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Why are celebrities becoming weird objects for Super Bowl ads?

Even more than usual, the NFL’s pandemic season was a grotesque case of papering over the violence with a veneer of normalcy. The league went to shameless lengths to preserve the Sunday vibes, with its testing system that bred, shall we say, an unusual distribution of results, to downright refusing to cancel a game, even if it meant rosters of third-stringers taking the field at 3:40 on a Wednesday. This is set to continue at the Super Bowl on Sunday, with 25,000 fans attending — including 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers — and an additional 30,000 fan cutouts to fill in the empty seats.

And so it’s only fitting that the year’s absurd big game be matched with commercials that dial up the lunacy. The early entries are starting to make their way around the internet: people online are already mad about Dolly Parton betraying the central purpose of “9 to 5” with “5 to 9,” an unironic ode to endless, soul-crushing gig work for Squarespace. Michael B. Jordan warps into the sexiest home surveillance device alive for Amazon. But above all else, this year seems to be focused on celebrities turning into strange objects or animals.

The first to pop up on my radar is the Jason Alexander hoodie, a spot for Tide that splices the Seinfeld star onto a skin-colored hoodie as “Believe It or Not” plays through various adolescent tribulations. He makes those signature pained faces that don’t quite work as well without glasses, as trash and dog drool coat the sweatshirt, and — I’m being completely serious here — makes me long for his more inspired turn in Nickelback’s “Trying Not to Love You” video.

Of the select commercials released by their eager parent companies, a few others are treading into this same territory. Matthew McConaughey looks poised to become a kite, perhaps drifting up to Jordan Peterson’s podcast studio. In a teaser for mayonnaise purveyor Hellman’s, Amy Schumer walks into a refrigerator packed with the white stuff, only to emerge from it as... some sort of winged creature. “My character hates food waste,” Schumer told People about the ad. “She hates people who waste food and Hellman's has really educated me on what a big problem food waste is in the country.” As with any celeb quote given to a gossip magazine, you can either imagine that she’s completely serious or completely messing with them.

Pandemic advertising has swung so much during the past year, beginning with somber assurances that brands like Audi are here for you in these trying times, right up to Applebee’s reassuring us that it’s safe, really, to once again eat great in the neighborhood. Maybe the magical-realist escapism on display here is just the latest swerve, to push further into the garishly weird rather than address the record-high month in COVID deaths that just concluded. Or this is the most practical way to do a shoot without flying the priciest names out to film in a pandemic.

Although some companies have backed out of selling ads to the game — either to donate proceeds to vaccination, or because they’re struggling — the Super Bowl was never in doubt. Even back in the pandemic’s earlier days, when it was uncertain how much higher the death toll could rise by February, the big game always felt like a morbid inevitability, set to churn against all odds. Matthew McConaughey as an anthropomorphic kite shilling for chips, however — now that takes imagination.