A History of The Greatest Super Bowl Commercials of All Time

by Ricky Fernandes da Conceição

The Most Iconic Super Bowl Ads

What makes a good Super Bowl commercial?

For more than four decades, the Super Bowl has become synonymous with ads and with each year passing year, the asking price for ad space has gone up as companies spend outrageous amounts of money to air their ads during the Big Game. The pricing has gotten so out of hand that a 30-second spot during the CBS broadcast of Super Bowl LV costs a reported $5.5 million.

When you do the math and consider the number of people who watch, it does make sense. In 2020, or example, over 102 million people tuned into the Chiefs win over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. And with the ongoing pandemic, it’s expected even more people will tune in this year to see the Chiefs attempt to win their second championship against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Let’s be honest; along with the halftime show, many of the commercials have become so iconic, they are remembered more so than the game itself which often fades from the memory of the average viewer.

So, while we wait to see which advertisers will win this year’s event, it’s as good as a time as ever to take a walk down memory lane and remember the best Super Bowl ads of all time.

What follows is a list of the most unforgettable, heartwarming, hilarious, sad or just plain clever Super Bowl commercials.

Special Mention:

Gatorade: 23 vs. 39 (2003)
E-Trade: Wasted (2000)
E-Trade: Baby (2008)
Budweiser: Bud Bowl I (1989)
Budweiser: Singing Frogs (1995)
Pepsi: Your Cheatin’ Heart (1996)

The Best Super Bowl Commercials of All Time

10. Budweiser: Lost Dog (2015)

The Sequel to Puppy Love

You’d be hard-pressed to find another Super Bowl commercial that made millions of grown men cry during the Big Game.

Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ad, Lost Dog, is a heartwarming tale about how true friends always have your back, especially in the toughest times.

The sequel to Budweiser’s equally popular 2014 ad Puppy Love sees the rambunctious little pup lost after he jumps into the back of a horse trailer that drives off and separates him from his family. After spending days, if not weeks on his own, the silly pup finds himself in deep trouble when he’s confronted by a dangerous looking wolf. Fortunately his Clydesdale pals hear his pitiful cry for help and race to his rescue.

Lost Dog is the rare sequel that outdoes the original. In less than two minutes, the spot tells a great story while tugging on the heartstrings of viewers. Right alongside the New England Patriots, Budweiser’s Lost Dog was the winner of Super Bowl XLIX.

Eight puppies were used in the filming of this ad, directed by RSA’s Jake Scott. The poignant soundtrack is by Sleeping At Last, who offer up an acoustic version of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” originally by the Proclaimers.

With this ad, Budweiser was able to do what most teams have not been able to accomplish — they won back-to-back Super Bowls.

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9. Honda: Ferris Bueller (2012)

A week before Super Bowl XLVI, a mysterious ten-second teaser featuring Matthew Broderick quoting a famous line from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off sent fans into a frenzy. The mystery, for better or worse, lasted for about ten minutes until it was reported that the Bueller-themed spot was actually a 2:25 minute commercial for the Honda CR-V and not a sequel to the beloved 80s comedy.

Still, once fans were over the disappointment, they welcomed the ad with open arms.

The commercial, produced by Hangover writer/director Todd Phillips, features Broderick playing hooky from work and gallivanting around the city in his CR-V (replacing a Ferrari).

Apart from the car reference, the ad includes over two dozen other shout-outs to the original film.

Sadly, the ad doesn’t feature Alan Ruck (Cameron), Jennifer Grey (Jeanie Bueller), Ben Stein (economics teacher) or the lovely Mia Sara as Sloane.

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8. Wendy’s: Where’s the Beef? (1984)

In this classic Super Bowl advertisement, Wendy’s says its burgers have more beef than both the Burger King Whopper and the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder…

When Wendy’s debuted their now-iconic commercial starring 80-year-old Clara Peller during Super Bowl XVIII, “Where’s the beef?” became an instant catchphrase and made Peller a star overnight.

The ad, originally titled Fluffy Bun, was the brainchild of top-tier agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample (also responsible for Toyota’s Oh, What a Feeling! campaign), and was an instant sensation, spawning a series of Peller-starring sequels along with a boatload of merchandise.

