The NFL's annual championship game dominates the list of the most-watched programs in American television history, routinely drawing more than 100 million total viewers — even in the current era, where shows that attract more than 10 million are considered smash hits.
The mania for all things Super Bowl–related spreads beyond game day. Sports news channels offer round-the-clock coverage of every pregame interview and workout. The NFL’s own cable network runs marathons of past Super Bowl highlights. The entertainment media speculates about what the halftime show will entail. And seemingly everyone — from casual fans to the New York Times — talks about the commercials.
The whole notion of "the Super Bowl commercial" as something eagerly awaited and much debated really arose in the 1990s, when the rise of the internet allowed for more instantaneous shared reactions to what happens on television. Once advertisers and the media realized that people at Super Bowl parties weren’t going to the bathroom or hitting the snack table during timeouts, they started working together to nurture an unexpectedly captive audience. Today, the agencies that produce the ad spots put out press releases and sneak previews of what viewers can expect to see on Sunday, while websites everywhere scramble after the game to post rankings of the best and worst.
It’s all a way of maximizing the value of work that routinely costs millions of dollars to produce. And that’s before paying what Fortune magazine estimates to be $5 million per 30 seconds of CBS airtime in 2016 — up 11 percent from 2015’s $4.5 million on NBC.
Observed from a distance, the modern Super Bowl commercial is a bizarre example of a consumerist culture run amok. But on a micro level, the evolution of these ads — and of the attention we pay to them — says a lot about how American business and entertainment have changed. Everything from advances in special effects to variations in gender politics can be traced via what airs on TV between touchdowns.
That's why the following list, arranged roughly chronologically, doesn’t try to name the best Super Bowl commercials of all time (although some of the ads I've included definitely qualify). Instead, these are the ones that best represent the trends and subcategories that have defined a phenomenon.
1. Master Lock, "Rifle" (1974): the first perennial
Advertising is designed to be noticed, which means that long before Super Bowl Sunday became the preeminent showcase for new commercials, the big game featured plenty of spots that grabbed viewers’ attention and sparked, "Hey did you see that?" chitchat around the office on Monday. The first seriously buzzy ad ran in 1974, when Master Lock took a cue from Timex and American Tourister and filmed a demonstration of how durable its product could be. The spectacular stunt — firing a rifle at a lock, which remained closed — went over so well that the company repeated it, with different variations, in the Super Bowls that followed. Each new Master Lock commercial became an annual event in and of itself.
2. Coca-Cola, "Hey, kid, catch!" (1980): the game boosts an existing ad’s profile
As anyone who watched Mad Men knows, the McCann Erickson ad agency had a longstanding relationship with the Coca-Cola Company, crafting TV commercials that are now as much a part of American pop culture history as Elvis Presley, Marvel Comics, or Coke itself. One of the best of the bunch is this Clio-winning spot, which shows hulking, injured Pittsburgh Steeler "Mean" Joe Greene softening after a game when a young boy gives him a bottle of pop.
The touching "Hey, kid, catch!" ad actually started airing in October 1979, but the exposure it got from Super Bowl 14 turned it into a touchstone, provoking several parodies and homages. Something similar would happen two decades later, when Budweiser’s infectious, funny "Whassup?" ad launched months before the Super Bowl and then exploded in the culture once it aired during the game.
3. Apple, "1984" (1984): advertising as art
Perhaps the most famous Super Bowl commercial of all time, this oblique pitch for the then-new Macintosh personal computer was groundbreaking for multiple reasons. The enormous scale of the production, overseen by Alien and Blade Runner director Ridley Scott, was unprecedented — as was the fact that the ad doesn’t really show the product in question or explain what it does. In the previous decade, the model for a great commercial was Xerox’s "Monks," which employed humor and elaborate production design to illustrate the advantages of using a copy machine. Apple and the agency Chiat/Day demonstrated that artistry alone was enough to become a nationwide conversation piece … even though, ultimately, the "1984" campaign didn’t sell a lot of Macs.
4. Budweiser, "Bud Bowl" (1989): recurring schtick
In 1989, Budweiser and the agency D'arcy Masius Benton & Bowles animated cans and bottles to create a cute, amusing fake football game between Bud and Bud Light, which ran in pieces throughout Super Bowl 23. The concept was so delightful and engaging that it demanded a sequel, and throughout the '90s Anheuser-Busch kept bringing back the Bud Bowl, adding more and more elements until the whole game-within-the-game started to get too gimmicky — and eventually more irritating than fun. The rise and fall of the Bud Bowl is a cautionary tale that Budweiser itself doesn’t seem to have heeded, given that the company would later run another good gag into the ground, turning its clever "Frogs" campaign into an annual Super Bowl nuisance.
