The Super Bowl is one of the most watched sports broadcasts on Earth, if for nothing else then the incredibly creative — and often hilarious — Super Bowl ads peppered throughout. There’ve been hundreds of excellent Super Bowl ads since the first game in 1967. Here are some of the all-time greatest.
“Bud Bowl I” Budweiser (1989)
For viewers tuning in to watch the 49ers take on the Bengals back in Super Bowl XXIII, there was a nice surprise awaiting them (even more surprising than the Bengals making the Super Bowl): the Bud Bowl! What remains a cultural icon, with branding still showing up all over the internet and in print media, Bud Bowl began as a fun way to watch some stop-motion beer go head-to-head in the ultimate battle to determine which was superior: Bud Light or Budweiser.
The Bud Bowl was spread across several ads during the game, and the last one opens with the last play of the game with the score tied at 24-24. Budweiser’s kicker, Budski, kicks a field goal as time expires to win the game. According to Ad Age, two alternate endings were filmed, one of which interrupted the kick attempt with a giant hand grabbing a couple player-beers out the fridge, leaving the game hanging. The other ended with a cutaway to Heidi, a reference to the infamous Heidi Game in which East Coast football viewers missed an exciting last-minute comeback by the Oakland Raiders because network execs went to regularly scheduled programming.
“Betty White” Snickers (2010)
For anyone who wonders why the only surviving Golden Girl is such a big deal, this ad is why. We see her trudging around the football field doing very little—which isn’t surprising for a woman who was 88 years old at the time. After being chastised by her teammates (who call her Mike), a young woman on the sidelines hands her a Snickers bar. Like all of us, Mrs. White just isn’t herself when she’s hungry — after taking a bite (apparently she was only a little hungry), White is replaced by a young 30-something athlete. See, Mike wasn’t an old lady, he was just playing like an old lady, and all he needed to get his groove back was a bite of peanutty goodness.
The ad was so popular, it spawned numerous spoofs using the “You’re not you when you’re hungry” slogan, and helped to relaunch White’s career. Her penchant for being 90 and making dirty jokes while cussing like a sailor helps quite a bit, too.
“The Showdown” McDonalds (1993)
There was a time when basketball was dominated by two greats: Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. In 1993, these two had all the chops to land McDonald’s biggest commercial hit during Super Bowl XXVII. The spot opens with Jordan bringing a Big Mac and fries onto the court, only to find Bird there who challenges him to a game of H-O-R-S-E Extreme NBA Super-Star Edition! Well, he might have just said, “Play you for it,” but you get the idea.
“First one to miss watches the winner eat” sets the two off on the most insane game of H-O-R-S-E ever played. Shot after shot with nothing but net has the two sports idols shooting insane calls that just keep going in until finally, they stand on the top of a skyscraper calling the shot. We don’t get to see who wins and gets to eat the delicious Big Mac (except that it wasn’t Charles Barkley), but that’s how the commercial works. It left the audience wanting to finish it themselves, making this one of McDonald’s most successful Super Bowl advertising spots ever … even though it sold a sport besides football.
“When I grow up…” Monster.com (1999)
Monster.com was in its infancy when it purchased three 30-second spots during Super Bowl XXXIII. At a cost of $4 million, the spots took up between 15 and 18 percent of their annual marketing budget, but they paid off in a big way. After the game ended, job searches on their site surged from 600 per minute to 2,900, and the ad won Ad Age’s “Best of Show“: “It was clever. It was funny. It was poignant. It was inspirational. It was motivating. It was surprising. It was daring.”
In the ad, children discuss their dreams about being the office stooge, begging for a raise, being underappreciated, brown-nosing, and pretty much any other office space activity nobody actually aspires to. The ad made people think about the positions they may have held at the time and what they actually wanted to do. For a Super Bowl ad made by a young company, it was daring, innovative, and perfect for the brand.
“Ultrasound” Doritos (2016)
“Really? You’re eating Doritos? He’s eating Doritos at my ultrasound.” That’s probably not something any soon-to-be mother should be saying about her husband, but that’s how this spot opened when it was aired at Super Bowl 50. Even the fetus notices when Dad starts waving the chip about, but the annoyed mom takes the chip and chucks it across the room. Well, the baby’s having none of that, and decides it’s time to leave the womb and head to a more Doritos-rich environment. The shocked doctor and couple all scream as the baby literally kicks itself out of Mom and into life.
The best thing about this ad? It’s the culmination of a contest called “Crash the Super Bowl,” where contestants submit ideas to Doritos to hopefully air during the Super Bowl. One of 2016’s finalists was Peter Carstairs, who joined a pool of 4,500 submissions out of 28 countries. Carstairs got $100,000. The winner got $1 million and earned a chance to work with Zack Snyder on a Warner Bros./DC project, which maybe was more of a punishment in retrospect.
“Do Something Manly” Snickers (2007)
Here’s an ad that actually got Snickers into quite a bit of hot water, though if you don’t take it too seriously, it’s actually very amusing.
