When Super Bowl LIII kicks off, advertisers will be crossing their fingers, hoping for a nail-biter that will keep viewers tuned in until the last second. CBS has reportedly been charging $5.1 million to $5.3 million for a 30-second spot in the game between the New England Patroits and the Los Angeles Rams.
Since the Super Bowl is one of the last must-see live TV events left, almost $10.5 million a minute can change a brand’s fate, but only if the ads hit their target.
Indeed, some Super Bowl ads have gone on to become industry legends, classics that made their way into the culture and became iconic. Our list doesn’t include Apple’s groundbreaking “1984” ad introducing the Macintosh from—well, 1984’s game that is widely credited with starting the era of using the Super Bowl as an ad showcase. Like Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter, “1984’s” number has been retired after too many top-10 lists.
So in chronological order, here is our non-scientific sampling of the Super Bowl’s iconic commercials. Like an NFL referee, we make our own calls here, but you’re welcome to debate them in the comments section.
Coca-Cola Co., “Early Showers” 1979
This spot, from McCann-Erickson, featured the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle, “Mean” Joe Greene—known as one of the best hitters in the game—with a cute nine-year-old who gives up his Coke to the injured player on his way to the showers. Greene responds by tossing him his jersey with a smile—something his opponents never saw before being tackled. Cue Coca-Cola’s famous jingle: “Have a Coke and a Smile.”
Better known as the “Hey kid” ad, this wasn’t even a Super Bowl ad originally. It first aired during the playoffs in winter 1978, then showed up in the big game. It became a meme before there was social media, still parodied today by everyone from “Sesame Street” to “The Simpsons.”
Wendy’s “Fluffy Bun” 1984
A campaign from Dancer Fitzgerald Semple (later to become Saatchi & Saatchi New York) made a star of an 81-year-old retired manicurist called Clara Peller who dissed a rival’s burgers, demanding to know “Where’s the beef?”
Like the Mean Joe Greene ad, the spot also aired before the Super Bowl—not unusual in those pre-1984 days. While Apple’s “1984” only aired once, this ad and the rest of this campaign aired so many times that “Where’s the beef?” became a catchphrase. It even made its way into the presidential campaign that year, when Walter Mondale used it (far less successfully) during his run for president.
Peller, who died four years later, had her 15 minutes of fame, making TV appearances and even recording a single. She eventually was dropped by Wendy’s after she appeared in a spaghetti sauce ad, claiming to have found the beef there.
Pepsi, “New Generation” 1984
This musical blowout was supposed to be a big deal, the first ad in a record sponsorship deal between Michael Jackson and PepsiCo. In 1984, as Pepsi tried to brand its flagship product as ”the choice of a new generation” and leave Coca-Cola in the past, it turned to Jackson, fresh from the mega-hit of Thriller.
Jackson rewrote his hit Billie Jean as a jingle and starred in a mini-musical movie by agency BBDO and that aired during the game. A follow-up ad in the same campaign, featuring Jackson and his brothers, became known as The Ad that Almost Killed Michael Jackson when an on-set explosion set his hair on fire during shooting.
In spite of the faulty pyrotechnics, the ads worked so well, Pepsi would come back time and again to the Super Bowl with more star turns by Ray Charles, Britney Spears, Madonna, Beyónce and many others in following years.
Anheuser-Busch “Bud Bowl” 1989
Before the Lingerie Bowl, the Puppy Bowl, or any of the other imitators, there was the original Bud Bowl. Anheuser-Busch wanted to own Super Bowl XXIII, the first time it was the exclusive beer sponsor in the big game, so agency DMB&B (later to become part of Leo Burnett) came up with a multi-part story playing out in spots throughout the game.
Classic Bud and Bud Light met in stadium created by the stop-motion-animation crew that previously worked on the cult TV show “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” Football announcer Bob Costas did the play-by-play, complete with “tear-away label” causing a “brew-haha on the field.” Spuds McKenzie, the “party animal” mascot Bud unveiled at the 1987 Super Bowl, even had a cameo as a team owner.
Luckily for Bud, the game between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers was so close it featured the first half-time tie and the Bengals only lost in the last minute. This ensured viewers stayed with the broadcast long enough to see win Budweiser score a last-second field goal. The concept proved so popular that Bud Bowl came back to the Super Bowl time and again until 1997.
