For decades, the Super Bowl advertising formula has been the same: Make funny jokes for all the beer-swilling guys in front of the screen. Pay B-list celebrity heaps of cash for 10 seconds on film. Consider doing both. Hope the world pays attention.
For some, the bar is higher. Madison Avenue’s more clever creative directors and chief marketing officers have had better ideas, of course. And that’s who we will celebrate below.
No one is saying the ads that follow are the best or worst Super Bowl commercials ever made. Deciding the entrants in those categories is for savvier minds than ours. We’re putting our focus on those ads that forced a change in how Super Bowl commercials are plotted, put together or placed in the lineup of the network broadcasting the game. So, there’s no mention in the paragraphs below of Coke’s famous Mean Joe Greene ad or the popular 1973 Super Bowl ad for Noxzema featuring Farrah Fawcett and Joe Namath.
Dozens of ads can make you laugh or bolt upright in shock. But few can shake up a system that has run pretty much as is for almost five decades. What follows is that handful of Super Bowl commercials that have given rise to new ways of thinking about how some of the biggest, most-watched ads in the United States are constructed. Tell us what you think:
Apple, “1984” (1984)
Appeared in: Super Bowl XVII
Game: Los Angeles Raiders defeat Washington Redskins 38 to 9.
What: An athlete, chased by troopers, bursts into a room of cowed citizens staring dumbstruck at a Orwellian scene: A bloviating orator talking via a big screen about the importance of maintaining unified thought and vision. The intruder hurls a sledgehammer into the air to stop the indoctrination and wake up the crowd.
Why: Apple was trying to take a poke at then-dominant IBM and draw attention to its upstart Macintosh computer, but in putting this seminal ad on the air (and never running it in full since), the marketer tried to make us think rather than make us chuckle before moving on to the next thing. If only more Super Bowl ads could do the same.
Volkswagen, “The Force” (2011)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLV
Game: Green Bay Packers defeat Pittsburgh Steelers 31 to 25.
What: A young boy dressed as Darth Vader from “Star Wars” tries to use the Force to start machines and wake up a dog. He is surprised to find, however, that he can start a Volkswagen Passat, though it turns out his father was using a remote control.
Why: Volkswagen became the first advertiser to really harness social media to gain more value from its Super Bowl ad. The automaker put a 60-second version commercial on YouTube the week before it was supposed to debut in the Super Bowl, and generated millions of views and viral chatter, whetting consumers’ appetites to see it when it finally ran in the game in 30-second form. This practice of releasing Super Bowl ads early via social media has now become the norm for nearly every marketer with a spot in the game.
Chrysler, “Imported From Detroit” (2011)
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLV
Game: Green Bay Packers defeat Pittsburgh Steelers 31 to 25.
What: This ad lasted a mammoth two minutes – an eternity in the world of television advertising. With the Eminem song “Lose Yourself” thumping in the background, it showed a Chrysler 200 moving through the streets of Detroit (“What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?”) and proclaimed the return of the U.S. auto industry from recession. Chrysler has followed the formula ever since, running extra-long ads featuring Clint Eastwood and Bob Dylan in more recent Super Bowls.
Why: By insisting upon a non-traditional ad length that cost four times as much as the typical Super Bowl (and forcing broadcaster Fox to rearrange the game’s advertising lineup), Chrysler seized upon the national mood at the time and demonstrated that anyone with a new idea and a lot of cash can change even TV’s mightiest institution.
Just For Feet, “Kenya” (1999)
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi
Appeared In: Super Bowl XXXIII
Game: Denver Broncos defeat Atlanta Falcons, 34 to 19.
What: A group of white men in a Humvee track a Kenyan runner and offer him water spiked with a sedative. After he passes out, the men put Nike shoes on his feet. After waking up, the runner is so upset he screams as he tries to shake the shoes off.
Why: The Just For Feet ad was accused of being racist, and the retailer later sued its ad agency but subsequently dropped the charges. Just For Feet would go into bankruptcy protection just a few months later, but the lesson from this ad – the Super Bowl, which brings in the broadest swath of U.S. TV viewers, is no place to run content that has the potential to offend – is still relevant.
Sadly, some advertisers have not taken that moral to heart. In 2007, a Snickers ad showing two male mechanics kissing angered gay rights groups. In 2008, two ads from SalesGenie depicting cartoon caricatures of Chinese-speaking pandas and an Indian salesman drew outrage. And in 2011, an ad from Groupon was charged with making light of the woes of Tibetan refugees.
Agency: Euro RSCG Edge
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLIII
Game: Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Arizona Cardinals 27 to 23.
What: Former “Tonight Show” sidekick Ed McMahon (“Heeeere’s money!” he says as the spot opens) and onetime rapper MC Hammer urge viewers to turn in their jewelry for quick dollars – a message that may have struck a chord with thousands of people affected by the economic recession plaguing the United States at the time.
