Every year, the two best teams in the NFL battle it out to be crowned the Super Bowl champion. And the biggest night in football is also the biggest night in advertising. According to Town & Country, “a 30-second commercial in the first Super Bowl cost around $42,000,” while in 2020, “it is estimated that a 30-second advertisement will cost up to $5.5 million.” This is because, as The New York Times explained, “the game typically draws the largest audience of any sponsored TV show.” Suffice to say, a lot of people see the ads that premiere during the Super Bowl every year, and companies are down to shell out serious cash to try to create ad spots that resonate with viewers.
Love them or hate them, some companies’ expensive campaigns really get people talking. Like GoDaddy, for starters. “The fact that Danica Patrick didn’t get a piece of the $2.25 billion the company sold for in 2011 seems unfair,” ESPN noted, referencing the race car driver who starred in many of the controversial ads. Though not all ads are memorable for the right reasons. Several commercials have premiered during the big game, only to be immediately pulled from the air for being so bad.
What’s your favorite and least favorite commercial from the Super Bowl? Here’s a list of the best and worst Super Bowl commercials ranked.
Best: Apple's memorable mini-movie
In 1982, Ridley Scott directed the movie Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford. Though the movie received little success upon release, it later became one of the director’s most popular films. The director used a similar dystopian future vibe to direct a commercial a few years later for a computer company called Apple. Titled “1984,” the ad aired that same year during the Super Bowl.
In the clip, men with bald heads march in line while wearing the same gray jumpsuit. An ominous talking head appears in a presentation hall while the people continue to file in. Meanwhile, jump cuts show a blonde woman running with a huge hammer while futuristic security guards chase her. Once she makes it to the hall, she hurls the hammer at the screen projecting the talking head, creating a blast of wind and dust. The ad ends with the text, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984,” referencing George Orwell’s classic sci-fi novel.
This commercial was advanced well beyond its years, with the “movie-like” quality, according to Bleacher Report. The outlet went on to point out that “the majority of today’s top ads have this one to thank for shattering the known ceiling at the time,” making this possibly the best Super Bowl commercial ever.
Worst: Nationwide's grim twist
It might seem like a good idea to pull at viewers’ heartstrings in a Super Bowl ad. But Nationwide insurance company found a way to craft a story with a young boy at the center, which would become one of the worst commercials in Super Bowl history. The ad starts off innocently enough, with the boy talking about all the things he’ll never get to do. While sad, the special effects are magical and the fictitious imagery — like cooties as little monsters — paints a detailed picture. But at the end, the twist completely changes the mood. “I couldn’t grow up because I died from an accident,” the little boy reveals.
In a statement obtained by NBC News, Nationwide said, “The sole purpose of this message was to start a conversation, not sell insurance.” Well, it sure started a conversation. The commercial “was so bad it actually put the nation into a momentary funk, and the memes lasted for weeks,” according to ESPN. As AdAge reported at the time, Nationwide’s chief marketing officer quit a few months after the ad ran. The following year, the company announced in a statement (via Bleacher Report) that they would be sitting out that Super Bowl.
Best: Pepsi's brand new look
Pepsi has a long list of memorable commercials, like the 1987 Diet Pepsi ad starring Michael J. Fox, the “You Got the Right One, Baby” series featuring Ray Charles, and Britney Spears’ “Joy of Pepsi” campaign. But its most iconic ad may be the 1992 Super Bowl commercial with two young boys, a car, Cindy Crawford, and a can of Pepsi. The supermodel pulls up to a stop and gets out of a red Lamborghini in a tight, white bodysuit and cutoff jean shorts. Two boys observe the scene with their mouths agape. Crawford buys a can of Pepsi from the machine and drinks it with delight. The one young boy surprises the audience and says, “Is that a great new Pepsi can or what?”
The ad, which introduced the “New Look” can design, “was an instant classic,” according to Vogue. Pepsi tried to rekindle the magic created by the original with an updated version of the ad in 2002, and again in 2018.
Worst: GM's robots didn't help the company
In 2007, General Motors decided to take the audience behind the scenes in a Super Bowl ad. In the minute-long mini-story, a manufacturing robot from the GM car assembly line drops one screw while working. All the employees seem disappointed and the robot is fired from its workplace. This robot spends the next several scenes in a depressive mood set to sad music, longing to once again build GM vehicles. After a few random jobs, the audience hears the song “All By Myself” and the robot jumps off a bridge. As the robot hits the water, it wakes up from a daydream and is back on the assembly line.
The ad’s tasteless depiction of depression and suicide did not sit well with viewers. “After the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention caused a stir, the jumping robot part was edited out for future runs,” ESPN reported.
Best: Coca-Cola created a not-so-mean moment
Joe Greene was a standout defenseman for the Pittsburgh Steelers thanks to his amazing skills on the field. “I just want people to remember me as being a good player and not really mean,” he told the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his biography. Greene is referencing his nickname “Mean” Joe Greene. Coca-Cola used this nickname to build the premise for an iconic Super Bowl commercial.