Where’s the Beef? lives on as one of the most memorable TV commercials of all time. Ad Age named it one of the top ten ad slogans of the 20th century, and it was credited with boosting Wendy’s annual revenue. Overall sales jumped by 31% to $945 million worldwide by 1985 helping to build Wendy’s from an upstart fast-food joint into the third-largest burger chain in the world.

The spot was directed by Joe Sedelmaier, a legend in marketing who was known to buck trends and gained notice for fundamentally changing the way television spots were cast and filmed–replacing the actors who seemed like plastic, too perfect mannequins with offbeat people like Clara Peller.

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McDonald’s: Larry Bird vs. Michael Jordan Showdown (1993)

7. McDonald’s: The Showdown (1993)

Larry Bird vs. Michael Jordan

In 1993, basketball legends Larry Bird and Michael Jordan competed in an increasingly wild game of h-o-r-s-e, after Bird challenged Jordan for his lunch which included his McDonald’s Big Mac and Fries.

The one and a half-minute spot opens with the two men in a simple shooting contest but as the game progresses, the two NBA stars make continuously more difficult and unbelievable shots before taking the game outside the gym. Eventually things quickly escalate as they wind up trying to make a shot from the top of the Hancock Center in Chicago. When the ad ends, it’s never made clear who walked away the winner.

The commercial was such a hit that by the time, the two-part commercial finished airing during Super Bowl XXVII, the catchphrase “nothing but net” became ingrained in popular culture. McDonald’s even brought it back in several iterations including one with Lebron James.

In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Copywriter Jim Ferguson and art director Bob Shallcross, then the top creative team at Leo Burnett Worldwide, said they had almost total creative freedom while coming up with the spot.

“It was a very simple idea, but what you find in advertising is that the simple ideas are usually the best,” Ferguson said. “Did we have any idea it was going to become part of pop culture? Hell no, man. You never know what’s going to catch on, but you hit the right time, the right idea, the right stars and sometimes it does.”

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6. Nike: Hare Jordan (1992)

Jordan vs. Bugs Bunny

In 1992, Nike signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. for the use of all its Looney Tunes characters in future TV spots. The first of these ads was the much talked about Hare Jordan Super Bowl commercial, featuring an animated Bugs Bunny teaming up with Michael Jordan to outsmart some basketball hoodlums.

The Nike spot was the brainchild of advertising legend Jim Riswold, who was also partially responsible for the Bo Knows campaign as well as the stirring This-Is-Your-Brain-on-Drugs PSA. It cost nearly $1 million to make (excluding Jordan’s salary) and required 3,000 separate illustrations hand drawn by about 25 artists. It was one of the first major examples of market-tested nostalgia, and it proved to be so influential, it kickstarted a surge of TV commercials that mixed live action with animated cartoon characters.

Hare Jordan was a massive success it also inspired a 1993 sequel in which Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan re-team to retrieve a load of stolen Air Jordan sneakers from Martin Martian— not to mention, the cult-classic film Space Jam, which debuted on the silver screen four years later.

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5. Budweiser: Whassup? (1999)

True!

A sure sign of a great commercial is one that quickly enters the zeitgeist. The Whassup campaign for Budweiser did just, becoming a global phenomenon, popular even in countries where Budweiser wasn’t sold— and one of the first campaigns to go viral.

The concept was simple. It was based on a short film, entitled True, written and directed by Charles Stone III, that featured Stone and several of his childhood friends watching the game while having a Bud and repeatedly saying “whassup?” to one another in a comical way.

While the first spot aired during Monday Night Football on December 20, 1999, the ad campaign was only run worldwide during Super Bowl XXXIII. Is when then that Whassup? helped make Budweiser a hipper, cooler brand and decades later, it remains the most quotable commercial of all time.

Whassup? won the Cannes Grand Prix award and the Grand Clio award, among others.

In May 2006, the campaign was inducted into the CLIO Hall of Fame.

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4. Pepsi: Apartment 10G (1987)

Michael J. Fox Meets His Neighbour

There was a time when Michael J. Fox was the most famous actor on the planet. While still making Family Ties, Fox attained movie-star status in 1985 with two films, Teen Wolf and, Back to the Future, a huge theatrical hit worldwide that earned a worldwide gross of $381.1 million, making it the highest-grossing film of the year.