McDonald’s “Showdown” 1993
“Nothing but net” was already a catchphrase among ballers before this ad aired in Super Bowl XXVII, but after the big game, the expression became firmly part of the language. Rivals Michael Jordan and Larry Bird starred in a game of H-O-R-S-E basketball, with the winner having to watch the loser eat lunch.
In each of the two ads that ran in the game the two basketball greats tried to one-up each other by sinking trickier and more outlandish shots—from the nosebleed seats, the stadium rafters, the top of the Sears Tower. Jordan’s last line gave the ad its real tagline: “Off the expressway, over the river, off the billboard, through the window, off the wall. Nothing but net.”
The spots, by Leo Burnett, spawned a sequel in the Super Bowl the following year, and even remakes featuring LeBron James and Dwight Howard and football quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick.
Pets.com “Please Don’t Go” 2000
The Super Bowl of 2000 became known as the “Dot-com Bowl” as online startups such as Monster.com, Computer.com, WebMd, AutoTrader and poured money to build their names in time for their IPO. Some are still around, many went the way of Pets.com.
The online pet store hit upon a marketing concept that made it into pop culture: its sock-puppet mascot. The puppet dog, voiced by comedian Michael Ian Black, showed up in ads in 1999 that were an instant hit with TV viewers. The character became so popular it even made to into the balloons on the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade that year.
In early 2000, almost coinciding with its initial public offering of stock in February, the company bet on the publicity of the Super Bowl ad. Agency TBWA/Chiat/Day shot a music video featuring the sock puppet comforting lonely pets left home alone while their owners went to the pet store.
Unfortunately, investors needed comforting when the company’s IPO crashed and burned shortly after and Pets.com shut down in November. The sock puppet and its Super Bowl spots became icons of the worst excesses of the dot-com bubble. It was even mocked in an ad during the 2001 Super Bowl.
Google “Parisian Love” 2010
It’s hard to believe there was a time when Google needed to advertise, but in Super Bowl 2010, the search engine stunned the marketing industry by turning up in the big game. Just as surprising was that the ad Google spent millions to air was created by a bunch of college students.
The Google Creative Lab had started a program to recruit marketing and design students to build a creative team of programmers and designers called Google Five. The team developed “Parisian Love” as an online one-off to show Google’s lesser-known features at the time.
With an economy of imagery and sound effects, it told a love story in 30-seconds worth of online searches, from “study abroad” and “how to impress a French girl” to “churches in Paris” and “how to assemble a crib.” The ad was simply brilliant because it was brilliantly simple; it demonstrated the product features while appealing to emotions with soaring music and even a cooing baby.
It got so much attention online, the company put it on the Super Bowl. After the game, it became an online meme, with parodies online featuring “snakes on a plane” and “zombie apocalypse.”
Snickers “Game” 2010
It’s too soon to tell if this Snickers series will become a part of advertising history, but it has shown to have more staying power than most recent Super Bowl spots. The spot kicked off (no pun intended) a campaign by Mars to position its candy bar as a solution to the many mishaps that happen when hungry people are just not themselves.
The ad, from longtime Snickers agency BBDO, has become known as “Betty White” because it sent the “Golden Girls” star career into overdrive, even inciting young fans to start a successful write-in campaign to book White to host “Saturday Night Live.” The then 88-year-old actress starred as Mike, a hapless bro that couldn’t hold his own in a football game with friends. After a bit of trash talk and a Snickers bar, White turns back into Mike’s real dudebro form.
The campaign grew to feature divas (with Liza Minelli and the late Aretha Franklin) and hangry guys (Joe Pesci and Don Rickles), with local adaptations created around the world. It’s even been translated into a social media effort where celebrities tweeted statements quite off-character before tweeting they had corrected the situation with a Snickers.
The concept is still in use today, with Elton John turning into rapper Boogie in the latest ad. But quite possibly, the only reason “Game” is not still in Snickers’ rotation today is that actor Abe Vigoda—who endures unnecessary roughness in the show’s kicker joke—died in 2016. Betty White, however, is still available.
Did we miss any of your favorites? Add your choices in the comments section below.
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