Super Bowl commercials: The 15 best of all time
Mean Joe Greene stars in this Coca-Cola ad from 1979.
The 2010 Super Bowl was a memorable game for all kinds of reasons. Mostly because it was the New Orleans Saints’ first appearance in the big show, and they came back from a halftime deficit to beat the Indianapolis Colts and win the championship.
Dramatic stuff, but can you immediately visualize any of the game’s plays with crystal clarity? Outside of diehard football fans, lots of people probably can’t.
How about this, then: Betty White trash-talking her teammates and getting tackled into the mud. Boom. Or the Old Spice guy on a horse. Double boom.
More advertising dollars are spent annually on Super Bowl commercials than any other single TV event, and the running joke that the game is a bunch of big-budget ads broken up by the occasional bits of football seems less funny every year. In many ways it’s the commercials that remain with us over time, even more than the games’ big moments.
So as we approach the annual orgy of advertising that is this year’s Super Bowl, here’s a fond look back at 15 of our favourite commercials from previous years. Just don’t ask us to remember what happened during the games themselves.
You’re Not You When You’re Hungry – Snickers, 2010
Good commercials tap into universal truths, like how being hungry can throw you off your game and make you irritable. This commercial cemented the beginning of Betty White’s career comeback, and we couldn’t help but laugh – and cringe – as she got brutally tackled into the mud. The late Abe Vigoda appearing at the end made it even sweeter. (Wait, what? He’s still alive?)
Terry Tate: Office Linebacker – Reebok, 2003
It was special effects trickery that let Betty White and Abe Vigoda get creamed in that Snickers ad, but you have to give serious respect to the stunt performers in this classic Reebok commercial, in which office productivity is enhanced by having linebacker Terry Tate (Lester Speight) bring the pain to inefficient slackers.
Where’s the Beef? – Wendy’s, 1984
This commercial spawned an inescapable 1980s catchphrase and merchandising spinoffs, as a trio of puzzled grannies wonders why their burger has so much bun and so little meat. Wendy’s tried to revive the phrase for a new campaign in 2011, but, unlike their chili, it didn’t come back a second time.
The Force – Volkswagen, 2011
Long before Star Wars: Episode VII was a twinkle in J. J. Abrams’ eye, Volkswagen had a kid in a Darth Vader costume adorably trying to use his powers to control household objects, until dad finally helps out with the Volkswagen’s remote starter. This tyke did more emoting in 30 seconds than Hayden Christensen did in all of the Star Wars prequels.
When I Grow Up – Monster.com, 1999
As the dotcom bubble continued to swell in the late ’90s, many of Super Bowl XXXIII’s commercials were the product of well-heeled web companies. Monster.com had the most thoughtful of the bunch, challenging us to remember the careers we dreamt about as kids, and measure that against where we are today.
Mean Joe Greene – Coca-Cola, 1979
One of the earliest examples of a Super Bowl commercial that became a pop culture phenomenon, this ad had legendary Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene accepting a Coke from a young fan. Greene himself appeared in a Downy parody/homage to the ad (with Amy Sedaris as the kid) that aired during the 2012 Super Bowl.
Forget the talking babies and their diminishing comedy returns, E*Trade’s best Super Bowl ad was the one that featured two odd gentlemen in a garage, flanking a dancing monkey. The tagline – “Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you doing with your money?” – poked fun at Super Bowl commercials while being brilliantly on-message.
“Where’s the beef?” might have seemed like an unkillable catchphrase, but it’s got nothing on the drawn-out “wassup!” spawned by the Budweiser commercials of the early ’00s. Seriously, there are still people out there using this today. They should probably stop.
Widely hailed as the most important Super Bowl ad ever – though it looks quite dated by today’s standards – Apple’s commercial announcing the Macintosh was directed by Ridley Scott and aired just once, during that year’s big game. Some might say Apple itself has now taken on some Big Brotherly characteristics. Not us though. Please don’t snoop around our iPhones.
Aimed squarely at fans of the 1986 John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, this Honda commercial, starring Matthew Broderick, is chock-a-block with references to the movie. It needs to be seen in its full 2-1/2-minute glory online to really be appreciated.
You don’t use FedEx? What do you use then, carrier pigeons? Har har! This awesomely demented ad took the notion of package delivery by pigeons to absurd extremes, with giant birds wreaking havoc in the streets.
The Clydesdale horses have been part of Budweiser’s ad campaigns for decades, but this commercial in particular was a real heartstring-tugger, with one of the gentle, giant beasts reunited with his former trainer. Pretty much anything gets an extra dose of emotional weight when it’s backed by Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, hey?
How do you make a commercial for something as unsexy – not to mention ubiquitous – as a search engine? You create a tale of a blossoming romance as told through Google queries, beginning with “study abroad Paris France” and ending with “how to assemble a crib.” With many stops in between, obviously. You mustn’t move too quickly, mon ami.
Turning an insult into an ad campaign is clever enough, but it becomes pretty brilliant when you track down every ’80s icon you can find and stuff them all into one 60-second spot. From Twisted Sister to Mary Lou Retton, from the California Raisins to Alf, this is the most cameo-heavy commercial in recent memory, even if you have to be of a certain age to know who the hell these people are.
You probably remember watching the Saints play the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV and being both entertained and slightly mesmerized by the Old Spice ads starring Isaiah Mustafa. Here’s the mind-blower, though: the ads didn’t air during the game itself, they simply debuted online around the Super Bowl and popped up on TV later on. It was Old Spice’s way of shaking up the advertising playbook, and they took home a championship ring.