5. Nike, "Hare Jordan" (1992), and 6. McDonald’s, "Showdown" (1993): the ultimate sportsman/spokesperson
Major brands have long turned to jocks to be their spokespeople for Super Bowl commercials, given that the TV audience for the game is made up primarily of sports fans. In the early 1990s, Michael Jordan was the athlete that nearly every company wanted to partner with, which meant that during any given Super Bowl Sunday, an NBA player might get just as much airtime as the best of the NFL.
The two best-known ads from Jordan’s heyday aired in consecutive years. Director Joe Pytka — who’s helmed more than 80 spots that aired during the Super Bowl — did such a good job matching the Chicago Bulls superstar with Bugs Bunny in 1992's "Hare Jordan" that Warner Bros. would later hire him to make the feature film that spun out of that commercial, Space Jam. One year later, Pytka worked with Jordan again for the charming "Showdown," which pitted His Airness against Larry Bird in an increasingly elaborate game of HORSE, with a Big Mac at stake. The McDonald’s ad didn’t get expanded into a movie, but it’s still one of the best-remembered of Jordan's Super Bowl commercials, and one that confirms how a champion’s charisma can convert easily into salesmanship.
7. Independence Day teaser (1996): the modern movie hype machine is born
These days, Super Bowl ad breaks are littered with short trailers for upcoming blockbusters, but Hollywood largely steered clear of the game until 1996, when 20th Century Fox cut together 30 seconds of its most eye-popping footage from Independence Day — a movie that hadn’t yet been completed, and that wouldn’t premiere until a little more than five months later. Independence Day was a largely unknown quantity prior to Super Bowl 30, but after its teaser aired during the game it became a must-see — and set a precedent for way-early hype that film studios have chased ever since.
8. Bud Light, "Shopping" (1998): casual misogyny reigns
Despite some pundits' sexist perspective that guys watch the game and gals watch the ads, advertisers haven’t always made their commercials female-friendly. Super Bowls have often been marred by varying degrees of shameless misogyny, with women having their clothes blown off or getting doused with beer. More often, ladies are just depicted as a total drag, forcing their fellas to spend time with them doing boring stuff like shopping.
9. FedEx, "We Apologize" (1998): introducing "the anti-ad"
As Super Bowl commercials have become a bigger and bigger deal, they’ve also started to become self-aware, with advertisers poking fun at the overall hubbub and their own clichés. One of the most enjoyable of the "anti-ads" is this sly FedEx spot from 1998, an early example of the form, which pretends to be an apology from an insurance company that didn’t get its commercial to the network on time because its ad agency used the wrong shipping service. (In these days of digital delivery, the only kind of company that could do a gag like that would be an internet service provider.)
"We Apologize" is notable because its static image and lack of music immediately stood out from the flash and noise of the ads around it. But it’s also an example of how advertisers have been figuring out ways to get their message across even when viewers are taping a program and fast-forwarding through the breaks. In 1998, it was a VCR buster. Today, it’d be getting through to folks with DVRs.
10. Monster.com, "When I Grow Up" (1999), and 11. E-Trade, "Ghost Town" (2001): the dot-com boom ... and bust
Monster.com wasn’t the first web-based service to advertise during the Super Bowl, but its "When I Grow Up" ad was so clever — explaining what the company actually does by having kids sarcastically talk about the crappy jobs they one day hoped to have — that it became one of the most talked-about commercials of that year, and set the stage for what came to be known as "the dot-com Bowl." In 2000, more than a dozen websites bought time during the game, from Pets.com to LastMinuteTravel.com. And many of them were out of business by 2001, when E-Trade’s "Ghost Town" openly mocked the carnage from the previous year.
Websites still spend money on Super Bowl Sunday, and have produced some of the game’s most memorable moments of the past decade, thanks to the E-Trade Baby and GoDaddy’s parade of prurience. But the boom in dot-com ads hit the same year that Silicon Valley went bust.
