of the evening both featured animals in cool ways. Heinz had dogs dressed like hot dogs romping through a field to lick the faces of people dressed like a "family" of condiment bottles (kudos to whoever came up with using the soft rock hit Without You to ramp up the sentiment). Honda also hit the cute animal chord with a spot featuring sheep singing Queen's hit Somebody to Love; they learned it courtesy of the farmer's Ridgeline truck, which has a sound system in the rear bed blasting the song. Ample proof that '70s rock paired with cute animals equals Super Bowl advertising gold.

Best ad to turn a massive mistake into promotional success: T-Mobile "Drop the Balls"

When Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner in the Miss Universe contest, he was lampooned so mercilessly it looked like a serious setback. But he's rebounded with a Super Bowl commercial that features him "admitting" a different mistake: alleging Verizon used old data to misrepresent T-Mobile. It was the best lemons-to-lemonade transition since, well, Harvey made fun of himself by wishing fans on Instagram a Merry Easter ... on Christmas Day.

Best use of former cast members of The Wire: Toyota Prius "The Longest Chase" and "Hunters"

Toyota already had a winning concept when it aired two Super Bowl ads Sunday showing bank robbers successfully eluding police in a speeding Prius, until the cops gave up and turned a Prius of their own into a patrol car (take that, everyone who thinks hybrid cars are slow and can't manage sharp turns). But eagle-eyed, pop culture-savvy fans could recognize three of the actors playing bank robbers — Chris Bauer, Pablo Schreiber and James Ransone — as the guys who played members of the dock-working Sobotka family in the second season of HBO's classic crime drama The Wire. Which adds an extra dose of TV cool to an already fun commercial.

Best way to introduce a bunch of new car features: Hyundai

The carmaker used different ads strung throughout the Super Bowl to promote different features. For its Genesis sedan, an ad with comic Kevin Hart following his daughter on a date highlighted the "car finder" tracking feature; the Elantra's remote start was featured in a spot with campers chased by bears. Another ad promoting the Elantra's emergency braking system featured women driving through a neighborhood where everyone looked like film hunk Ryan Reynolds. It was an impressive stretch of spots, given that many advertisers couldn't make even one Super Bowl commercial work.

Worst use of an earworm: Mountain Dew "Puppymonkeybaby."

It was a bizarre, unfunny and nonsensical ad promoting a drink that combines Mountain Dew, fruit juice and caffeine called Kickstart. But the worst thing about this ad is the horrific character that stars in the spot; an odd-looking creature that has a dog's face, monkey's tail and baby feet. It leads the guys in the commercial in a conga line set to a bouncing beat while it says the phrase "puppy monkey baby" over and over. Frankly, it's the kind of nightmare you might expect to have after one too many cans of Mountain Dew Kickstart.

Worst reference to bodily functions: Xifaxan, OICisDifferent.com, Jublia

The Super Bowl is known for inspiring lots of eating and lavish spreads of food. So why would advertisers pay millions to air ads focusing on constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and toe fungus? OICisDifferent.com had a commercial on opioid-induced constipation, while the diarrhea relief medication Xifaxan created a spot with a pink intestine made of clay cheering in a stadium. And the toe fungus medication Jublia somehow convinced former NFL greats Howie Long, Deion Sanders and Phil Simms to appear in its ad. There may never be a great time to air ads like this, but to broadcast such spots in an event where viewers are eating stuff like guacamole dip and pizza surely is the worst.

Worst unintentional reference to the housing bubble and Great Recession: Quicken Loans

It's a commercial that makes a powerful point, touting Quicken Loans Rocket Mortgage app as a way to make getting a home mortgage less intimidating and easier. But since the financial meltdown of the late 2000s involved the collapse of a housing market filled with too many questionable mortgages, the spot also has an uncomfortable resonance. And the commercial's vision of a world made better through a rush of consumerism sparked by widespread homebuying was also a little off-putting.

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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