It’s the Tuesday after the big game, in which Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed the Kansas City Chiefs no mercy. It wasn’t a particularly exciting game: “Game” may even be too strong a word for the beatdown that the Chief’s all-star QB Patrick Mahomes took from the Tampa Bay defense. But like every year, the commercials were there to fill in the gaps with their own entertainment value.

About a decade ago, back in January of 2020 (ha!), I wrote about the power of Super Bowl commercials to reflect the current state of the American psyche. What do the marketing firms, who function in many ways as our psychological prophets, think that Americans want to see and hear during the biggest game of the year? Last year’s commercials were a mix of nostalgia, celebrity, wokeness, and expiation: a collective sigh that we’re all going to die and we need to find restitution for our sins and love before we shuffle off our mortal coil. What did this year’s commercials give us? Here’s the Mockingbird 2021 theological and psychological review of this year’s Super Bowl commercials:

Laughter is the Best Medicine

I love funny Super Bowl commercials, and this year’s batch of adverts leaned heavily on humor. Bud Light rips off the Avengers. Sexy Alexa (Michael B. Jordan) is the new daydream. Visiting a car dealership is literally torture. Funny obscure tax loopholes, Jimmy John’s moving in on the sandwich mob, flat Matthew McConaughey … they might not all have been gut-busters, but this was certainly the year of the sensible chuckle.

In contrast to last year’s batch of adverts, which leaned heavily on signaling, this year’s crop of adverts played to a different audience — isolated, exhausted, and constrained by the awfulness of the pandemic. If the Super Bowl is one giant uniquely American evening of mid-winter escapism, especially in a pandemic year, it’s good to see the commercials follow suit. My personal, laugh-out-loud favorite of the night: Sam Adams’ takes on the Clydesdales with their “Cousin from Boston” campaign.

Bad Things Haven’t Gone Away

Despite all the humor, the undercurrent of despair that the pandemic has wrought was evident throughout the broadcast. Amanda Gorman’s poem brought me to tears and I’m still searching for why, and all the frontline workers were thanked before, during, and after the game. The Weeknd and his masked backup dancers made the half-time show a surreal reminder of things which have been lost. Ford wants everyone to “finish strong” with the masks and the PPE and the like. Weathertech has American jobs. Indeed wants you to find a new job. Delivery services, streaming services, and outdoors outfitters jumped in the fray to capitalize on our isolated lives. I was shocked that the Rocket Mortgage commercials took on our current epistemological crises by asking if you would rather be “pretty sure” or “certain.”

Plenty of commercials reminded us that 2020 was a hard year, and although these commercials didn’t strike quite that hard, at least they could read the room. My personal favorite of the bunch? Bud Light’s lemonade seltzers advert reminds us that 2020 was “a lemon of a year.” It was certainly the cleverest ad of the evening, in my book, gracefully dancing on the tight-rope of quarantine-themed humor (especially the ending, when the last actor is curtly silenced). Coincidentally, it was one of at least two commercials to feature a wedding ruined.

The Power of Sentiment

Sentimentality doesn’t get enough credit for its analgesic properties. It’s why Hallmark Christmas movies continue playing well into January and February. It’s why great-aunts keep shoeboxes of photos stuffed under their beds. It’s why people buy class rings from their high schools that they’ll never wear again. It’s also why people invite one another out for a drink, says Anheuser-Busch. It’s why Inspiration4 is sending civilians to space while simultaneously giving to St. Jude’s. Stella Artois reminds you that you’re technically a billionaire (if you are counting heartbeats). Joe Montana reflects on the fact that there’ll always be another G.O.A.T. to come in the future.

In a pandemic year like ours, the good vibrations from these adverts do their job: take you to a happier place for a fleeting moment, distracting us from things that weigh us down. The Toyota commercial featuring Paralympian Jessica Long made me openly weep, a story of what sacrificial love can accomplish.

Atonement and Reconciliation

Two adverts in particular get acknowledged for their theologically resonant underpinnings. First, Bruce Springsteen sells Jeeps by pointing us to the “chapel in the middle.” It’s a commercial that features a number of crosses, and frankly, I wasn’t expecting it. I don’t care if Springsteen isn’t quite the hero of middle America he’s reported to be. And the Christian nationalist undertones are probably too much, with a woodcut of the lower 48 painted red, white, and blue with a cross over it. Still, I am drawn to the idea that the resolution to the conflict we are experiencing at a national level can be found in a chapel in the middle with a cross on it. It struck me as hopeful in a good way. Transcendence, grace, light, forgiveness — the way to the middle lies underneath the watchful atonement of the cross. So, you know, buy a Jeep.

Speaking of atonement, M&M’s hit a home run this year for their low anthropology advertisement. The idea that M&M’s as a candy are so beloved and valuable that they function as restitution for sins certainly raises their value if it’s true. The best part of this advert, of course, was the collection of half-apologies and insincere repentance. Just how much can chocolate atone for? I mean, it’s not the blood of Jesus, but it’s something! What I take away from this commercial is that people actually understand atonement and reconciliation as concepts, even if they haven’t made the cosmic connection toward their sinful hearts. The Almighty does not accept candy as a form of apology, but there is something else he’ll accept. (Hint: It’s Jesus’s death and resurrection).

In Conclusion

To look at all the Super Bowl adverts from this year, here’s what we might conclude. Things aren’t going so well for us all, whether that’s personally or culturally. This season of quarantine and political unrest has us all burnt out and burnt up. For one night, we got to watch football and receive the gift of escape, via laughter and sentiment. But maybe there was more than escapism on the table for us this year, even if 2020 beat us worse than the 31-9 final score of Sunday’s game. Perhaps in the transcendent, atoning middle, marked by a cross, we might find some common ground.

Strays:

  • No, Chipotle. A burrito cannot save the world. Stop trying to make that a thing.
  • A case study in how to destroy your business: Cure Auto Insurance. Could it be any more tone-deaf?
  • Love me some St. Dolly Parton, but flipping her anthem 9 to 5 into 5 to 9? I don’t need this hustle culture in my life anymore, Squarespace, thank you very much.
  • If anyone wants to get David Zahl a Valentine’s Day gift, maybe try winning him a Jason Alexander hoodie?
  • All I learned from that Oat milk commercial is that you can do anything if you’re the CEO.
  • Did not anticipate so much Beavis and Butthead in my Super Bowl commercials this year.
  • Confession: I was impressed by John Travolta’s Tik Tok dance.