The Super Bowl is upon us, which means many things. A leather ball will be thrown, fumbled, lunged for, and carried. People will eat and drink at an alarming rate. Cheers, gasps, and sighs will emanate from homes and bars across America. And at halftime, everyone will crowd in front of the screen to watch commercials, with an anticipatory awe saved specially for this occasion. Super Bowl ads are the artistic culmination of this country’s love for cars. They showcase the creativity, passion, and nostalgia that the automobile industry stokes in us. They make us feel things: sadness, hope, romance, strength. And they’re just plain fun to watch.
Search for “best super bowl car commercials” and you’ll find a sort of internet consensus about a dozen or so spots that are most memorable. Back in 1990, Ridley Scott had us dreaming of the Nissan 300ZX’s twin turbos, while in 2014 our hearts swelled as Morpheus, of The Matrix, belted operatically from the back seat of a Kia, streetlights exploding and cars flying off the street in his wake.
In the dream-world where Super Bowl car commercials operate, pedestrian daily drivers like the Passat are extraordinary, as when a pint-sized Darth Vader uses his as-yet unsuccessful “Force” to start the sedan’s engine. 2011 imagined a flock of Benzes from every generation coming to life in parking lots, barns, and driveways–including that of a rather peeved P. Diddy–to converge for a midnight Mercedes vigil. Cars are magic, these ads remind us.
The tradition of beautifully written, directed, and shot Super Bowl commercials stretches well beyond the 1970s, and alongside big brands like Coca-Cola and Budweiser, automakers have always been a part of that tradition. But in an imaginary landscape where Looney Tunes’ Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner once dashed in and out of Plymouths, we now witness stirring tributes to the city of Detroit (see Chrysler’s 2011 ad) and moving odes to America’s farmers (or perhaps just the Dodge Ram). We see Audi give an oily homage to The Godfather, and the R8, as James Bond makes the Kia Sorrento look unbelievably rugged, yet romantic. Cinema, music, history, love–cars have a place in it all.
What is it about the Super Bowl that brings out our passion for automobiles in such a fervent way? Perhaps it’s that cars captivate us in the same way that football does. They’re raw, elemental, and a touch barbarian. They’re unpredictable, inexplicable, inspiring. And they bring everyone into the room, from grandpa Al to four-year-old Ava. Remember when Clint Eastwood and Chrysler lifted us from both the halftime of Super Bowl XLVI and the wake of America’s recession itself? Or when Maserati struck us with its ominous meditation on patience, grit, being an underdog, and, oh yeah, the Ghibli? “The world is full of giants,” Quvenzhané Wallis warned us in that artful 2014 ad, but the Ghibli’s rumbling–and humbling–exhaust note somehow made it all seem more manageable. Whatever the underlying reason, the Super Bowl’s high-caliber, high-budget, and highly imaginative school of automobile advertisements has us coming back every year. The commercials create a rise in our chests that even a Pick 6 can’t compete with. They are remembered long after the score of the year’s game has faded away. We can’t wait to see what this year’s halftime brings.