The ad opens with a couple guys working on a car, something many consider to be a relatively masculine affair. One of the guys pulls out a Snickers, and starts eating it. Noticing the delectable treat (but not the guy eating it), the other fellow goes to town on the opposite end, Lady in the Tramp-style. The two men then share an accidental moment of unintended intimacy — recoiling with horror, one says, “I think we just accidentally kissed,” followed by “Quick! Do something manly!” For some reason, doing something manly means opening your shirt and ripping out a handful of chest hair.
Whether or not this is how most men behave (it’s not, especially the chest hair part) isn’t really the point. The ad is funny because of its stupidity, but it also works for Snickers by saying the candy is so good this might happen (though if you pay attention to who’s eating a foot in front of you, it probably won’t). The company took a lot of flack over the ad, which was ultimately pulled off the air, but … come on. You laughed at it, too. It’s okay to admit it.
“Rex's Worst Day” Budweiser (2000)
How do you make a dog cry? That’s the question posed by this Budweiser ad from Super Bowl XXXIV. The spot opens on a Western film scene with a dog sitting atop the corpse of a man, but the dog looks way too happy. A director calls “cut,” and it’s time to motivate the dog. The solution is to have Rex think about his absolute worst day — luckily, the dog understands English, because that’s exactly what we’re treated to.
We then see Rex on a beautiful day — he notices a Budweiser truck passing by, and decides to follow it. He leaps into the air to cross over the fence, and face-plants into the van that’s parked there. The dog howls remembering this, and pleases everyone on-set. The ad is all about the desire to get a Bud (and how much dogs love their beer, evidently). It’s funny and ridiculous at the same time, but also perfect for a brand that is best known for its silly commercials starring animated beer bottles, frogs, and just about anything else you can think of.
“Pigeons” Nissan (1997)
You know how we always think of birds flying overhead looking down at targets on our cars, hats, and, well, heads? That’s the basis for this ad, which aired during Super Bowl XXXI. Of course, these pigeons are commanded, just like any air wing in the military, and target just about everything you wouldn’t want bird poop on — that is, until they come upon a flashy, brand-new Nissan sedan driving through a neighborhood.
Sure, they try to target it, but fail miserably, all the way until the car makes it to their garage and the lead bird smashes face-first into its closed door. So there you have it — drive Nissan and drive poop-free (invisible poop-shielding technology sold separately).
“Hare Jordan” Nike (1992)
The year before Michael Jordan went toe-to-toe with Larry Bird in their epic game of horse, the NBA legend took on a player of an entirely different caliber: Bugs Bunny. Bugs comes to the game when he finds some bully basketball players causing such a ruckus on the roof of his rabbit burrow, he just has to hit the surface and see what all the hub-bub was about. When the bubs don’t treat the good rabbit like a gentleman, he calls on Jordan to go up against the sub-athlete brutes. Within a few shots, they’re all but defeated, owing much to Bugs’ usual antics of cross-dressing and dropping anvils on people. Jordan contributed too, probably.
This spot aired four years before Jordan and Bugs filmed Space Jam, and the commercial was a huge success. The duo got together for several sequels and even influenced the creation of the 2015 Air Jordan shoes by Nike. The shoes were dubbed Air Jordan 7 Retro “Hare,” in honor of the rabbit’s contribution, and they even dropped a new spot in 2015, featuring the wascally wabbit playing basketball in a style fans of the original Air Jordan might recognize. Bugs is way better at dunking with his ears though.
“Invisible Mindy” Nationwide (2015)
Comedienne Mindy Kaling concludes, after years of being treated like she wasn’t there, that she must be invisible. This pushes her to run all about town doing pretty much whatever she wants, like walking through a car wash or sitting out in a park in the nude. She even tries walking up to Matt Damon and attempting to kiss him — this is when she learns she isn’t invisible, and that Damon has a bit of a problem with this strange woman coming up for an uninvited snog.
The spot, narrated by Julia Roberts, recommends that you join a company that sees you as a priority. Nationwide, being an insurance company and thus not having the greatest of interpersonal reputations, wanted to get the word out that they valued their clients and took care of their needs. Heartwarming!
“Space Babies” Kia (2013)
The question all parents dread (“Where do babies come from?”) was the title and focus of this ingenious ad put forth by Kia during Super Bowl XLVII. As soon as the father in the ad is hit with the question, he spins a yarn about Babylandia — a special planet filled with all kinds of kidlets. The ad’s visually stunning, with numerous animals and human babies going through the motions of flying to Earth to be released to all the awaiting parents of the world.
Of course, once dad finishes the story, the little boy argues his friend told him that babies are made when a mommy and daddy– aaaaand, Dad quickly interrupts by telling his brand-new Kia Sorento to play “Wheels on the Bus,” which it does immediately. The distraction is perfect, as the young boy in the back forgets the whole conversation and goes right into song.
The car’s in the commercial for maybe 10 seconds, with most of the production going towards the CGI of Dad’s story. Like other successful Super Bowl campaigns, the car isn’t the most important aspect of the ad. The viewer might not remember what the car looked like, but they definitely recall that you can say what you want to listen to, and that it will comply. That was a feature not many cars had in 2013, which is one of the reasons this ad was so successful for Kia. Presumably, any young parents whose kids watched the ad and then asked where babies really come from are far less fond of it.
