The Super Bowl is a pretty clear-cut contest: one team wins, one team loses and one player's going to Disneyworld, on Mickey Mouse's dime.
A more subjective game plays out in a competition of sorts that's as much or more of a draw than the game itself for 54 percent of viewers, according to a recent poll by Hanon McKendry: The battle of the clever commercials. It's a $100,000-per-second gamble born of corporate ego, modern Mad Men and Women creativity and bold grabs for brand recognition – with bragging rights measured in water cooler chatter and YouTube hits, if not immediately in sales.
Here are some of the ads that are good bets to have people talking and clicking away Monday when they should be working:
Volkswagen's Ad Force In-Vader
It feels almost silly to include this gem since it notched some 13 million views on YouTube before kickoff. But that tack probably only served to make folks drag uninitiated loved ones to the tube saying, "You've got to see the Darth Vader kid!" The genius of the spot rests not just in the sight of the familiar character and in the sound of the familiar music, but in making us imagine what we can't see or hear: The look on the face behind the mask and the cry of astonished joy when The Force actually works.
All in the Family
The NFL might have put together the best ad of the night – a joyous commercial for football and for, well, great commercials. The spot featured clips of shows ranging from "Seinfeld" to "The Brady Bunch" to "Happy Days" to "Sesame Street" to "The Sopranos," apparently altered, in some cases, to incorporate various team logos. This may be the ad that inspires the most repeat viewings, just to catch all the visual gags.
The folks at Doritos produced some cheesy guilty pleasures, including ads featuring a determined bulldog and an office finger-licker. But our favorite is the one that suggests it's Doritos – and not GE – that brings good things (back) to life.
Can We Talk About Cameos?
As usual, the celebrities showed up in (sometimes) surprise cameos: There was Faith Hill for Teleflora. Kenny G got a gig as the kicker in a chuckle-worthy Audi ad about a rich-guy jail break. Richard Lewis and Roseanne aren’t exactly Betty White and Abe Vigoda, but they held their own in the latest Snickers ad. Ozzy Osbourne and Justin Bieber made an amusing odd couple for Best Buy. Eminen showed up in both animated and human form.
But our favorite unexpected celebrity appearance came via a Go Daddy bait-and-switch as the company introduced its new spokesbabe. If you thought Joan Rivers was overexposed already, well, just wait until you check out this ad:
If the gang at HomeAway.com was looking make a splash, they made a crash with this funny, irreverent – and possibly controversy-inspiring – "Test Baby" ad:
The King of Beers proved it can still put on a royal Super Bowl show. The kitchen makeover spot was spot-on for married guys, and the Wild West “Tiny Dancer” saloon sing-along spurred some laughs as did the "dog sitter" gag. But we got the biggest kick out of this product-placement satire, which played out on the set of an Errol Flynn-like swashbuckling epic:
The new computer-animated Coke commercial, with its stunning, “Lord of the Rings”-inspired visuals nearly made us forgot we were watching TV. But Kia employed special effects to an even greater effect, in an commercial that took its latest Optima on a ride through movie clichés, from action flicks to sci-fi favorites – all while transcending space and time.
There’s nothing very funny about this ad for the Motorola Tablet, an homage of sorts to George Orwell’s “1984.” The commercial gets across the counter-intuitive message of technology’s ability to foster individualism and help bring people together in a smart, striking way.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.