Touchdown! The History of Great Super Bowl Commercials

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Touchdown! The History of Great Super Bowl Commercials

By |2019-02-08T11:45:52+00:00February 8th, 2019|Creative, tv ads|

The Super Bowl – as you probably know – is the “Cup Final” of that thing Americans wrongly call “football”. (I’m being sarcastic here, btw).

It has, until quite recently, been a uniquely American event that wasn’t even carried by British broadcasters. But now, thanks to international streaming services, and outreach work done by the NFL themselves, interest in the event has been growing over here in the land of proper football.

This year, the Super Bowl was even broadcast live on BBC1. Of course, those brave souls staying up ’til 4am to watch the game on the beeb missed the best part of the night: the Super Bowl adverts.

A Super Bowl is typically watched by over 100 million Americans … That’s almost one in three pairs of American eyeballs all watching the same ad breaks at the same time!  Consequently, those slots are the most expensive piece of advertising real estate of the whole year – with a single thirty-second spot costing a whopping $5 million.

Half time fumble…

Adam Levine of Maroon 5 performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

This year’s lacklustre game and contentious half-time show helped drive the audience down under the 100 million mark for the first time in a decade but, even so, it seems unlikely that Fox (who are scheduled to broadcast the game in the states, next year) will be reducing that extortionate spot rate.

Commercials created specially for the Super Bowl are thought of as advertising royalty, and the Creative Agencies respond to the challenge by bringing out the big guns – their most extravagant, high-concept and costly commercials!

Consumers and cultural commentators look forward to the new Super Bowl ads with the keen anticipation that we, in Britain, reserve almost exclusively for John Lewis’ Christmas ad. This is because Super Bowl ads have set an especially high creative bar – featuring some of the best-written and most star-studded ads ever produced.

The contest on the field might be the main attraction, but the war being waged in the ad breaks is every bit as interesting!

To kick-off, let’s head all the way back to 1972:

“I’d like to buy the World a Coke”

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Client: Coca-Cola

Commercial: “Hilltop”

Agency: McCann Erickson

Year: 1972

Known, universally, as “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” this was, at the time, the most expensive TV ad ever made, and its success led to the extravagance that accompanies Super Bowl ads to this day.

The spot’s message was about unity and diversity – important messages in the divisive early 70s – and it went on to become a global phenomenon. The song was re-written as “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing” and, performed by The New Seekers, was a number one hit in the UK.

The ad has been remade many times by Coke, including the inevitable Christmas version, and such is its enduring legend that ‘Hilltop’ was woven into the final episode of the TV show ‘Mad Men’ – which implies that the fictional (m)ad man, Don Draper, came up with the ad whilst performing yoga.

Apple Macintosh

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Client: Apple

Commercial: “1984”

Agency: Chiat\Day

Year: 1984

Skip forward a decade or so, and we have another advertising legend. Directed by one-man movie studio, Ridley Scott, coming off the back of his joint masterpieces, ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’; the spot has all the production values of a feature film – packed into a tidy 60 seconds.

It was one of the earliest examples of a genuinely disruptive commercial!

The received wisdom with ads (than, as now, regrettably) is that repetition builds response – which is why poorly-conceived PPI and Payday Loan ads are pumped out at you from every channel, in every ad break. But Apple’s ‘1984’ ran just once. One and done!  

In the days before Tivo and YouTube, this elusiveness made it seem more fascinating, and resulted in it becoming a real talking point.

The ad broke many more golden rules of advertising. It wasn’t relentlessly cheerful and didn’t feature a pack shot; it didn’t even show someone using the product. Instead, it was about the dangers of conformity, of become slaves to boring business computers. Two days after the Super Bowl broadcast, the Apple Macintosh was released – an exciting and definitely non-conformist computer.

For the 40th anniversary of the Super Bowl, this was voted the Best Super Bowl Ad Ever.

Bud…wei…ser

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Client: Budweiser

Commercial: “Wassup”

Agency: DDB Chicago

Year: 2000

What may be considered the first Super Bowl commercial of the modern age – aired in 2000. This was the first ad to generate what we now call ‘memes’.

It was inspired by a short film, directed by pop-music-video-maker, Charles Stone (which featured Stone and his real-life friends simply saying “Wassup” to each-other). Stone was hired by DDB to repeat the formula with added Budweiser. The simple, repetitive and easy-to-emulate catchphrase caught on immediately.

