Year after year, no matter how much the world changes, there is one thing that remains constant. The two best teams from the NFL will meet at a (usually) neutral location and play one game, in front of anywhere from 80 to 100 million people, for all the marbles. Ironically, a large portion of those 100 million people are just as–if not more–invested in the commercials between the action than they are the actual game. In a masterful display of entertainment and capitalism, the NFL has turned its biggest stage into the biggest single event for advertisers, creating an expectation that if you want a shot during the “big game” you’ll be competing with the best of the best to leave an impression on the 90 million-plus audience watching at home, who are hyper-focused and hanging on every second. With football now over until September, let’s take a look at some of the most memorable Super Bowl commercials of all time.
Coca Cola’s Mean Joe Green “Hey Kid, Catch” (1980)
This whole list probably deserves an asterisk considering I was born in 1997, which is after over half of these spots had originally aired on television. Despite this, I still think I’m capable of giving these ads their respect. Especially considering they’ve managed to impact someone born 17 years after initially airing. Of course, I’m talking about Coca-Cola’s iconic “Hey Kid, Catch” with Mean Joe Green. I’m not sure if any commercial has ingrained itself in pop culture more than this one. It’s a perfect match: America’s #1 soft drink paired with an iconic figure from America’s #1 sport. It’s been spoofed, remade, and referenced all throughout TV, movies, and music. It was even remade as a new Super Bowl commercial in 2009 to promote Coke Zero. In regards to lasting power, this ad deserves the number one spot.
Macintosh “1984” (1984)
Another legendary spot which ranks #1 on plenty of lists is the Macintosh “1984” ad from…well, 1984. Drawing themes from Orwell’s book of the same name, the ad seems to take place in one such dystopian future with no free thought or creativity. Directed by Ridley Scott, this ad boldly says that Macintosh will not accept this reality and does so with one of the most iconic commercials in Super Bowl history. Unlike anything the world had really seen before, this helped usher in a new era of cinematic ads that aimed to tell a story reflecting their company’s values and leave a lasting impression, instead of the more traditional informational commercial.
Volkswagen “The Force” (2011)
One element of Super Bowl commercials is something I’ve dubbed the “aww” effect. Aiming for 110% of pure unfiltered cuteness. Some companies will achieve this through puppies or little girls dubbed with the Allstate guy’s voice, but none have seemed to surpass the Volkswagen “Force” commercial. Showing off a little kid doing his best Darth Vader impression AND managing to include some pretty neat features on their car. This one is so good we’re convinced they’ve run it again because it’s not possible this came out ten years ago… right?
Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” (1984)
“Where’s The Beef?” is something, again, that I’ve been hearing basically forever, and most of my life I didn’t even realize it was a Super Bowl commercial. Similar to the “Mean Joe Green” ad, this one seemed to integrate extremely well into pop culture, finding its way onto t-shirts and even getting a revival in 2011 (as well as 2020, following the pandemic and resulting meat shortage). Who knew that one commercial 37 years ago would result in a simple question that stood the test of time. I think the key here is simplicity. It isn’t over-thought or over-explained. It’s actually quite silly, something we see a lot in today’s Super Bowl commercials.
E-Trade “Talking Baby” (2008)
For the sake of this list, I tried not to look too deeply into campaigns that spawned out of Super Bowl commercials (see below), but I would be remiss to leave off this hilarious spot. The talking baby takes everything I said about cute and silliness and just amps it up to twelve, and the series of commercials that would follow due to its popularity are some of the funniest in recent memory. “Time Out with Dog” is a personal favorite. I still believe the cute and silly angle tends to be overused, but when it works, the results are clear.
Looking back on the consistency of Super Bowl commercials over time, one brand has seemed to cement itself in the conversation for best spot year after year. Opting for a more cinematic approach, the Budweiser ads tell heartwarming and entertaining stories, focusing on their living mascots, the Clydesdales. These ads work so well because they offer viewers a unique experience from almost any other ad campaign it goes up against, using its lovable equestrian stars to illustrate the values of the company they represent. In terms of staying power and memorability, the Clydesdales should be near the top of anyone’s list.
Budweiser Clydesdales (1975-2017, 2019)
“Respect (NY)” (2002)
“American Dream” (2006)
“Puppy Love” (2014)