Apple, Pepsi, and of course, Bud.
Probably the only time of the year you don’t skip the commercials, Super Bowl ads have broken through the static and become an anticipated part of the February football season. While you might be less than gung-ho about watching the Patriots and Falcons storm the NRG Stadium in Houston at Super Bowl LI, at least there’s comfort that half-time ads will push new levels of funny, cool, and pass-me-a-tissue sappy.
But what exactly is the formula for the perfect Super Bowl commercial? Ad Age correlates spots to work the way our brains work (they call it behavioral science), capture our attention, and make a lasting impact. This can be done in a number of ways, like analogy or contrasting the pain of loss with the joy of acquisition (loss framing), but a quick test to see if it’s working is by gut reaction. Did the ad make you laugh, cry, or not get up from the couch for another chicken wing? Bingo.
Here are the nine all-time greatest Super Bowl ads of the ages… with the tenth spot open for a blockbuster 2017 commercial.
1984 – Apple
It’s crazy to think the fans watching Super Bowl XVIII between the Raiders and the Redskins would be introduced to the first-ever Mac computer concept thanks to ad placement from Apple. Although no computer appears in the commercial, the concept of the ad was that the Macintosh would shatter the status quo of life as we know it. Representing freedom as opposed to oppression and standardization, the commercial reimagined a George Orwell dystopia that is then destroyed by a sexy, tan woman wielding a sledgehammer. What’s even cooler: the ad was directed by Ridley Scott.
1992 – Pepsi
Pepsi never missed a beat placing a Super Bowl ad through the 80s and 90s (normally featuring Michael J. Fox), but it was this gem from Super Bowl XXVI (Redskins v. Bills) that really stands out. After all, what’s a football commercial without an international supermodel? In this spot a young Cindy Crawford stops by a vending machine to purchase a Pepsi. Two young boys watch from afar and instead of marveling at the smoking hot Crawford, they’re entranced with the new Pepsi can design. One, Cindy looks amazing in a form-fitting white tank top and cut off blue jean shorts, and two, the irony in the kids being more allured by the soda can is a great twist.
2000 – Budweiser
This simple yet effective Budweiser ad that run during the Rams v. Titans matchup of Super Bowl XXXIV had everyone (we. mean. everyone.) repeating “wazzup!” It was almost too catchy, and like many successful Super Bowl ads of yore, wasn’t about anything except a couple guys, watching the game and drinking a Bud. Sometimes simple really is best. In fact, the ad received such great reception that Budweiser changed its entire ad campaign from 2000-2008 to incorporate the “wazzup!” The phrase would go on to be spoofed by Scary Movie that same year.
2003 – Reebok
Thanks to Super Bowl commercials we now have Terry Tate— an “official linebacker” sent from Reebok to motivate everyday office workers. (FYI, Terry Tate is not an actual football player.) First to air in 2003, the gimmick became one of the most successful haft-time ads in history, thanks to its humorous depiction of a linebacker tackling office workers for playing solitaire and being sweet and chummy with Janice. However, the ad didn’t do much for Reebok in terms of sales or brand awareness. It acted more as a form of comic relief between the battle among Oakland and Tampa Bay.
2008 – E-Trade
A selection of similar E-Trade ads featuring a baby who talks about online trading became a pop culture sensation, and pinnacle for financial services company. (They stuck with the baby concept for seven years!). In fact, it’s the most predominant section in E-Trade’s Wikipedia page. The concept was great for Super Bowl placement because it’s family friendly and yet still comical to older crowds. Thanks to the baby, E-Trade found itself with a huge social media following— especially for a brand that helps you buy and sell stocks and bond. Good play, E-Trade.
2010 – Old Spice
Men’s deodorant brand Old Spice hit the commercial jackpot with, The Man Your Man Could Smell Like. In the spot, a fit and fancy hunk fires off a monologue on why he’s a better man than, well, your man, while the camera pans with him through various activities and locations (from a bathroom to a boat to riding a horse). Taking advantage of random humor, the spot got more than 3 million hits on YouTube (a lot for 2010, kids), and became an internet sensation. Old Spice has gone on to replicate the theme of the ad for other products. Another reason it’s so great, he’s on a horse.
2011 – Volkswagen
Holy cuteness, Volkswagen hooked us with this Super Bowl XLV ad, where a little kid dressed as Darth Vader attempts to use to the force on everyday home items (dog and washing machine included) to no avail. The kid tries one final time on his dad’s Passat and it revs, startling the kid. It’s purely, completely funny and sweet, and makes you feel good after watching it. Plus, everyone loves Star Wars so it’s a one-two-punch.
2013 – Budweiser
Before the days of heart-melting puppy dogs befriending Clydesdale horses, there was a man and his horse. The Ravens were handing the 49-ers their first-ever Super Bowl loss in franchise history at Super Bowl XLVII, but we were wiping away tears from watching the Budweiser ad where a rancher gives away the horse he raised and trained, to become a famous Budweiser Clydesdale. Set to the Dixie Chicks Landslide tear-jerker, we balled into our Dorito-crusted hands when the horse recognizes his rancher owner three years after their separation. The next year Budweiser upped its game, replacing the man with a Labrador puppy. All I can say is damn, Budweiser knows how to play with our emotions.
2015 – Carl’s Junior
While the majority of Carl’s Jr. ads are banned from appearing during the Super Bowl due to their raunchy and suggestive use of semi-naked women smashing burgers against their chests, this spot featuring Charlotte McKinney covered only what was necessary to make the cut for prime time. The ad teases the burger chain’s new All Natural Burger— comparing all natural to wearing no clothes. Without its push-the-boundary ads, Carl’s Jr. would be as obscure as Burger King or Hardees, as McDonalds really owns the ad space of burger fast food. But these ads which play purely on captivation through voyeurism, literally glue viewers to the screen. Sex sells, man.
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