A timid young boy sees the NFL star hobble off the field, and asks if he can help. When Greene says no, the boy works up the courage to tell him, “I think you’re the best ever.” He then offers his Coke to Greene a few times, who ultimately accepts with a smile. As the boy walks away, Greene delivers the iconic line, “Hey kid, catch,” and tosses his jersey towards the young fan. According to Bleacher Report, the “ad was so powerful that NBC later produced a movie called The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid.” And from a marketing standpoint, Bleacher Report pointed out that “the storytelling element broke barriers for the industry, spurring an advancement.”
Worst: SalesGenie's racist panda ad
Amazingly, the awful ideas of some marketers make it past the brainstorming phase into real life. This was the case of SalesGenie, who used its commercial spot in Super Bowl 42 poorly. And while the actual football game was ranked the second best Super Bowl of all time according to the NFL, SalesGenie will be remembered for one of the worst ads ever. In the 30-second clip, cartoon pandas who run a bamboo furniture store think of ways to attract more customers and avoid “going back to the zoo.” In the end, thanks to SalesGenie, the previous bamboo shack is now an emporium and the owner drives a fancy car with an adorable panda family. What was so wrong with the idea? “Pandas speaking broken English in a Chinese accent” managed to offend “just about everyone,” ESPN recapped.
Vinod Gupta, the creator of the ad and CEO of Sales Genie’s parent company, was surprised by the backlash for the ad. “We never thought anyone would be offended,” he told The New York Times. According to Gupta, “The pandas are Chinese” and “They don’t speak German.” To everyone else, it’s unsurprising the ad offended viewers. Tim Calkins, a professor at Northwestern University, explained why this type of ad usually flops. “Anytime you’re making light of a cultural group, you’re running a big risk of getting a big backlash,” he told CBS News.
Best: Google went for the heart strings
Google showed its skill in advertising with a well-received 2010 Super Bowl ad called “Parisian Love.” In the video, the audience only sees a screen with all the words someone is typing into the Google search bar. Starting with the search “Study abroad Paris France,” and using well-timed audio clips, the commercial paints a story of a user spaced out over key life moments. Just by looking at the search terms, the audience can infer the user finds love in Paris, gets married, and has a child. The charming ad was created by five Google employees called the “Google 5,” according to AdAge.
Then in 2020, Google continued its success with the tear-inducing Super Bowl commercial called “Loretta.” The video is a voiceover “of a man whose wife dies and is left with Google as his companion,” the Chicago Tribune recapped. By using a Google home assistant and the search engine, the man records his favorite memories with his late wife. Time called the ad one of the best in 2020 “by delivering a poignant demonstration” of the company’s technologies to help save “heartwarming recollections.”
Worst: Jay Leno's laugh couldn't save this ad
In the mid-2000s, chip brand Doritos began to crowdsource its TV spot content for the biggest Sunday of the football season. “Doritos solicited amateur filmmakers and Hollywood dreamers to produce the junk food maker’s Super Bowl ad on spec,” The Verge noted. This was a way to make a break in Hollywood. Or to get some free labor, depending on how you look at it. But before amateur ad makers, Doritos turned to stars to help sell its tortilla chips. And in the ’90s, few celebs were bigger than late night host Jay Leno.
For a 15-second commercial that aired during Super Bowl XXIV, Leno reads what appears to be a letter from a fan. After mentioning that football players make a ton of money for playing a sport, The Tonight Show host boasts about his own revenue sources. “You know what I get for doing these commercials?” he says before launching into a cackling laugh. Yardbarker commented that among the many Doritos ads that featured Leno, this one “was particularly annoying,” both for the boastful attitude and the terrible hair style.
Best: McDonald's called the NBA
In 1993, two of the most famous men in basketball joined up with the biggest name in fast food for a Super Bowl commercial. The star power of all parties combined sure made a memorable moment. The ad, called “The Showdown,” featured Olympic teammates Michael Jordan and Larry Bird showing off their skills. And the winner — the first to not miss a shot — would receive a Big Mac and fries. The men never miss and the insanity of the trick shots intensifies as the commercial continues. The ad was a success and was a “signal booster for the catchphrase ‘Nothing but net,'” according to AdAge.
“Not only is this a fun ad, but there’s important context we could easily overlook: Two basketball players stole the show during football’s biggest event of the year,” Bleacher Report remembered. And apparently, the bright and loud clothing that Jordan wears was not by accident. Jim Ferguson, who helped create the commercial, told CNBC that while filming, “Michael was designing his own line of clothes.” So, when the basketball star’s contract stated he could choose his outfit, “Jordan refused to wear anything else, but his creation.”
