It’s not just football fans who will be tuning into Super Bowl XLVIII this Sunday, as the parade of high-priced commercial spots has become just as much of an attraction as the game itself. The structure, attitude and tone of the “Super Bowl spot” has changed dramatically over the years, but one fact remains: the perfect spot is nearly impossible to achieve.
The rise of Internet connectivity and social media marketing has changed the game, with many of the most anticipated Super Bowl commercials for this year already available to view online. That being said, nothing can compare to a well-written, well-executed ad aired out to millions of consumers simultaneously.
With that in mind, we decided it was worth it to take a look back at the best Super Bowl spots we’ve seen to date. Obviously, some of our entries are no-brainers that have earned a place in history already, but whether these ads managed to say something important or simply resonate with their target audiences like no other, we think they’re just as enjoyable, memorable, and influential to this day.
Volkswagen – “The Force”
The German car manufacturer has distinguished itself in recent years as one of the hands-down best commercial makers around. Never going for the cheap laugh, Volkswagen spots are almost always witty, well-made, and downright unforgettable. While the small boy starring in the company’s “The Force” commercial may be among the most recent on our list, it’s not going anywhere.
As one of the most influential film sagas in history, plenty of advertisers have attempted to use Star Wars to help sell their products. But the timing of this commercial was so spot-on, it instantly became one of the most talked-about commercials for weeks after the game aired. Its widespread popularity is a sign of what social media can do for marketers, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one great ad.
Reebok – “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker”
Simply utter the words “Terry Tate” (with or without his official title of ‘Office Linebacker’) and there’s a good chance any Internet-savvy consumer will have come across a video of misbehaving office workers being tackled at their desks by the titular enforcer. Played by Lester Speight, the character appeared in several spots, putting the hurt on employees for not following company policies.
The commercial’s premise and star became so iconic that they eventually outshone the product they were meant to be selling. The ad campaign has been cited as potentially wasteful, since few viewers could actually tell you that the campaign was run by Reebok, illustrating a key point for Super Bowl marketers: an ad being memorable is key, but if it shares no link with the product being sold, don’t expect to earn anything more than YouTube views.
E*Trade – “Monkey”
The average TV viewer may not know much about advertising contracts or marketing campaigns, but they know this: Super Bowl commercials are as expensive as they come. So when the horde of overnight millionaires created by the Internet wave lined up to carelessly spend their money for the status, not just advertising gained by buying a spot in the big game, E*Trade decided to approach their pitch differently.
The financial services company decided to call out the ludicrous price tag required for the advertising slot and make a memorable impression at the same time. With an ad featuring a chimpanzee dancing besides two men on lawn chairs and the tagline “we just wasted $2 million,” the company managed to be clever and blatantly honest about misusing money.
While the ad became one of the most memorable ever aired due to its irreverence, we like to think E*Trade’s follow-up in 2001 – after the Internet bubble burst, and dot-com businesses failed left and right (obviously due to unwise spending) – turned out to be just as brilliant, even including a cameo from one of the monkey’s fallen dot-com mascots.
Ameriquest – “Surprise Dinner”
We don’t know who it was that decided the first step in courting customers was getting them to laugh, but it’s undisputed at this point. So when Ameriquest Mortgage set out to court consumers, they decided that the best way to prove their company motto of “not judging too quickly” was through offering examples of the sentiment in practice – unexpected, darkly humorous examples. This “Romantic Dinner” spot was a fan-favorite, even if the company’s policies led to its collapse as part of the American financial crisis.
Google – “Parisian Love”
It’s absurd to think of a company that needs no advertising whatsoever, but Google has become more than a household name (or a verb). As the one search engine turned to for nearly any question a human being raises, the company has been able to use its marketing not to spread awareness, but improve its view in the public eye. In “Parisian Love,” the company used its search engine to promise they aren’t going anywhere, and moisten a few eyeballs in the process.
Wendy’s – “Where’s The Beef?”
Three famous words that defied the odds. Honestly, if any company decided to film a commercial punctuated by an elderly woman naggingly demanding to know where the meat on her burger was, the results would almost certainly be disastrous. But Wendy’s tried it out in 1984 and the world was given one of the most memorable slogans in fast food history – not once, but three times in the same commercial. Even now, we can’t watch it just once.
FedEx – “Carrier Pigeons”
It’s another unwritten rule of Super Bowl advertising that the more people you can feature screaming and running for their lives while getting a viewer laughing, the better. FedEx, a company that has become a regular staple of big game spots, took that lesson with their “Carrier Pigeons” commercial, following the normal formula of showing why shipping with Federal Express beats just about any solution. The results are horrifying, but about as funny as FedEx spots get.
Miller High Life – “The 1-Second Commercial(s)”
As the 2008 recession spread, Miller took a unique step to advertise its High Life brand. Following the 2008 Super Bowl, Miller had released a commercial starring the ‘Miller delivery guy’ (Windell Middlebrooks) as he dissected the previous game’s commercials as an affront to common sense. For 2009, the delivery guy would be seen discussing the outrageous cost of a big game ad – $3 million in 2009. His solution? Air a 1-second spot, since that’s all people would need to want a High Life.
