AFTER A SEASON UNLIKE ANY OTHER, IT ONLY MAKES SENSE THAT THE SUPER BOWL WOULD BE A LITTLE DIFFERENT THIS YEAR

And, sure enough, it was. The game itself didn’t quite live up to its billing as a battle of the ages (sorry Millennials, turns out Gen X isn’t ready to pass the torch just yet), and neither did the advertising. Despite a few standout moments, no ad managed to really bring down the house or win that most coveted of modern Super Bowl accolades: massive viral shareability.

Here’s a look at the ads that brought something special, even if they weren’t the total package:

Best Art Direction

No competition, Toyota has the most visually striking and emotionally evocative commercial of the night with “Jessica Long’s Story,” a 60-second spot about U.S. Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long’s grit and indominable spirit in the face of adversity. It was gorgeous to behold, particularly the shots fusing the swimming pool with her childhood home.

Toyota’s ad was memorable, splendid, unique, moving, but it loses marks because it didn’t tie into their brand or their products in any meaningful way.

Most Moving Copywriting

Jeep knew exactly what a hurting and divided nation needed to hear: the raspy, sage-like voice of America’s patron saint of bar bands and the open road telling us there is nothing we can’t overcome when we remember how connected we all are.

The Middle” was Bruce Springsteen’s first commercial ever (and it will only air once), giving added weight to his message and ensuring that audiences read it as authentic and heartfelt. Truly a marketing coup for Jeep.

Only three years ago Fiat Chrysler’s then CMO told Ad Age that the carmaker had been trying and failing to court the rock star: “He’s not for sale. He’s not for rent. And there’s nothing you have that he wants.” Apparently, he was just waiting for the right moment.

Funniest Ad

Using Will Ferrell is practically cheating when making a comedic commercial, but GM is pulling out all the stops in its bid to go electric. First it modernized its logo, and then it announced it was phasing out gasoline cars by 2035.

Sending Ferrell to Norway to pick a bone with them for selling more electric cars than the U.S. is a hilarious way of letting everyone know just how serious they are about a sustainable future — and “we’re going to crush those luggers” is funny no matter how you slice it.

USA Today Ad Meter Winner

For the 33rd year, USA Today surveyed audiences about all the commercials aired during the game and declared that, with a score of 7.38/ 10, Rocket Mortgage’s “Certain Is Better” was the most popular. In the ad, Tracy Morgan explains in comical fashion why “pretty sure” is a long way off from a certainty, while a raucous montage illustrates his argument.

Most Innovative

Hats off to Reddit for trying something different and pushing the envelope of creativity with a 5-second spot that was basically just a static image sharing their underdog message to the investment community.

Reddit capitalized on the earned media being generated by the recent GameStop stock incident, showed it cares about its users and their communities, and did it at record low cost for a Super Bowl ad.

Honorable Mentions

Amazon put its Alexa voice assistant into Michael B. Jordan’s ripped frame, Pringles showed how flavor stacking its crisps can cause chaos for some returning astronauts, and Dan Levy proved that even the most awkward and difficult situation can be made better with M&Ms.

All three ads were simple, clever, easy to follow, and entertaining without going overboard like many Super Bowl spots do, and they all fit perfectly within their brand story. None were absolute touchdowns, but there is no shame in taking the occasional field goal.

Most Conspicuous Absence

For the first time in 37 years, Budweiser wasn’t at the game with Clydesdales, frogs, dogs, or any mascots. Likewise, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Hyundai (all of which have been marquee sponsors at the Super Bowl for many years) chose not to run an ad.

Many cited the ongoing pandemic as the reason they stayed away, such as Budweiser, which said it was donating the money it would have spent on an ad to vaccine awareness groups instead.

Personal Favorite

Granted, as a huge “Everyone Loves Raymond” fan, I’m biased, but the best commercial of the night has to go to “Meet the King” by Jimmy John’s. Brad Garret as Tony Balognavich “The King of Cold Cuts” was just solidly funny, sharp, and on brand.

His smoldering rage over Jimmy John’s moving onto his turf and reinventing the sandwich industry with fresh, quality products was the right amount of creative — grounded in reality but just ludicrous enough to be memorable.

After a night of high production value content, it’s the ad that stuck with me while managing to connect the story to the product and the brand. In today’s age, that’s more than most are able to achieve.

Final Thought

The Super Bowl is supposed to be a spectacle. It’s fireworks, anthems, flyovers, marching bands, halftime extravaganzas, and multi-million dollar 30-second commercials. 2021, however, forced brands to walk a tightrope.

They wanted in on the action and excitement (and the massive audience), but risked coming off as exploitive or insensitive if they didn’t acknowledge the reality of a difficult year. It was a tall order, and there were as many misses as hits, but, as the Chiefs are likely saying right now: there’s always next year.