Super Bowl Ads: The Glory, The Greatness, The Marilyns

  • by February 4, 2016
Back in 2010, BBDO, one of the foremost agency makers of Super Bowl spots, rejiggered the use of celebrity in a way that won the game for Snickers. Betty White, then merely an octogenarian clad in a corny sweatshirt and pants, received a shocking visual smackdown, getting tackled to the ground in a pickup football game.

Then poor prone “Betty” was given a Snickers bar to munch on, which turned her back into a regular 20something guy.  “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” she was told.  

A great campaign was born, and with it, White’s career as comic legend was reborn.

The “You’re not you when you’re hungry” formula got extended over the years, mostly successfully. A screechy, complaining Roseanne Barr getting smacked in the head the following year was a notable miss.

But last year’s spot, recreating clips from “The Brady Bunch,” with Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi  as Marcia and Jan in all of their teenaged rage, was a knockout. It hit the all the right pop cultural notes: surprising, nostalgic, and a little trashy.  It even made my list for the top five commercials of 2015, because the surprising use of those notable angry guys back with the famously Bunched family, in their actual soaring California living room, was terrific.



So I was primed for more Snicker’s  “Hungry” greatness.

In this year’s iteration, actor Willem Dafoe,  (semi-known for playing quietly loony characters and/or Jesus Christ, not angry guys) cross-dresses as Marilyn Monroe, recreating that iconic scene from Billy Wilder’s 1955 movie, “The Seven Year Itch.” Dafoe, in earrings and a bad brown wig, is shown wearing the famous white halter dress, his billowing skirt blowing up around his legs and large white panties, as he stands over a subway grate, wearing Marilyn’s same high-heeled slingbacks.  He’s having a hissy fit with the director about having to wear high heels on a subway grate. I hadn’t thought of that before, and it is a funny line.

But overall, I was put off by the creepy insensitivity of the spot. It’s downright depressing that so much time, energy, money, and terrific technological razzle-dazzle was poured into this production, when the concept is dicey and dated at best. (To begin with, does this 60-year-old movie scene resonate with the kids?)

The spot opens with the camera panning up Dafoe’s pale, scrawny, legs, a shot engineered for belly laughs. In director Wilder’s subsequent film “Some Like it Hot,” the idea of men hobbling around in high heels and hats and dresses was seen as hilarious. That was back in 1959.  The idea of men in drag has been part of drama since before Shakespeare’s day, of course, and the joke of showing ungainly males dressing as women continues apace up until this day, especially in England and in old Budweiser commercials.

But in light of Bruce Jenner’s public transition to Caitlyn, the Oscar nominations for the movie “The Danish Girl,” and the popularity of a TV series like “Transparent,” to name a few, the issue of gender transitioning has not only come out of the closet, but it is now better understood as painful and genuine. It certainly seems regressive to go back to the old drag days for the sake of an easy joke.

Stuff like this has backfired at the Super Bowl before.  Back in 2007, with agency TBWA, Snickers ran a SB spot that showed two male mechanics accidentally kissing, and then shrieking in mortification, pulling out their chest hair, to prove their manliness. It was pretty stupid, and received widespread backlash from both outraged gay groups and conservative Christians.  Before that, in 1997, a spot for Holiday Inn tried to make the point about the hotel chain’s “major improvements”  by showing a sexy transsexual woman, complete with a new nose and fake boobs, attending a high school reunion. It was famously panned.

But even if you think this criticism is overly PC, since the spot is a take-off on a well-known movie scene, there’s another huge problem with using Marilyn Monroe as the diva who needs a candy bar to calm her into compliance.   

Certainly, she is an enduring icon, recalled as a sex symbol (and the purveyor of underwear), But at the same time, she is seen as a tragic, misunderstood figure, forced by the studio into these repressive but sexy dumb blonde roles. (Remember Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”) As such, she is remembered for her troubled private life, and her struggles with depression, unstable moods, and addiction, and being ministered to (and drugged) by a stable of psychiatrists.  She famously died in 1962, at the age of 36, from an overdose of barbiturates. The jury is still out on whether it was a suicide.

So the idea of “Miss Monroe, eat a Snickers. You get a little cranky when you’re hungry,” is a huge misfire, and no joke.

Dafoe gets transformed back to Marilyn in the movie through a process that had to be hugely costly. It’s well-done, but plainly cringeworthy. Then it’s followed by the end joke, a wasted cameo with comedian Eugene Levy, playing the fan operator who says “This will never make the cut! Morons!”

With this iteration, perhaps the Snickers campaign has out-meta-ed itself.  What was so delightfully comic in the past was the unexpected cleverness of using Liza Minelli and Aretha Franklin, two genuine divas, get turned back into regular dudes.  

But the memory of Marilyn is too delicate and poignant.  Would that a candy bar could have solved her madness.

And meanwhile, are you ready for some football?

15 comments about "Super Bowl Ads: The Glory, The Greatness, The Marilyns".
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  1. Jeff Sawyer from GH, February 5, 2016 at 8:42 a.m.

    "It certainly seems regressive to go back to the old drag days for the sake of an easy joke." Precisely what the client should have said. Great article.

  2. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, February 5, 2016 at 9:06 a.m.

