Bud Light was the talk of the Super Bowl commercials this year for two very different reasons.
One of their several ads managed to give viewers on Sunday a rare shock: it wasn't a Bud Light ad at all, but a crossover with a popular TV show. Another set of its ads knocked rival brands for using corn syrup, only to spark the ire of the U.S. corn industry.
Forty-plus brands shelled out millions for the chance to win over live-TV viewers of Super Bowl 53 with a combination of humor, celebrities and heartfelt messages. Avocados from Mexico featured a pet show where the humans get judged, while The Washington Post honored missing and slain journalists in its Super Bowl debut.
With an estimated 100 million people tuning in to watch, many for the ads alone, the stakes remained high for advertisers, though few stood out.
This year's ads are "more mild than wild," said Kelly O'Keefe, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter. "While the focus of the night is on entertainment rather than controversy, there is very little that we're going to talking about at the water cooler tomorrow."
Many marketers released their ads online in the days before the game but there were still a few surprises, including Bud Light's. Some ads focused on millennial nostalgia, others on strong women, more touched on tech and some promoted good deeds.
Bud Light's Big Night
Bud Lite and HBO lit up social media with a surprise mash-up of a Super Bowl ad. What appeared to be another one of the beer brand's "Dilly Dilly" ads about a sophomoric medieval king turned out to be a "Game of Thrones" promotion as well.
It starts off mundanely enough with the "Bud Knight" appearing for a jousting contest. He loses to a combatant who's revealed to be The Mountain from "Thrones" and is killed in that character's gruesome, trademark way. Then, a familiar dragon arrives to incinerate the entire scene. The ad did double duty to promote the beer brand and the April premiere of the fantasy show's long-awaited final season.
Andy Goeler, the vice president of Bud Light marketing, said the ad brought "together two of pop culture's most iconic medieval realms to deliver an unexpected surprise."
It was a welcome thrill in the middle of a dull game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams.
Bud Light's other ads on Sunday took aim at rivals' use of corn syrup, but the National Corn Growers Association rebuked the brand for boasting that Bud Light does not use the ingredient.
The association, which says it represents 40,000 corn farmers nationwide, tweeted that America's corn farmers were "disappointed" in Bud Light, and thanked Miller Lite and Coors Light for "supporting our industry."
Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Bud Light, responded that it "fully supports corn growers and will continue to invest in the corn industry." It added that the commercial was meant only to point out a difference between some light beers.
MillerCoors also hit back at Bud Light with a tweet saying that none of its products use high-fructose corn syrup. It claimed that many Anheuser-Busch products do.
The '90s and '00s Are 'Back, Alright'
A handful of the ads brought up nostalgia for the recent past.
Chance the Rapper put a new spin on the 1999 classic, "I Want it That Way," by The Backstreet Boys in a Doritos commercial that takes place at the iconic airport hangar from the original music video.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges reprised their iconic roles from "Sex and the City" and "The Big Lebowski," both of which premiered in 1998, for a Stella Artois ad that saw them cast aside their signature drinks, a cosmopolitan and white Russian, in favor of the beer.
Lil Jon showed up in Pepsi's ad push around the halftime show — in Atlanta, home of no less than Coca-Cola — to lend his catchphrase "Okay!" to the "Is Pepsi okay?" campaign.
The ad mixed Lil Jon's old way of shouting the word, famous from several chart-toppers in the early 2000s, with Cardi B's "Okuuuuuurt," which went mainstream in 2018. Steve Carell of "The Office" rounds out the cast of the ad.
Many Forms of Feminism
Women's empowerment swiftly took center stage in this year's crop of Super Bowl ads.
Hulu kicked off the theme with a first quarter ad for its next season of the feminist show "The Handmaid's Tale" that offered a surprise similar to the Bud Light/"Game of Thrones" one: It started off quoting from Ronald Reagan's 1984 ad, "Morning in America," before veering into the show's dystopian future.
Next, Serena Williams appeared as spokeswoman for Bumble, which bills itself as a feminist dating app where women make the first move. The tennis icon urges women not to wait to be given power, saying, "we already have it."
Later in the evening, supermodel Karlie Kloss played up her identity as a businesswoman in an ad for Wix.com. She wears an understated green T-shirt to show how she used the platform to create her professional website.
Toyota highlighted the perseverance of Antoinette "Toni" Harris, a female football player at a California community college.
Blitz of AI Ads
Smart machines seemed to be everywhere during the Super Bowl commercial breaks as advertisers picked up on Americans' unease over our growing dependence on AI.
Michelob, Pringles, SimpliSafe and TurboTax were among the brands that gave starring roles on Sunday to melancholic humanoids or sarcastic smart speakers.
But for the most part, these characters had a retro feel that resembled conventional Hollywood robots more than how AI is playing out in everyday life.
Most of these robots were also supporting players rather than the actual products that advertisers are trying to sell.
An exception was a star-studded Amazon advertisement for smart home devices powered by the company's Alexa digital voice assistant. In what seemed like a common theme among Sunday's ads, it addressed public unease by highlight Alexa's endearing failures.
Good Deeds on a Big Stage
A Microsoft ad showed a disabled child talking excitedly about the fun he has using Microsoft's adaptive Xbox controller designed for players with mobility limitations. The Washington Post aired an ad voiced by Tom Hanks highlighting the often dangerous work journalists do.
Google's pair of ads focused on its good deeds. One focused on its ability to help veterans search for jobs. Another emphasized the human side of its translation service. "Words can hurt and sometimes divide," the voiceover said. But according to the ad, every day the most translated words are "How are you," ''Thank you," and "I love you."