“The Force” Volkswagen (2011)
Pretty much every kid (and adult) has, at one time or another, attempted to use The Force. Wouldn’t it be great to Force Choke your enemies, or grab stuff from across the room without having to get up? It would sure make scoring the Super Bowl-winning touchdown easier.
Volkswagen takes this childhood fantasy to heart, employing a young child decked out in full Darth Vader regalia, attempting to use The Force throughout the house. At first, the kid tries to move an exercise machine, before trying to compel the dog off its bed. A sandwich slides over with the help of Mom, much to the disappointment of young Vader. (In a rare out-of-character blunder, the kid did not attempt to Force Choke his mother.) As dad pulls in driving his new VW. Vader runs outside and tries to use the Force to manipulate the car. This time, it actually works! Kind of. Dad hit a button on his key fob, but the kid doesn’t need to know that.
The commercial didn’t show much of the car at all — like many Super Bowl commercials, it’s more about grabbing attention than selling the features of a particular brand. Regardless, people have been talking about this commercial for years, and Volkswagen has been reaping the benefits ever since. The bank account is strong with this one.
“Office Linebacker with Terry Tate” Reebok (2003)
If you’ve ever watched football and thought to yourself, “I wonder what it would look like if one of these guys worked in an office,” then … that’s kinda weird. Also, you’re in luck — this Super Bowl ad by Reebok was made for you!
You might expect Terry Tate to work in the office of a shoe company like Reebok, but this ad is less about their brand, and more about making the audience laugh. Tate’s introduced by the CEO of Felcher & Sons, as a linebacker supplied by Reebok to help deal with productivity issues around the workplace. We’re treated to Tate running through the office, tackling his coworkers for minor infractions like not using a cover memo on a TPS report, or playing Solitaire on the computer.
The spot was so well-received, it launched several sequels, all of which did very well, though not well enough to curb Solitaire at the workplace. As you know. Now stop playing and get back to work.
“1984” Apple Macintosh (1984)
While it now launches product with flashy “events” streamed live from its posh California headquarters, Apple showed it had a flair for the dramatic way back in 1984 with its first commercial for the Macintosh personal computer. Airing briefly in late 1983 (to qualify for ad industry awards), the dystopian, Orwellian “1984” aired on national television just once, during Super Bowl XVIII, in, well, 1984.
It’s a far cry from the usual commercial formula of the era — people with toothy grins excitedly singing or yelling about a product as they hold it close to their faces — as Apple commissioned a one-minute movie. Directed by Ridley Scott of Blade Runner and Alien fame, it opens with sad people in identical gray clothes marched into a bleak arena to endure what’s clearly another brainwashing session at the hands of their totalitarian overlords. A stern face on a giant screen drills home messages like “We are one people, one resolve, one cause.” It’s all interrupted when a fresh-faced blonde in a half-Olympics/half-Hooters uniform runs in and throws a hammer into the screen. She’s disrupting the tyranny of sameness, sending the message that Apple is disrupting the tyranny of PCs with its new desktop machine. A final crawl spells it out for viewers: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” Both Advertising Age and TV Guide later called “1984” the best TV commercial … ever.
“Joust” Bud Light (2019)
When Super Bowl LIII cut to a high-priced ad break, millions of viewers put down their beers to pay attention to the latest commercial from Budweiser, a long-time football advertiser who often brings something funny and clever to the big game. It seemed like this one would rank in the canon with those old Bud Bowls — it opens on a scene of a medieval joust, where revelers shout Bud’s ubiquitous catchphrase “Dilly dilly!” awaiting a horseback sword battle featuring Bud’s new ad mascot, the Bud Knight. The bout gets underway, but shockingly the challenger fells the mighty, blue-armored Bud Knight. Gruesomely (and thankfully, off-screen), the mysterious opponent gouges out the eyes of the Bud Knight, a disgustingly violent thing not ordinarily seen in a TV commercial, and also a clear reference to that time the Mountain did the same thing to Oberyn during a “trial by combat.” Actually, this fearsome jouster is the Mountain from Game of Thrones.
Suddenly, a dragon soars overhead … to the iconic strains of the Game of Thrones theme song. Wait, this isn’t an ad for Bud Light at all … it’s for Game of Thrones! That’s the one thing people love even more than beer.
“Cindy Crawford” Pepsi (1992 & reaired in 2001)
When supermodel Cindy Crawford decided she needed to stop off and get herself a Pepsi, she entered the zeitgeist in what has become the most iconic ad the soda brand has ever put forth.
Set to the tune of Doris Troy’s “Just One Look,” two young boys watch the gorgeous model — wearing a tight, white tank top and cut-off denim shorts — walk up to a vending machine and take a long, supermodelly drink from a Pepsi can. One boy says to the other exactly what we were all thinking: “Is that a great new Pepsi can or what?” Well, maybe not what all of us were thinking.
The ad was so popular, it spawns humorous parodies to this day. Pepsi recreated it in 2016 as an animated short using emojis, and James Corden dressed as Crawford for his spin on the original. Let’s just say the shorts didn’t work as well the second time around.
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