    The number of people who watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials is so high, plus, or maybe first, the ridiculous price per minute puts so much on the line...the pressure for the magic of once in a lifetime great spots is too's like the let down of most every series is so much big and full of wind...then most of them just pop and disappear or flap thru the air with the sound of gas release as they deflate...year after year I watch for something great, but usually, the game is a bore and so are the commercials

  3. Jane Farrell from Freelance, February 5, 2016 at 9:52 a.m.

    The spot is extremely insensitive to Monroe. Did that not occur to anyone? And as you say, Monroe is not the most familiar figure to younger people. Failure all around.

  4. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, February 5, 2016 at 1:40 p.m.

    It's tough to hit a home run in every at bat. Sometimes you strike out, looking. (I probably should have thought of a football analogy)

  5. Barbara Lippert from, February 5, 2016 at 2:24 p.m.

    Look, I know that the averaege male target will just laugh at the idea of a flummoxed man in a dress and think that MM and her voice are hot. Victory.
    I didn't like when Apple used people like Mahatma Gandhi to show its greatness, either.
    But there isnot there something weird here in getting revived into a dead woman?.
    Whereas for Betty White (and ironically, Abe Vigoda) the bar invigorated, or rebirthed, these elders. 
    Another postscript to the famous image of Marilyn on the half shell: it was used all over, in posters and promotions. It was first shot for the movie on a real sidewalk grate in Midtown Manhattan. (Later reshot on sound stage in California because Wilder didn't like the background noise.) Anyway, Monroe's husband at the time,  Joe DeMaggio, came to the New York shoot and hated that she showed so much of her body in a sexual way. They went back to their hotel, and allegedly, he beat her up over it. And she filed for divorce shortly after. 

  6. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, February 5, 2016 at 4:33 p.m.

    Good campaign but weak ad for media's biggest stage. Cheap gag, too -- she deserves better, can't imagine what DaFoe was thinking or how much he got paid. C-, at best.

  7. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, February 5, 2016 at 6:23 p.m.

    It would work for me if Joe DiMaggio was watching the action, chewing on a Snickers bar, and kissing Dafoe after the take

  8. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, February 6, 2016 at 2 p.m.

    The cliche, everyone's a critic, is proven again.

  9. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, February 7, 2016 at 8:10 a.m.

    There is a spot worse than this anti-homage to the truly great Billy Wilder. The one with Kevin Spacey directing Robert Duvall for e-trade, Makes one yearn for the simplicity and unpretentiousness of FAST FAST FAST RELIEF.

  10. donna Weinheim from fly by night production, February 7, 2016 at 2 p.m.

    Ha ha, Tom Messner! Too funny. I really dont like to critisize other peoples commercials. 
    I also dont spell check, so bear with me. (Even my name is misspelled)

    A lot of blood, sweat and tears go into finally producing a Superbowl spot so it is uncomfortable to weigh in.
    But once an ad is going into the arena, its fair to be judged by other people in the industry.
    You have to expect it.

    This was a long way to go to say I completely agree with Barbara Lippert.

    She deserves support here because she puts a lot on the line to be honest and fearless, despite any backlash.
    Why William Defoe? Who knows. That doesn't bother me. maybe no one else was available.
    I guess the point is it should not have been Marilyn.
    Im even more stunned that Joe Dimaggio got mad and hit her because of her outfit.
    That was a different time for women I guess.
    But its not the times we live in now, and not for women, or shouldnt be.
    Just another poitical faux pas and why someone at the agency or client end didnt give pause is a good question.
    She said it all much better than I could.

  11. Susan Klein from Oculus Marketing, February 7, 2016 at 10:59 p.m.

    Also worth noting-- licensing of Marilyn Monroe is notoriously expensive by all industry standards. Using MM for this campaign must have been beyond outrgaeously costly, so BBDO must have thought this spot was the sine qua non of the campaign, instead of a shark-jump I also wonder if Wm Dafoe was the first choice for 'not-MM'.

  12. AC Winters from ACWintersEsq replied, February 8, 2016 at 12:04 p.m.

    Barbara, I waited to read your analysis till after I'd seen the spot yesterday. There were a lot of reasons that the spot didn't sit right with me, and you articulated the ones that I could not put my finger on. And I seem to be missing some subtext here, did someone call you a persona non grata? And question your right to give your opinion, or anyone's to critique an expensive Super Bowl spot? I don't get it.

  13. Barbara Lippert from, February 8, 2016 at 8:46 p.m.

    Thank you, AC Winters. I'm missing the same sub text. What exactly does "The cliche, everyone's a critic, is proven again." mean, D. Ferguson?  

  14. Mark DiMassimo from DiMassimo Goldstein, February 9, 2016 at 10:31 a.m.

    Being transformed into a dead woman isn't sexy, funny or refreshing. At least on my screen, Marilyn did not look like she fit seamlessly into the scene, but seemed more an anachonistic astral projection in Technicolor. Some of our industry's best worked on this spot, no doubt. I imagine they were excited about the casting, the shoot, the technology... but it's hard to imagine they fell off their chairs laughing about the concept they'd created, or just knew it would take the campaign to a whole new level. I'd love to see the scripts that didn't get made -- I bet there was some gold in the discards.

  15. Jim English from The Met Museum, February 10, 2016 at 12:57 p.m.

    As you have said,  Barbara, over the years Snickers ads "have been among the most satisfying."  But I so agree with you, the Super Bowl spot is too indifferent to the sad life of Marilyn Monroe.  A little tact would work here.  That the spot evokes a 1950s iconic moment is not at all surprising.  "Mad Men" is still on the public mind.

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