Changing the Big Game takes big ideas.
Most Super Bowl advertisers take the easy way out. They come up with a joke or surprise destined to tickle the funny bone of the drunk guys sitting in the back of the room at even the noisiest Super Bowl party. Over the years, however, a few marketers have used the event to break the rules, creating commercials that are still talked about years later.
No one will tell you what follows in the list below is the definitive tally of the best or worst Super Bowl ads ever made. Curating that collection is a task for more erudite noggins than ours. Instead, we are placing emphasis on commercials that sparked a change in how Super Bowl ads are placed and planned. Maybe the TV network airing the contest had to change its standards to accommodate a creative idea. Perhaps the type of marketer that placed the ad represented a change in perception of who might be considered a Super Bowl sponsor. We grant you, there’s no mention below of the popular 1973 Super Bowl commercial for Noxzema featuring Farrah Fawcett and Joe Namath. And there’s little notice accorded Anheuser-Busch’s 1995 spot that put a spotlight on the Budweiser Frogs.
What follows below is that handful of Super Bowl commercials that have proven able to rewire a system that has run pretty much as is for almost five decades. These commercials gave rise to new ways of thinking about how to build some of the biggest, most expensive, and most widely watched commercials ever made. After you read, tell us what you think.
Apple, “1984” (1984)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XVII
Game: Los Angeles Raiders defeat Washington Redskins 38 to 9.
What: Cowed citizens of some clearly dystopian society stare dumbstruck at a Orwellian scene: A bloviating orator talking via a big screen about the importance of maintaining unified thought and vision. An athletic female intruder – chased by some kind of law enforcement – shatters the forced calm by hurling a hammer into the air. By doing so, the athlete stops the indoctrination and wakes up the crowd.
Why: At the time, Apple was trying to take a poke at then-dominant IBM and gain attention to its upstart Macintosh computer, but in putting this seminal ad on the air (and never running it in full since), the marketer asked us to think, not laugh. If only more Super Bowl ads tried to get us to do the same. Imagine if an ad with similar themes ran this year, buoyed by the current news cycle and the success of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
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. Of course, he has no powers. But he is surprised to find he can start a Volkswagen Passat (it turns out his father was using a remote control).
Why: Volkswagen became the first advertiser to truly harness social media to wring more value from its Super Bowl efforts. 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. For a while, the practice of releasing Super Bowl ads early via social media became the norm for nearly every marketer with a spot in the game, though in recent years, some have throttled back on the idea, eager to save a surprise for Sunday viewers.
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, a Chrysler 200 moves 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 repeated the formula a few times more, running extra-long ads featuring Clint Eastwood and Bob Dylan in subsequent 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.
Doritos, “Crash the Super Bowl” (2007 to 2016)
Agency: Independent contributors along with Goodby, Silverstein and Partners
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLI to Super Bowl 50
What: Amateurs contributed homemade commercials for 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. They were sometimes rickety and often a little outrageous. And yet: 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 series of 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.
GoDaddy, “Proceedings,” (2005) and Cash4Gold (2009)
Agency: The Ad Store (GoDaddy) and EuroRSCG Edge (Cash4Gold)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XXXIX (Go Daddy) and Super Bowl XLIII (Cash4Gold)
Game: New England Patriots defeat Philadelphia Eagles 24 to 21 (Go Daddy)
Pittsburgh Steelers defeat Arizona Cardinals 27 to 23 (Cash4Gold)
What: GoDaddy set tongues wagging with an impertinent commercial showing a model testifying before what looked to be a congressional committee about her desire to be in an ad. Her attire was suspect from the beginning – a tank top. Within seconds of the ad’s start, viewers saw a wardrobe malfunction, and the woman, attempting to collect herself, explained what GoDaddy was to a startled assemblage.
Cash4Gold, meanwhile, trotted out former “Tonight Show” sidekick Ed McMahon (“Heeeere’s money!” he said as the spot opens) and onetime rapper MC Hammer to 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: Once upon a time, the Super Bowl was a place mainly for blue-chip marketers. Since the dot-com boom, however, flashy upstarts and hard-nosed entrepreneurs have been eager to use the event to fuel awareness, and the networks just can’t resist – even if it means opening the ranks of the gridiron classic to a marketer more commonly associated with direct-response TV ads. GoDaddy would go on to become one of the longest-running sponsors of the Super Bowl, while Cash4Gold has (so far) never been seen in the event again.
Chevrolet, “Blackout,” (2015) and Tide, “Bradshaw Stain” (2017)
Agency: Commonwealth (Chevrolet) and (Saatchi & Saatchi)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLIX (Chevrolet) and Super Bowl LI (Tide)
Game: New England Patriots defeat Seattle Seahawks 28 to 24 (Chevrolet)
New England Patriots defeat Atlanta Falcons 34 to 28 (Tide)
What: In 2015, Chevrolet made a stunning appearance just before the kickoff of Super Bowl XLIX that made it look as if the feed of the game had been disrupted by some sort of technological glitch. In reality, the commercial just went dark for seven seconds (after an announcer at a football game started talking about ‘Super Bowl 49’). Last year, Procter & Gamble scored with an ad that put a stain on announcer Terry Bradshaw’s shirt during the Fox Sports broadcast, then showed him working frantically to remove it using Tide.
Why: As the advent of digital media has made a new generation of viewers increasingly comfortable with skipping past ads (or watching fewer of them in real time), advertisers have pressed aggressively for new ways to tie their pitches more directly to the programs. In recent years, they have definitely succeeded.
Coca-Cola, “It’s Beautiful” (2014)
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLVIII
Game: Seattle Seahawks defeat Denver Broncos, 48 to 3.
What: Children sing “America the Beautiful”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 the earliest examples in a growing push by some of America’s biggest and most influential advertisers recognizing their customers hail from a more diverse population than the one consuming their goods in say, 1955. Others sparked the trend as well – one 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. Since that time, the Super Bowl ad roster has been filled in part by sponsors eager to shed a light on social issues.
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 sometimes was as heady a contest as the game itself.
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. The faux gridiron contest prompted some people to gamble on its outcome. In 2018, Anheuser Busch is embracing the concept again, with a “trilogy” of Bud Light ads that end up in a rollicking finale that involves a “Bud Knight.”
CBS, “David Letterman and Surprise Guest Stars” (2007, 2010)
Appeared In: Super Bowl XLI, Super Bowl XLV
What: Letterman was never known for his eagerness to take part in promotional stunts devised by others during his wee-hours tenure on NBC and CBS. But in 2007, he got Oprah Winfrey to appear with him in a 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.
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. Letterman’s clever executions raised the bar, however, and Fox and NBC have followed his example in the years that have followed. CBS for years faced raised expectations that Letterman might take part once again (he did so in 2013). After taking a query from a reporter at Super Bowl publicity event about Letterman’s intent for the coming game, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves acknowledged that anything involving the late-night comic was “a tall order.”