12. Levi’s, "Crazy Legs" (2002): directors as stars
Many of the most creative movie directors working today have either moonlighted in advertising or got their start working on commercials. Spike Jonze shot music videos and ads years before he made his feature film debut with the 1999 cult hit Being John Malkovich, and he continued doing so for a few years afterward, bringing his sense of the absurd to spots like this one for Levi’s, which shows street dancer Johnny Cervin freaking out his fellow pedestrians with the wild things his lower body can do. The best of Jonze’s generation have followed in the footsteps of directors like the aforementioned Ridley Scott, proving that advertising can be art.
13. Pepsi, "Hendrix" (2004), and 14. Volkswagen, "The Force" (2011): cross-branding and nostalgia
There are two constants during the game, year after year: Pepsi will take jabs at Coke, and companies of all kinds will try to associate themselves with other brands people like, be it Superman or The Simpsons. Pepsi hit both marks simultaneously with a 2004 commercial that features a young Jimi Hendrix picking Pepsi over Coke, and the electric guitar over the accordion. The use of dead celebs as pitch people is an ethical gray area, but Pepsi’s association with one of the coolest rockers in history effectively extended the brand's decades-long argument that Coke is for squares.
For a better use of synergy, though, turn to maybe the most adorable ad in Super Bowl history, which sees a little kid in a Darth Vader costume struggling to use the Force on inanimate objects. Released during a time when the actual Star Wars movies had recently completed a disappointing revival, this VW commercial was, in a weird way, a reminder of what made the franchise so beloved in the first place. And when the ad was shared far and wide online in the week before the game, it also established "virality" as one of the Super Bowl spots’ major new goals.
15. Budweiser, "Welcome Home" (2005): playing the patriot card
During the Bush administration — in the era of 9/11 and the Iraq War — advertisers made direct appeals not just to consumers’ patriotic fervor but to their respect and admiration for the military. The "coming home" theme would become common in commercials, showing returning soldiers surprising their loved ones or being heralded as heroes by their hometowns.
Anheuser-Busch jumped on the trend early with this moving, understated spot, showing an airport full of people applauding a handful of troops as they stroll through the terminal in full regalia. Yes, it’s a pitch for beer. But it’s low-key enough that it could almost be mistaken for a public service announcement — or an Army recruitment ad.
16. Doritos, "Live the Flavor" (2007): welcome to crowdsourcing
Capitalizing on the rise of the internet and its attendant opportunity for "crowdsourcing," Doritos launched its "Crash the Super Bowl" campaign in 2006, inviting snackers to enter their own ads in a contest whose prize was money, exposure, and a trip to the game. The chip’s first big winner was this fairly slick spot, following two accident-prone Doritos-lovers as they wreak havoc while finding each other.
The contest generated a lot of advance interest in exactly what Frito-Lay would ultimately put on the air, and the commercial itself wound up on year-end "best ad" lists, while the PR agency Ketchum Inc. won an award from the International Public Relations Association. This year’s "Crash the Super Bowl" has been announced as the last of the series, bringing an end to a campaign that smartly exploited the 21st-century push toward total interactivity.
17. Audi, "The Chase" (2009): the ad as blockbuster movie
The products that regularly advertise during the big game tend to separate into highly specific selling modes. Beer ads are funny. Soft drink ads tend to be either poetic or wry. Snack food ads are often weird. And car ads are like one-minute Hollywood blockbusters. This Audi commercial casts British badass Jason Statham as an action hero who drives a car through time, stopping off in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Kinetic, clever, and colorful, the spot illustrates either how much ad agencies have learned from Hollywood or vice versa.
18. Late Show With David Letterman, "Oprah/Jay" (2010): expecting the unexpected
With all of the pregame hype these days about which companies have booked time during the game and which celebrities they’ve hired, we may never again enjoy a moment of genuine surprise akin to what happened in 2010, when a 15-second pitch for CBS’s flagship late-night show reunited David Letterman with both Oprah Winfrey (with whom the host had a complicated TV relationship) and Jay Leno (a former go-to Letterman guest who’d snatched NBC’s The Tonight Show out from under him).
Ordinarily, the Super Bowl networks tend to limit their self promotion to in-game shots of stars watching from the stands, rather than squandering valuable ad time for their own programs — which could produce multiple episodes for the amount of money the network gets to fill that space. So memorable spots for actual TV shows are rare. That’s another reason this simple Letterman/Winfrey/Leno gag stands alone.
