Everyone knows that the Super Bowl has the largest television audience each year; but the question remains, do more people watch it for the football, or for the commercials?
And the next day, which subject occupies more talk around the water cooler?
Either way, the Super Bowl has become, well, the Super Bowl of all advertising days. Brands can gain momentum or suffer major damage. And careers on Madison Avenue can soar or be reduced to writing screenplays, like George Costanza, off, off-broadway.
With stakes so high, it seems worthy to take a look back at some of the best, and a few of the worst, commercials that have ever paid those premium dollars for a coveted Super Bowl slot.
Clearly there are lots of great commercials to choose from. You can make an argument for lots of great spots’ inclusion on this list. (But, in case you are wondering, if I left your favorite out, it was absolutely to spite you.)
Here’s my list of the 10 best (and three worst) Super Bowl commercials of all-time.
#10. McDonald’s, “The Showdown” (1993)
Great ad that leverages two of the NBA’s all-time biggest stars in Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, at a time when their popularity was at a peak after the original Dream Team won the gold in Barcelona in 1992.
This ad does a great job of building equity around the brand by showing a) the greatness it inspires, and b) the lengths to which people will go to fight for it.
I could not move this any higher on the list simply because I grew up a Sixers fan (when that was relevant), and I am a Duke grad, so a commercial featuring a Celtic and a Tar Heel has limited upside.
#9. Xerox, “Monks” (1977)
This spot is 35 years old, so it may not have the bells and whistles of some of the newer ads, but it does a great job of clearly communicating the product benefit.
It is scary how far technology has come in just a few decades.
#8. Bridgestone, “Carma” (2011)
Brisgestone does a great job at communicating the emotional benefit of an everyday product that we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about.
By today’s standards, the commercial does not have a lot of bells and whistles either, but it excels at lifting its brand with the audience.
#7. Pepsi, “Cindy Crawford/New Can” (1992)
Relax, I said can, singular.
Pepsi does a great job of taking a well-known, beautiful icon, and making it invisible next to their product. Many brands have copied this strategy over the last two decades with much success.
Kudos to this ad for setting a trend, all while making people across America thirsty for a Pepsi.
#6. Tide-to-Go, “My Talking Stain” (2008)
Look, Tide is not the type of sexy brand that is usually associated with big Super Bowl buys (think beer, cars, soft drinks, etc.), but this ad does an amazing job of communicating the product’s benefit in a humorous, break-through-the-clutter kind of way.
I bet if you watch this spot you will both laugh and take a second look at yourself next time you have an important meeting.
It is a really risky strategy for a household product like this to spend the big bucks on a Super Bowl spot, but Procter and Gamble pulled it off, big time.
#5. Budweiser, “Frogs” (1995)
This ad broke through the clutter in a wildly simple, yet spectacular way.
The purpose of the spot was simply to get attention, make Budweiser more relevant, and build on the brand’s equity. Mission accomplished.
In fact, this ad was so successful that you have seen hundreds of commercials try to use animals to get this type of response from we humans.
#4. Coke, “Mean Joe” (1979)
This is a spot that transcends time. Coke even puts a smile onto Mean Joe Green’s face.
I would rank this higher except a) this commercial originally aired during the 1979 season so it was not brand new at the time of airing, and b) I can’t put my finger on it, but I read somewhere this week that this spot actually did not help Coke increase sales (although I would argue it was great for longer-term brand building).
#3. Pepsi, “Diner” (1995)
Pepsi says if Coke is #4, we are one better.
But this is absolutely classic competitive advertising in which the #2 category player takes on the #1 (for example, it is doubtful Coke would have approved a similar ad; why acknowledge the challenger??).
Heartwarming, and then the hammer falls.
#2. Apple, “Sledgehammer” (1984)
The ad ran once. The 1984 Super Bowl. And Steve Jobs and crew were, as usual, ahead of their time in terms of how brilliantly they took on the competition and differentiated their brand in a meaningful and motivating way.
Anyone that had the vision to see Jobs’ limitless potential and bought APPL as a result of this spot is, today, a very happy camper.
#1. Budwesier, “Respect” (2002)
Like Sledgehammer, this spot only ran once, during the 2002 Super Bowl, as a tribute to 9/11 and the unimaginable loss and heartbreak that our country endured. This spot perfectly captured the emotions of the moment, and was absolutely apropos of the moment.
I dare you to watch this spot, even 10 years later, and not get goose bumps. There was simply no other commercial in the history of the Super Bowl that could rightfully go in this space.
Eliminating any OJ Simpson ads, which are just too easy of a target, I found three spots that I felt were historically bad. “Enjoy.”
#3. Noxzema, “Joe Namath/Farrah Fawcett” (1973)
Now, in fairness, this commercial gets props for a) really being the beginning of attention being paid to Super Bowl ads, so it did pave the way for others, and b) it is unintentionally hilarious.
Imagine the FCC approving a Super Bowl ad today in which the catch phrase is “Let Noxzema Cream Your Face.” Classic.
I think the only thing Joe Namath wishes in retrospect is that his co-star could have been Suzy Kolber.
#2. Holiday Inn, “Bob Johnson” (1997)
You have to give Holiday Inn credit. They survived this spot. I cannot imagine company executives approving this spot and not seeing the potential pitfalls, only 15 years ago.
From a consumer standpoint, it is hilarious; from a marketing standpoint, it is on the verge of brand suicide.
#1. Miller Lite, “Evil Beaver” (1998)
Worst. Commercial. Ever.
Not just worst ever to appear in a Super Bowl. Not just worst ever on a per dollar spent basis. Quite simply, this commercial is a minute of your life you will never get back should you choose to watch.
Not even funny by accident. Just bad. Again, “enjoy.”
You can follow Brian Dilsheimer on Twitter @Dils_Ignite