As proof of its adoption into wider culture, the catchphrase was featured in ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Friends’ and ‘The Office’ – and it still hasn’t gone away, re-appearing in 2018’s film ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’.

Alec Baldwin in Huluwood

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Client: Hulu

Commercial: “Alec in Huluwood”

Agency: CP+B

Year: 2009

The confluence of internet and television has been building over the last decade, with the massive inflation of broadband speeds. But, ten years ago, the notion of ‘streaming’ was still relatively novel. Hulu and Netflix had both committed to the notion in 2007.

While Netflix might be considered industry leader (now they have their “Netflix and chill” catchphrase in common parlance, thanks to Twitter) , it was anybody’s game back then, and Hulu were front and centre with this statement of intent.

Alec Baldwin (at the height of his ’30 Rock’ bankability), a good script and movie-quality special effects combined into an ad which, rather boldly, plays as a public information film warning against watching streaming TV. “There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”  It’s very bold. And true

May the force be with you

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Client: Volkswagen

Commercial: “The Force”

Agency: Deutsch

Year: 2011

It’s understandable to be confused by this – the product is German, but the ad agency – called Deutsch – isn’t. As they helpfully tell us on their website “Not Germany or the Bank”.

They’re actually an American agency, but this commercial took the world by storm, after its Super Bowl debut. It is notable, particularly, because it was a rare example of Lucasfilm licensing their IPs (namely, the music and the likeness of Darth Vader) for something that wasn’t directly promoting ‘Star Wars’.

It was the first major ad to be released online before the Super Bowl, and has been rewarded by being recognised as The Most-Shared Super Bowl commercial ever (at over 5 million shares). This is why the big-ticket ads are now ‘leaked’ in the week-long run-up to the big game, to get those cooler conversations started early.

Some advertisers now release movie-style teaser trailers in the week before the Super Bowl, pre-empting their ads and building up some eager anticipation.

Which nicely leads us to a campaign from 2018:

Crocodile Dundee

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Client: Tourism Australia

Commercial: “Dundee”

Agency: Droga5

Year: 2018

Advertisers are a canny breed and this has never been more apparent than in the strategy that ex-pat Aussie David Droga’s team came up with for Tourism Australia.

This campaign weaponised the teaser-trailer run-up to the Super Bowl, with a star-studded trailer for a new Crocodile Dundee film: ‘Dundee – The Son of a Legend’. A frisson of excitement travelled around the net like – well, like a viral meme.

Then the campaign’s meta-textual masterstroke came during the Super Bowl:  They played a different trailer in which Danny McBride – the putative star of the film – gradually realised, along with the viewers, that this isn’t a movie trailer at all, but an advert of Tourism Australia.

To help sell this joke, they even went to the extent of creating social media accounts for the film – and an IMDB page.

However, tread carefully creative types, this kind of audacious, disruptive strategy can be a double-edged sword.

The dude returns…

Client: Stella Artois

Commercial: “Change Up The Usual”

Agency: Mother New York

Year: 2019

This year, Mother tried to copy last year’s movie-trailer buzz, by getting Jeff Bridges to tweet a teaser of his return to the knitted cardigan of The Dude.

The expected return of Mick Dundee might have generated one level of excitement – but the return of The Dude created quite another.

The Big Lebowski is one of those films which has risen beyond cult status to be worshipped as a religion (indeed, you can get yourself ordained as a Dudeist Priest if you’re so inclined).

So, the hope of a hint of a possibility that Bridges might be stepping back into The Dude’s jellies for a secret sequel set the internet on fire … For about five minutes.

Then it was revealed that it was – like the ‘Dundee’ gag – really just a teaser for a Super Bowl spot. In this case, an indifferent Stella Artois Super Bowl spot where The Dude and Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker’s long-unseen ‘Sex and the City’ alter-ego) decide to drink Stella instead of their usual tipples, for charity.

Mah-hoosive let-down.

Yes, the ad is promoting the brand’s association with Water.org – the anti-water-poverty foundation co-founded by Matt Damon – which is an undeniably worthwhile endeavour. But trifling with the affections of Dudeists the world over, feels needlessly anticlimactic.

It’s only twelve months since Tourism Australia did it, and it already feels old.

How Did We Do?

So, what cunning, disruptive, meme-inducing commercials do you think we’ve missed, from the Super Bowl’s 53-year history?

Let’s share and enjoy.


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