19. Focus on the Family, "Miracle Baby" (2010), and 20. ManCrunch, "Super Bowl Kiss" (2010): stirring controversy
The cost of 30 or 60 seconds of airtime during television’s most-watched night of the year is so prohibitive that not many companies can afford it. But money’s not the only barrier to entry. The network airing the game can reject ads that are too racy or too potentially controversial. That’s why many media analysts were surprised in 2010 when CBS let the right-wing Christian organization Focus on the Family buy time for a commercial featuring Pam Tebow, the mother of quarterback Tim Tebow, pointing viewers to a longer version of her pro-life/anti-abortion message.
The decision to run the ad was especially divisive given that for that same game, CBS rejected a fairly tame commercial for the gay dating site ManCrunch, featuring two male football fans energetically smooching each other. Whenever a spot like ManCrunch’s is rejected, the attention it draws for being banned raises questions about whether the whole idea was to get free publicity. But either way, the choice to allow in some dicey ads while excluding others sparks valuable debate about the divergences between social and corporate values.
21. Chrysler, "Imported From Detroit" (2011): the ad as social statement
One of the longest (at two minutes) and most expensive (at around $9 million) Super Bowl ads ever made, agency Wieden+Kennedy’s unconventional Chrysler pitch makes great use of Eminem’s hip-hop anthem "Lose Yourself," accompanying images of Detroit at its best and worst. The spot sells a car, but more importantly, it advocates for a city and an American industry that in the decade prior to 2011 had experienced a lot of bad PR.
The Cannes-winning commercial went over so well that Chrysler and W+K tried to repeat the formula the following year with "Halftime in America," featuring a "this country’s not as bad off as you may think" speech — delivered by Clint Eastwood —that inadvertently stirred political debate over whether it was tacitly endorsing President Obama’s reelection. That’s how fast public opinion can turn. One year a social message is the toast of the Super Bowl; the next year it’s a minor scandal.
22. Always, "Like a Girl" (2015), and 23. Nationwide Insurance, "Boy" (2015): getting serious
Ongoing outcry over pervasive misogyny in Super Bowl commercials has cued advertisers that a lot of women watch the game, and that there’s room for pitches with a little more gravity. Always, a manufacturer of women's hygiene products, scored big in 2015 with a heartwarming spot that redefines what it means to run, throw, and fight "like a girl" — and in the process, the company found a fine balance between public service and brand awareness. The ad was a success, winning praise for introducing a long-overdue topic into a game whose players have gained a reputation for being abusive to women.
It’s possible to go too far with the emotional appeals, however. Nationwide’s "I’ll never learn to ride a bike … because I died!" ad was roundly mocked on social media in 2015, because even though Super Bowl viewers are willing to get a little teary-eyed during timeouts, they’re not so keen on outright morbidity.
24. T-Mobile, "One-Upped" (2015): ads that advertise ... ads
Widespread online interest in Super Bowl commercials has led to countless websites running postmortems: grading ads and recording audience response. Perhaps in reaction to that — or maybe just to extend the phenomenon a little further — in recent years, the big game has been preceded by teasers and promos and advance releases. Prior to 2015’s T-Mobile spot with comedians Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler, the cellular company and its agency Publicis Seattle spent a week doing interviews and posting behind-the-scenes footage, all for a 30-second commercial that— while funny — was pretty quickly forgotten.
25. Budweiser, "Brotherhood" (2013): hooked on classics
If there’s one campaign that encapsulates the whole history and meaning of Super Bowl ads, it’s Budweiser’s long-running series of commercials featuring the company’s horse mascots. The first Clydesdale Super Bowl ad aired in 1986, calling back to a promotional gimmick that Anheuser-Busch came up with in the '30s to celebrate the end of Prohibition.
Over the past three decades, Bud’s Clydesdale ads have been at times nostalgic, ironic, comic, and sentimental. In 2002, the horses honored the victims of 9/11. In 2004 and 2005, the brewer told a jokey mini story about a donkey dreaming of joining the team. And with 2013’s "Brotherhood," the brewer and its agency Anomaly (with the help of RSA Films and director Jake Scott, son of Ridley) produced this touching spot that went viral online, thanks in part to some early promotion.
Almost as soon as it aired, social media filled with people begrudgingly admitting that a beer commercial had made them cry, thanks to its use of Fleetwood Mac’s wistful "Landslide" and its story of a horse trainer being reunited with one of his Clydesdales. So it goes with these ads, year after year. Viewers know they’re silly and manipulative. And they buy into them anyway.