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WUSF's coverage of Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Feb. 7, 2021.

Flat Matt, Falling Lemons And Digital Dolly: The 2021 Super Bowl Ads

Super Bowl LV was Sunday, and as always, a lot of viewers tuned in for the over-the-top ads. Bud Light and Robinhood were standouts, but Dolly Parton fell flat with a rework of her hit "9 to 5."

If you saw Bud Light's "Legends" ad during the Super Bowl — the one featuring everyone from Cedric the Entertainer to Post Malone in an Avengers: Endgame-style gathering of the brand's biggest stars — this element stood out like the Bud Knight at a square dance.

No masks. No social distancing. No signs at all of the coronavirus pandemic as a gang of beloved mascots crowded together to make sure football fans have their Bud Light on Super Bowl Sunday.

"We really feel people are just ready to let loose," said Andy Goeler, vice president of marketing for Bud Light, when I talked to him days before the game. "We did talk about, 'Should everyone be wearing a mask [in the spot]?' But we felt the spot was a bit surreal and we had the ability to not have people wearing masks and kind of [avoid] reminding people of the time we're in."

That sort of escapism stood out in the flood of commercials airing during the Super Bowl, priced up to $5.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime. Experts like Goeler predict one of the biggest TV audiences in history — topping 100 million viewers — so CBS eventually sold out every spot, despite the turbulent economic times. And in many commercials, if there was any acknowledgment of the pandemic, it was indirect and fleeting.

In an inspired bit of head-fakery, some brands drew big headlines for opting out of ads inside the Big Game — like Budweiser and Pepsi — but found other ways to stay in. Budweiser's parent company, Anheuser-Busch, bankrolled commercials promoting itself and brands like Bud Light and Michelob Ultra; Pepsi famously sponsors the halftime show.

Just the kind of misdirection you'd expect from the biggest, wildest, weirdest showcase for TV's advertising creativity. Here's a roster of the coolest, campiest, oddest moments.

Best promotion of a Wall Street insurgency: Robinhood's "We Are All Investors"

Yup, the stock trading app that helped fuel the takedown of Wall Street hedge funds over investments in GameStop has a curiously timed Super Bowl ad encouraging average folks to get into the stock market. Amid shots of a woman dyeing her hair pink and cowboy hat-wearing seniors sharing a joke at a bar, an announcer asks, "Don't think you're an investor?" Couldn't help thinking it would have been cooler if they had asked, "Want to stick it to The Man while helping the Average Joe take over the stock market?" I would have signed up for that.

Most troubling ode to the side hustle: Squarespace's "5 to 9"

Much as we all love Dolly Parton, she may have crossed a line on this one, retooling her upbeat hit about surviving the workday, "9-to-5," into a chirpy take on the depressing reality of modern workplaces. It's a trippy tribute to those who use the website-building company Squarespace to promote the side business they really care about when the clock strikes 5 p.m. on their soul-crushing day job. Awesome as it is to see a computer-generated Dolly winking from a magazine cover during the spot, you also wonder: Is it appropriate to make some people's desperate need for a side job look so fun?

Most bizarre use of a celebrity, Part 1: Tide's "The Jason Alexander Hoodie"

For some reason, a young man has a hoodie emblazoned with the face of Seinfeldalum Jason Alexander, which grimaces and changes expression every time the kid wears him while doing something messy or disgusting, like washing a car or taking out the trash. Besides being an odd, clumsy showcase for CGI technology, it fails to answer a central question: Why would any kid constantly wear a sweatshirt featuring the co-star from a sitcom that left TV more than 20 years ago?

Best reference to the pandemic that doesn't mention the pandemic: Bud Light's "Last Year's Lemons"

Pronouncing 2020 "a lemon of a year," Bud Light promotes its seltzer lemonade with a spot that shows people getting knocked over, people chased out of ballparks and airports, and weddings ruined by a mysterious deluge of lemons pouring from the sky. Of course, the friends who are musing about this terrible 2020 are gathered at a backyard barbecue, no masks in sight, surrounded by people at what looks like a party. Way to have your cake — nodding to a mysterious event that canceled air travel, professional sports and family gatherings — without actually uttering the word "pandemic" or showing a single face covering (or telling us what seltzer lemonade actually is). That's masterful marketing.

Most bizarre use of a celebrity, Part 2: Doritos' "Flat Matthew"

After the year we've all just had, it irritated me a bit to see hunky, successful movie star Matthew McConaughey moping around, looking (and feeling) flat as a cardboard cutout until he eats the new Doritos 3D Crunch and pops back to full size — inside a vending machine. (I'm thinking maybe it was the check from PepsiCo's Frito Lay that helped him feel better?) As if a guy with abs like that would get anywhere near something so obviously fattening. Mindy Kaling's look of impatient bewilderment in the spot, sitting across from McConaughey while he mopes during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, made my week.

Most likely to make you ask, "Is this safe?": Inspiration4's "Join Us"

Elon Musk's ambitious plan to send four civilians into space has left two spots open for U.S. citizens who embody the ideals of "prosperity" and "generosity." This spot encourages viewers to head to a website, inspiration4.com, where they can enter a sweepstakes to be selected for one of those two spots. As the spot played, I couldn't help thinking: Isn't there a better, more scientific, safer way to choose crew members for a spaceflight than the method used by Publishers Clearing House?

This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.