Why: TV-network executives will tell you the Super Bowl ought to be a place for only blue-chip marketers. When times get tough, however, they’re happy to sell to anyone who can pony up the cash, even if it means opening the ranks of the gridiron classic to a marketer more commonly associated with direct-response TV ads.
Anheuser-Busch, “Bud Bowl” (1989 to 1995, 1997)
Agency: D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles was behind the first effort
Appeared In: Super Bowl XXIII- Super Bowl XXIX, Super Bowl XXXI
What: Bottles of the brewer’s flagship Budweiser took the field against bottles of Bud Light (Bud Ice and Bud Dry would appear as the series wore on) in a stop-motion-animation classic that turned the Super Bowl on its head for a few years.
Why: In 2015, “Bud Bowl” may be a hoary old joke, but in its time it stood as an example of an advertiser figuring out a way to craft something much bigger than a handful of 30-second commercials. The fact that “Bud Bowl” had a plot and an ending kept viewers guessing as the actual football contest wore on. Some observers were known to crack that the Bud Bowl was often more exciting than the game it ran alongside, and the faux gridiron contest prompted some people to gamble on its outcome.
Master Lock, “Marksman” (1974 to 1983)
Agency: Campbell Mithun
Appeared In: Super Bowl VII to Super Bowl XVII
What: A sharpshooter fires on a Master Lock, which appears damaged by the bullet but remains intact.
Why: Few companies stick with the Super Bowl as long as Master Lock did, and fewer still keep the same theme year after year. Most choose instead to do something reflecting recent news events or current ideas in popular culture. As Master Lock demonstrated, sometimes the most basic idea can be the most powerful one.
Coca-Cola, “It’s Beautiful” (2014)
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLVIII
Game: Seattle Seahawks defeat Denver Broncos, 48 to 3.
What: In an inspiring 60-second ad, bilingual Americans sing the patriotic classic of the ad’s title in seven different languages: English, Spanish. Keres, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese, French and Hebrew. “The ad provides a snapshot of the real lives of Americans representing diverse ethnicities, religions, races and families,” Coca-Cola explained upon the commercial’s release, “all found in the United States.”
Why: The “Beautiful” ad was one of several in last year’s Super Bowl commercial lineup that took pains to acknowledge the growing diversity of U.S. consumers. An ad that aired in the 2014 game for Cheerios depicted an interracial marriage. Both concepts drew hateful comments, but pointed to a larger truth: Advertisers need to appeal to all potential customers, not just those who have historically enjoyed a premium position.
Doritos, “Crash the Super Bowl” (2007 and on)
Agency: Independent contributors along with Goodby, Silverstein and Partners
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLI and afterwards
What: Amateurs contributed oddball homilies to the sometimes cheesy, sometimes spicy chip made by PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay snack unit as part of a real contest for cash and recognition. Over the years, entries have depicted 22-year-old winner Kina Grannis singing her composition “Message to Your Heart” and a pug crashing through a sliding glass door to get to a bag of the snack. Many of the ads score very high the next day in USA Today’s Super Bowl “Ad Meter,” a ranking that has a lot of clout among marketing executives.
Why: One might argue that Doritos’ success over the years has turned the Super Bowl into a never-ending seriesof viral videos with low production values. Yet the lesson is obvious: You don’t need special effects and high-paid creative executives to design a winning commercial, particular in an era when grainy, streaming video has proven to win the eyeballs of a consumer base more accustomed to such stuff on YouTube.
CBS, “David Letterman and Surprise Guest Stars” (2007, 2010)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLI, Super Bowl XLV
What: The irascible Letterman, never known for his eagerness to take part in promotional stunts devised by others, got Oprah Winfrey to appear with him in a 2007 CBS Super Bowl promo. Winfrey had been the target of an odd, poorly received joke Letterman made when he hosted the 1995 Oscars broadcast. Three years later, Letterman topped himself, and really raised eyebrows: He persuaded rival Jay Leno, then under scrutiny for returning to his “Tonight Show” perch after NBC had an acrimonious split with then-host Conan O’Brien, to join the fun along with Winfrey.
Why: TV-network promos are old-school affairs, offering a peek at a coming program while telling viewers about the time and date of air. In years past, even Super Bowl efforts barely shook up the formula. But Letterman’s clever executions raised the bar, and Fox and NBC have followed his example in the years that have followed.
EDS, “Cat Herders,” 2000
Appeared In: Super Bowl XXXIV
Game: St. Louis Rams defeat Tennessee Titans 23 to 16.
What: A band of cowboys – uh, maybe catboys? – ride the Great Plains to keep a herd of felines in tow. “Anybody can herd cattle,” says one of the group. “Holding together ten thousand half-wild short-hairs? That’s another thing altogether.” The spot was meant to show how the technology consultant, now part of Hewlett Packard, could serve as a sort of one-stop shop for solving problems.
Why: The spectacular ad, created with the aid of special effects and digital manipulation, demonstrated just how important a high level of production and a visually stunning pitch can help an ad stand apart amidst a sea of spots centered on silly jokes for inebriated game-watchers.