The next step was to purchase commercial time in local NBC affiliate stations to run their 30-second commercial before the game began, so that when viewers who heard their delivery guy spout the merits of cutting to the chase, they would proceed to watch the game and be treated to an industry first: a 1-second Super Bowl commercial. Enjoy:
Budweiser – “Zebra”
The referees and officials get a pretty bad wrap. While the rest of the football world eagerly awaits Super Bowl Sunday, the referees assigned to govern the play know that they are just one lapse in judgment away from being vilified by an entire nation (or half of it, at least).
But each big game also has Budweiser trotting out (pun intended) one of their commercials sporting their trademark Clydesdales. First, the horses engaged in a game of football, and over the years several different spin-offs have been released (we have a soft spot for ‘The Streaker’). But when Budweiser paid tribute to the referees, the result was just enough of an inside joke to get football fans chuckling.
Pepsi Cola – “Gotta Have It”
There have a been a few men and women who owe a Super Bowl spot for becoming a household name, but supermodel Cindy Crawford managed it without stripping almost naked and washing a sportscar. All she had to do was drink a Pepsi.
The fact that the commercial was meant to introduce the newly re-designed Pepsi can is almost an afterthought, although the can becoming one of the most iconic in the history of Pepsi may be a sign of the ad’s excellent execution. Stopping short of being overly salacious or risque, the pair of boys enamored with the can, not the woman, is about as clever as a single line of dialogue can get.
Coca-Cola – “Hey Kid, Catch!”
No explanation needed for this ad, claiming that Coca-Cola is so good, it can make even the meanest man smile. Featuring “Mean” Joe Greene, one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the NFL, the 1979 commercial is widely considered one of the best in history.
While the commercial was technically aired prior to the game, the widespread audience helped make the ad one of the all-time greats. Having made the jump into pop culture, the commercials and various spoofs are now instantly recognizable to people who may have never even heard of Greene – or his reputation.
Gatorade – “23 vs. 39”
If you mention ‘Michael Jordan’ and ‘Super Bowl,’ commercial aficionados are likely to think either of the outlandish game of HORSE played between Jordan and Larry Bird, or the iconic basketball player going toe-to-toe with Bugs Bunny. While the commercials’ abilities to sell Big Macs and Air Jordans, respectively, isn’t in question, we can’t help but feel that both of those spots pale in comparison to Gatorade’s “23 vs. 39.”
By now, Michael Jordan’s career has become the stuff of legend, hailed as one of the greatest men to ever pick up a basketball. So for the 2003 Super Bowl, Gatorade turned to special effects studio to do the impossible: have Jordan face off against his younger self. Seeing the Jordan of 2003 enter a game of one-on-one with his 1987 Chicago Bulls counterpart will captivate anyone even remotely familiar with Jordan’s career, and shows what Gatorade wanted to sell: not just a sports drink, but an idea of athletic potential.
Budweiser – “Brotherhood”
You can’t have a Super Bowl without a Budweiser Clydesdale spot, and after a few years slipping from the top spot of most touching, most powerful, and most discussed commercials of the big game, the brewer came back with a vengeance.
It’s been a year, and we still can’t watch this chronicle of a newborn horse (just seven days old during filming) through youth – only to join Budweiser’s trademark troupe and later reunite with his trainer in downtown Chicago – without tearing up. Even this year’s follow-up can’t reach the same heights, and it has a PUPPY.
Dodge Ram – “Farmer”
Technically, much of the credit for this spot should be granted to Paul Harvey’s original speech, originally given at the 1978 Future Farmers of America convention. But by setting Harvey’s words to some truly breathtaking photographs, and recognizing the merits of Harvey’s touching ode to America’s farmers in the first place, Dodge created a love letter to America’s Heartland.
Every Super Bowl brings droves of commercials featuring cowboys, working men, and ideas of what America is all about, but few actually made us want to give up our careers and start plowing fields immediately. Without drawing any attention to the Dodge Ram that the ad is selling, and instead suggesting that it is up to the task adopted by farmers daily, Dodge outdid themselves.
Apple Computers – “1984”
What happens when you hire Ridley Scott to direct a commercial for a computer company hoping to break the world out of its drab slump? In short, one of the most influential and well-known commercials of all time. It’s true that the dystopic scene pulled right out of George Orwell’s novel “1984” may have been slightly exaggerating IBM’s hopes for continued personal computer dominance, but Apple’s message was clear.
Fitting squarely alongside Ridley Scott’s style seen in Blade Runner and Alien, the commercial placed Apple as the colorful, athletic young rebel, fighting the good fight against the establishment as ‘Big Brother.’ It was a loud, bold claim at the time, but under Steve Jobs’ leadership, Apple lived up to the hype, coming to embody those same values for decades to come.
Honorable Mention: NFL – “Crazy”
It isn’t often that the NFL goes out of its way to advertise its own league – considering those watching are, well, watching already. But the league turned to Don Cheadle in the early 2000s to help punctuate the ways in which American Football redefines the dictionary.
In this Super Bowl spot, Cheadle explained why the sport is as important to fans today as it ever has been, and why they’d be crazy to not come back next season, or the one after that, or the one after that…
That’s it for our list, but which Super Bowl commercials rank among your personal favorites? Was it due to the laughs they brought or the heartstrings they plucked? Share your own thoughts in the comments and be sure to check out all of the Super Bowl 2014 Commercials here.