super bowl ads reviving decades-old movie characters

It’s now officially a thing

This weekend marks the only universally-observed holiday in the United States. That’s right, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, that term referring to the entire five day cycle of press events, public workouts and other happenings culminating in an actual honest-to-blog football game between two teams that aren’t the Chicago Bears.

The Super Bowl, because of its ability to draw massive audiences – last year it drew 91.6 million viewers even in the weird pandemic year – is an equally massive advertising event. Indeed we’re at least a good two decades past the point where “I watch the commercials and use the game as a bathroom break” was a legitimate joke.

The game’s broadcast has always had its fair share of movie commercials, sometimes just a handful, other times as many as a dozen, though that’s been somewhat disrupted by streaming fragmentation and some studios deciding the expense (this year the top rate was reported to be $6.5m for a 30-second spot) wasn’t worth it.

Over the last couple years there’s been a secondary trend that seeks to tap into celebrity star power, always a big factor in many commercials, and tie that name recognition into nostalgia for some classic movie characters. Specifically, a number of brands have cast well-known actors as characters they’ve played in older films.

what’s new in ‘22

This year General Motors brought Mike Myers, Rob Lowe, Seth Green and Mindy Sterling together to once again play Dr. Evil, Number 2, Scott Evil and Frau Farbissina in a commercial touting the carmaker’s electric vehicles.

Also coming Sunday, Jim Carrey is back as Ernie “Chip” Douglas, his character from The Cable Guy, in a commercial for Verizon.

[disclosure: Verizon is working with my employer GoNoodle on an upcoming campaign, but I have not been involved in content creation. I’m not criticizing Verizon here.

Of the two, the Verizon spot is the most surprising for a few reasons:

First, The Cable Guy did pretty well but because Carrey’s star was still ascendant in 1996 it was seen as a disappointment and isn’t a movie that’s referred to frequently.

Second, it’s a *dark* comedy, not the lighthearted mainstream fare that Austin Powers is.

Third, it only serves to remind me that Medieval Times *still* hasn’t run a campaign centered around the serving wench played by Janeane Garofalo. That’s the only brand marketing extension of this movie that was warranted, but we’re still waiting.

the latest in a trend

These commercials aren’t the first time classic movie characters have been brought out of storage for a big Super Bowl campaign.

Bill Murray reprised his Groundhog Day role for Jeep in 2020.

Gary Cole drove fast as Reese Bobby from Talladega Nights for Dodge in 2021.

Matthew Broderick played a very Ferris Bueller-esque version of himself for Honda all the way back in 2012.

It’s not exactly in the same genre, but we’ll also count 2017’s Squarespace ad with John Malkovich because it references Being John Malkovich and is appropriately meta.


The simplest answer to what’s behind a trend that seems to be picking up speed is that these characters represent established IP that is easily recognizable by significant portions of the audience. They make for great moments of buzz and conversation, especially when the character and/or actor is truly iconic or, in the case of Murray, someone who has never done ads before and has a well-known eccentric streak.

So the purpose of these commercials is to bring some star power and attract headlines, all of which is meant to contribute to the success of the spot, though how “success” is defined has been fluid over the years. In some cases it’s social media buzz. In others it’s ranking on the USA Today AdMeter. Sometimes it’s actually sales or other actual consumer interest.

Whatever the case, it doesn’t seem like this is slowing down. If anything, given the increased frequency of true legacy sequels coming 20 or more years after the original movies, it’s likely to become more common as audiences become accustomed to seeing much older versions of the characters they enjoyed decades earlier.

We Need To Talk About That Jeep/Groundhog Day Commercial

There are so many problems here it’s hard to keep count.

Groundhog Day, most people would acknowledge, is a classic comedy of the late 20th century. Directed and cowritten, along with Danny Rubin, by Harold Ramis, Bill Murray stars as a misanthropic, egotistical weatherman laid low by having to spend anywhere from decades to centuries reliving February 2nd in Punxsutawney, PA, where he’s been sent to cover the famous groundhog’s prognostications.

As is commonly known, the filming of the movie caused a rift between Ramis and Murray that lasted until just before Ramis passed away in 2014. The two reportedly clashed during production as they had different visions of how the story should play out, with Murray exhibiting difficult behavior while shooting and refusing to speak with Ramis directly on many occasions.

Thus ended one of the more fruitful and groundbreaking professional relationships in comedy for the 20 years prior. The two worked together in various capacities since they met while both at National Lampoon Radio Hour, going on to make several movies together, including many that are landmarks of the genre.

As much as Murray’s performance, Ramis’ direction and script are the elements that have made Groundhog Day so beloved. The two creators are equally regarded when it comes to the movie.

Murray hasn’t commented on the fractured friendship with his collaborator of two decades in the years since Ramis passed. So it was a little odd when the actor reprised his role of Phil Conners in a Super Bowl commercial for Jeep.

The story of how Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, conceived of the spot and navigated Murray’s famously difficult method of getting in contact is interesting, including how they secured signoff from Sony Pictures, is interesting enough. But notably missing is any mention of working with anyone associated with Ramis.

Given Ramis’ role as cocreator of the characters and story, it would seem to be only polite, even if it might not be completely necessary from a legal point of view, to have gotten the blessing of Ramis’ widow or children. Fiat Chrysler Automotive could have presumably done so relatively easily.

More problematic for me, though, is that there was no statement from Murray that he had done so. Given the place the movie holds in the history of their relationship, taking the step six years after Ramis passed away to revisit a movie he was instrumental in crafting seems like it should have been a moment to continue mending fences. Addressing the issue would have been a good move simply from a reputational point of view if nothing else.

To be fair, there may have been private communications that haven’t been discussed. But the lack of statement by Murray or anyone on his behalf is disconcerting and only makes the actor seem like he continues to hold a grudge, as if he wants to continue writing Ramis out of the narrative of the movie and its history.

It’s interesting that Murray chose this project as his first television commercial. And he certainly looks like he’s having fun in the spot, which nicely nods to the original in various ways. I just wish there were a little more self-awareness of the history it’s drawing upon as well as a bit more humility about the talent involved in crafting that history.