From automotive companies' dedication to Super Bowl commercials in 2011 it's impossible to tell that the near collapse of the industry in 2008 and 2009 ever happened—GM, Chrysler, and Ford, not to mention Volkswagen-Audi, Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Hyundai/Kia, all participated with 2011 ads, grabbing the title of Super Bowl commercial trendsetter from beer and web sites. They even managed to make Kenny G cool, briefly. For my ad dollar—this is about two cents, as I won't be in the market for a new car in the next five to 10 years—these were the best of what was literally, this year, the best.
1. Audi — Old Luxury Prison. The production values on this one were just too perfect to ignore. From the great script touches—my goodness, I've been hoodwinked!—to the truly impressive deployment of thriller and prison-break movie tropes, everything worked here. And more importantly, it could only have been a Super Bowl ad—the unique combination of audience, budget, and single-use surprise was used to its full advantage. Even the obligatory celebrity cameo, Kenny G, was funny.
2. Chrysler — "Imported from Detroit." Bringing out a version of super-patriotism that includes Eminem is a bold move, but it looks like it worked out for partially Italian Chrysler, who earned its first bit of unalloyed good press since, I don't know, the 300C circa 2005 or the Dodge Neon 10 years before that.
By the time this one gets to the church choir it's gone over the top that going to a church choir in this post-"Man in the Mirror" era feels perfectly right, and if you're anything like me you want to trade your car for a Chrysler 200 with an American Flag decal in the back window.
3. Volkswagen — Darth Vader and "The Force." This one got a ton of pre-release buzz, so I'm not sure how many people out there in the viewing audience were actually surprised by it come Super Bowl time. But unlike its forced-American car counterpart, which is just bigger and cheaper, this is a great example of Germans trying to be American. It's true: We like Star Wars, kids doing funny things, and parents who humor them.
So well done, Volkswagen. I'm still not sure about the car, but you've successfully sold me on the idea of a tiny Darth Vader.
4. Chevy Cruze — 42 Wild Italians. I might be the only person in America buzzing about this ad, but I just can't get over how competent it was. Unlike almost every other manufacturer they got actual information about the car into the commercial, through a meta-ad, and then they brought the joke in as the proverbial Old Folks failed to understand the TV. To bring everything back around, "42 Wild Italians", the title of the Super Bowl ad and the first and loudest of their misunderstandings, turns out to be much easier to remember than the fact that the Chevy Cruze gets 42 miles per gallon, so it works additionally as a surreptitious memory aid. Well done.
Teacher, which I've embedded here, is a more conventional Super Bowl commercial, but it also took a postmodern tack. Apparently Chevy's ad agency is filled with continental philosophers.
Those were the top ads for me. Kia's special effects extravaganza, Mercedes' heritage-play (which fit strangely into Audi's advertising strategy of lambasting Mercedes' heritage), BMW's attempt at continuing the USA! chant, and the Ford Focus rally all left me cold. But feel free to disagree with me, forcefully and awkwardly, in the comments.