Pepsi’s decision to hire him as the face of their brand was a no-brainer. He was still relatively cheap at the time and he was one of the most charasmastic men in Hollywood.

In the ad, a beautiful woman moves in across the hall from Michael J. Fox. When she knocks at his door and they meet for the first time, she innocently asks if he has a Diet Pepsi. When Fox checks the refrigerator, he reazlises he has ran out. Eager to oblige, he jumps out his window and dodges traffic to cross the street during a thunderstorm and reach a vending machine on the other side. After buying a Diet Pepsi,he returns to offer the attractive lady the drink. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble,” she says before introducing him to her friend, another gorgeous woman who’s also craving the soda pop.

Iconic ad director Rick Levine, who worked with Pepsi for more than a decade directing at least 20 of its iconic commercials, says that Pepsi Cola and Michael J. Fox are very deserving of their inductions into the Ad Hall of Fame.

“When you see him in Apartment 10G, he did practically all his own stunts, except running over the cars and jumping off the fire escape,” he said. “Three nights of shooting in rain. He was freezing his backside off. I was freezing my backside off. We got a take and I said, ‘I thought that was good, Mike.’ And he said, ‘Rick, I can do better.’ That’s the kind of man we’re talking about.”

This campaign played internationally and is considered one of the finest of the decade, further cementing his status as a teen icon at the time. Pepsi brought the ad back in 2000 for Fox’s final episode of the sitcom Spin City.

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Most Iconic Super Bowl Ads

3. Pepsi: New Can (Two Kids) (1992)

Cindy Crawford’s Iconic Ad

In the early 1990s, one of the most popular women in the world was super model Cindy Crawford. Her intelligence, down-to-earth demeanour, and athletic, full-bodied physique earned her a rare cross-gender appeal. Crawford was also known form being business savvy and became one of the first female supermodels to diversify her career by venturing into multiple industries including acting. In the early 90s, Crawford signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Pepsi and joined the company’s endorsement roster that also included Madonna, Michael Jackson and Michael J. Fox. Her first gig with Pepsi came in 1992, when she starred in what is arguably the brand’s best-remembered Super Bowl commercial yet.

The ad shows Crawford driving a Lamborghini and pulling up to a gas station in a form-fitting white tank top and cutoff jean shorts. She exits the car and purchases a Pepsi from a vending machine as a group of young boys watch from the other side of a fence, apparently mesmerized by the soda’s beautiful new can design and not her stunning good looks.

The creative team behind the spot perfectly nailed the execution, choosing “Just One Look” by Doris Troy for the soundtrack and shooting the production like a short film, even ending with a clever twist at the end.

“The ad certainly attracted attention and broke through the clutter,” wrote Tim Calkins and Derek Rucker, marketing professors at Kellog School of Management at Northwestern University, in an assessment for Ad Age in 2015. “It had strong branding. The Cindy Crawford endorsement worked; it was credible.”

Pepsi’s 1992 commercial was meant to promote the drink’s newly designed can but not many people walked away noticing the new look. It is still, however, a clever marketing campaign, using one of the most beautiful women in the world while targeting a mostly male-dominated audience. The ad made such a cultural mark that Pepsi remade it — with an appearance by Crawford’s son, Presley Gerber — for the 2018 Super Bowl.

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Most Iconic Super Bowl Ads

2. Coca-Cola (1980)

Hey Kid, Catch! starring Mean” Joe Greene

Pepsi might be known as the soda company with the most memorable Super Bowl commercials, but it is Coca-Cola that created the best one yet.

In 1979, the company debuted their now iconic commercial Hey Kid, Catch!, during the MLB playoffs, but it was only months later during Super Bowl XIV when the commercial won the hearts of millions of people worldwide.

Hey Kid, Catch! stars then Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene, one of the greatest defensive linemen to ever step foot on the football field. Greene, who stood 6’4″ and weighed 275 pounds was known for his tough-guy status and was considered one of the most intimidating players in the league. The commercial, however, shattered his image and reshaped Greene’s previously bad boy public persona.

