Super Bowl Backlash: The Five Most Debated Commercials

Ads accused of theft, racism, stupidity

Headshot of David Griner

No Super Bowl is complete without a few lingering controversies, and this year's game left us with plenty. While most of the mainstream media has been buzzing inanely about M.I.A.'s middle finger, the night's commercials sparked their share of hand-wringing and name-calling as well. Some backlash, like Chrysler's "It's Halftime in America" being ripped as an homage to Obama, has gotten time in the national spotlight while others have been simmering slightly below the surface. After the jump, we recap a few of the more interesting nuggets of negativity.

  1. Chevy's World Without Ford

    This one began slightly before the Super Bowl when an attorney for Ford wrote a cease-and-desist letter to Chevrolet in the hope of stopping the latter's post-apocalyptic ad, "2012." In the spot, Chevy Silverado owners who have survived Armageddon mourn their Ford-driving friend Dave, who "didn't drive the longest-lasting, most dependable truck on the road…Dave drove a Ford." Chevy bases its dependability claim on industry data from the past 30 years, though Ford argues the same data shows F-150s are more likely to last beyond 250,000 miles. Whoever is right, Ford was most certainly the one condemned in the court of public opinion. News coverage all day Monday made Ford sound like a litigious whiner, which isn't exactly the position you should take when someone questions your toughness.

  2. Samsung's Stylus Snafu

    Samsung's 90-second "Thing Called Love" cavalcade of boisterous antics for the Galaxy Note was one of the most theatrical spots of the night, but many viewers found themselves unable to get past a single line: "It's got a pen?!" By showing a stylus as an example of what makes the Galaxy Note "the next big thing," Samsung and agency 72andSunny gave Apple fanboys ammunition to mock an ad intended to mock Apple fanboys. Shortly after the spot aired, #stylus and #palmpilot were both trending Twitter hashtags, and almost any discussion of the ad was eclipsed by stylus snark. The more neutral voices in the tech community have pointed out that the stylus is actually a nice perk of the Note, which is a smartphone-tablet hybrid. But most of Monday's blog coverage about the spot wasn't much interested in that point of view, with headlines like "How Samsung Screwed Up Its Super Bowl Ad."

  3. Dannon's Double Dipping

    Dannon's crowdsourced commercial for Oikos Greek Yogurt, starring John Stamos, was so vanilla, I practically missed it during the game. (It still managed to rank No. 10 in USA Today's Ad Meter…sigh.) But AgencySpy dug up an interesting double controversy about the spot. First off, the music is a nearly note-for-note duplicate of "Zebra" by the John Butler Trio. Fans quickly alerted the band, which announced on Facebook it would be "seeking advice as how to address the issue." But AgencySpy also notes that the ad as a whole seems lifted from a decade-old Canadian 7UP spot.

  4. Pete Hoekstra's Chenglish

    One of the most roundly criticized ads from the Super Bowl ran only in Michigan. Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra's spot called "Now" attacked Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) with allegations that her free-spending ways are helping China's economy at the cost of America's. To convey the message, he showed an Asian woman delivering lines in stereotypical broken English, such as: "Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good." Bloggers from both parties panned the ad for being xenophobic, racist or just dumb. Hoekstra refused to apologize, telling CNN, "The only stereotyping is of liberal Democrats and their spending polices." Fun fact for political ad junkies: The ad was made by Fred Davis, the same guy who convinced Christine O'Donnell to say, "I'm not a witch."

  5. Chrysler's Halftime Hope for Obama

    As an example of advertising craft, Chrysler's "It's Halftime in America" is simply a triumph. But Clint Eastwood's riveting narration of Wieden + Kennedy's stellar copy quickly raised the hackles of some conservatives who felt it was a re-election manifesto of sorts for President Obama. Republican strategist Karl Rove led the charge, telling Fox News he was "offended" by the ad. "I thought it was an extremely well-done ad, but it is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising," he said. Rove was essentially suggesting the ad was meant to justify the auto industry bailout and celebrate it as a turning point in the American economy. Obama's team and Chrysler have brushed off the allegations of political cronyism, and Eastwood himself defended the ad in an email to The New York Times: "The ad doesn't have a political message. It is about American spirit, pride and job growth."

So, what do you think? Did any Super Bowl ads get under your skin? And more importantly, after weeks of leaks, teasers and overexposure, are you just glad this year's Super Bowl ads are finally behind us?

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."