In it, Greene at first rebuffs a child (played by Tommy Okon) who offers him a Coke as he’s forced to leave a game due to injury, only to reconsider, chug the Coke, and offer the boy his jersey in a show of gratitude. And just like that, writer Penny Hawkey and director Roger Mosconi were able to deliver a strong emotional story that offered a sweet and powerful message.

The 60 second spot was so powerful that it won a Clio Award as well as a Cannes Gold Lion and even inspired NBC to produce a movie called The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid. And not long after, McCann Erickson, the advertising agency who came up with the idea, received worldwide acclaim when they re-filmed the spot in various countries using indigenous sports figures in each version.

The Hall of Famer – a father of three and grandfather of seven – credits the commercial with keeping him in the spotlight for decades. As he told Coca-Cola, in a video interview “It transformed my personal life in terms of how people looked at me. People would come up to me on the street having no idea I played football…their association with me was from the commercial.”

“It means a great deal to me and to my family,” he said. “Aside from football, it’s been my whole life.”

The commercial’s popularity continues still today, and it’s due in large part to the numerous parodies and homages made over the years.

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1. Apple: 1984 (1984)

Arguably, the Best Super Bowl Commercial

When Steve Jobs launched the Macintosh, he had to generate buzz about a computer that was unfamiliar to most people. It was in 1984, that the relatively unknown computer company, released the new product named after a particular type of Californian apple – the Macintosh – and in the process changed the world. There were no tech blogs, no social media tools, and certainly no internet. So Jobs had to generate his own campaign to tell the world about the computer and announce the product to the world via a single advertisement.

Super Bowl XVIII’s lasting legacy has been that single advertisement, a minute long spot that aired sometime during the third quarter. 1984 is the landmark television commercial which thirty years ago, paved the way for big-budget television advertisements and brought Apple into the mainstream. It was conceived by Steve Hayden, Brent Thomas, and Lee Clow at Chiat\Day, produced by New York production company Fairbanks Films, and directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien). The 1984 spot is the Super Bowl spot against which all other Super Bowl ads are judged, measured and compared.

In a clear nod to George Orwell’s novel of the same name, the ad starred English athlete Anya Major as the unnamed heroine and David Graham as Big Brother. 1984 was epic, smart, and a breakthrough for modern advertisement. It not only changed our perception of the television commercial, it changed our perception of what a television ad could be by throwing out the conventional ways of doing advertising. The commercial is the first example of what former Apple CEO John Sculley called “event marketing”– a promotion so groundbreaking it could be movie-like in its execution. After 1984, people didn’t just watch the Super Bowl for game time, they watched for the ads. Before 1984, the halftime show was about washroom breaks and refilling your beer mugs. After that, it was Michael Jackson, Prince, Springsteen, and Madonna. And sometimes, the halftime show and ads are now even better than the game. For better or for worse, 1984 changed the Super Bowl – as the old joke goes, the Super Bowl is three hours of commercials interrupted by football.

In one interpretation of the commercial, 1984 used the unnamed heroine to represent the coming of the Macintosh as a means of saving humanity from conformity. In 2004, Adelia Cellini writing for Macworld summarized the message of the ad best:

“Let’s see—An all-powerful entity blathering on about unification of thoughts to an army of soulless drones, only to be brought down by a plucky, Apple-esque underdog. So Big Brother, the villain from Apple’s 1984 Mac ad, represented IBM, right? According to the ad’s creators, that’s not exactly the case. The original concept was to show the fight for the control of computer technology as a struggle of the few against the many, says TBWA/Chiat/Day’s Lee Clow. Apple wanted the Mac to symbolize the idea of empowerment, with the ad showcasing the Mac as a tool for combating conformity and asserting originality. What better way yo do that than have a striking blonde athlete take a sledgehammer to the face of that ultimate symbol of conformity, Big Brother?”

1984 has been called a watershed event and a masterpiece in advertising. It went on to win an impressive handful of advertising awards, and in 1995, The Clio Awards added it to its Hall of Fame, and Advertising Age placed it on the top of its list of 50 greatest commercials. The commercial was rebroadcast only once on its 20th anniversary, with the heroine modified to be listening to an iPod. Viewers generally saw the Big Brother target of the Apple advertisement as being Microsoft, replacing the original villain, IBM.

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