Worst: Holiday Inn turned renovations into a PR nightmare
From 1998 to 2008, the hotel chain Holiday Inn pushed a brilliant marketing campaign. “The commercials showed people successfully completing extraordinary tasks that they weren’t trained for, then explaining it with the punch line: ‘But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express hotel last night,'” USA Today recapped. In fact, “Al Gore used it while running for president in 2000,” according to the article. But if it weren’t for this idea, the chain could have been in trouble. That’s because one year earlier, the company aired one of the most offensive commercials in Super Bowl history.
In the 30-second ad, everyone at a high school reunion is staring at the beautiful model walking through the room. Meanwhile, a voiceover talks about the cost of plastic surgery enhancements. Then in the end, a confident man tries to remember the pretty woman’s name. Only, he appears horrified to realize it is in fact his old classmate “Bob Johnson.” The narrator claims that if a few thousand dollars can cause a big change, for the audience to imagine what the hotel chain will look like after spending a billion. The commercial “offended all of the groups you’d expect it to, while simultaneously forcing millions of Americans to explain the joke to their kids in one of the most awkward conversations imaginable,” Bleacher Report explained. Days after the ad aired, Holiday Inn received enough complaints to pull the ad off the air, AP reported.
Best: Budweiser showed how to sound out 'success'
Anheuser-Busch and particularly Budweiser are almost guaranteed to deliver one if not multiple Super Bowl commercials every year. As AdAge noted, for 17 years in a row, the Budweiser used its majestic Clydesdale horses to help advertise its products. But before the streak, the beermaker used a different kind of animal to help viewers remember Budweiser. Three frogs and only three syllables combined for a memorable piece of advertising.
In the 1995 commercial, the first frog croaks in what sounds like “Bud.” Then a second frog croaks “wise,” while the first continues to harmonize with “Bud.” Finally, the third joins the vocal performance by croaking “er.” The cacophony continues until the camera pans out and reveals the frogs are looking at a glowing Budweiser sign. The croaking makes sense to sound out “Budweiser.” The simplicity of these three amphibians “created an advertising-campaign monster for years to come,” according to Bleacher Report.
Worst: SoBe hosted a party no one wanted to attend
If the idea of computer animated lizards makes you thirsty for flavored water, then this commercial might be the perfect thing to inspire a purchase. SoBe Life Water tried to pull out all the special effects to create an unforgettable Super Bowl ad. What the company ended up with was a completely random, confusing, and bonkers commercial.
First up is a lizard conducting a version of the Swan Lake ballet. But this version, which is called “Lizard Lake,” stars famous NFL players, including the controversial Ray Lewis. In the ad spot, the football stars, the lizards — the SoBe mascot — and characters from the DreamWorks animated film Monsters vs. Aliens all fight for a SoBe drink. Everyone starts dancing to what sounds like a T-Pain impersonation. And then the company tries to push the phrase “SoBelieve.” As Bleacher Report remembered, the commercial “just gets trippier and makes less sense the more times you watch it.”
Best: This Old Spice commercial smelled a hit
Old Spice’s Super Bowl commercial “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” looked like nothing else. The ad featured former NFL player Isaiah Mustafa shirtless and talking to all the “ladies” in the audience. As the actor delivers his monologue, the background constantly changes. As Mustafa talks about the possibilities if a viewer’s “man” smelled like Old Spice. And at the end, the camera pulls back while Mustafa randomly exclaims, “I’m on a horse.”
Calling the ad one of the Super Bowl’s best commercials, Vogue wrote, “Sure, the shaming of men who use ‘lady-scented body wash’ is a little retro.” Bleacher Report noted that the ad helped start “Super Bowl ads that resembled internet memes.” Thanks to the stylistic choice to look like “YouTube-level production” the premise worked for a younger generation. It also worked for award voters: The popular TV spot won an Emmy for Outstanding Commercial in 2010.
Worst: Apple's terrible sequel
Apple’s “1984” commercial is an iconic piece of advertising. Naturally, the company tried to continue the success with an even more impactful ad. But similar to many movies, Apple found out a terrible sequel can almost ruin an entire franchise. The computer company followed up the popular ad “with another breaking free from the monotony of daily life commercial for Macintosh Office,” Bleacher Report recapped.
In the ad titled “Lemmings,” indistinguishable employees in suits walk blindfolded in a single line, holding on to each other. The title and depiction in the minute-long commercial suggests that most of the corporate world up until that time used other non-Apple products and simply followed the social norm without thought. And while this similar story worked once for Apple’s “1984” ad, “the imagery of businessmen and women jumping off a cliff wasn’t the best way to go on this one,” Bleacher Report remembered about “Lemmings.” That’s because this long line of people walked off the edge of a mountain in a dystopian setting. And even worse, lemmings — the real-life animals — don’t even do this. According to the Cambridge Dictionary definition of lemmings, these mouse-like animals migrate “in large groups and are often, but wrongly, thought to jump off cliffs together.”
Best: VW turned the dark side into a bright spot
Incorporating Star Wars into advertising seems like a sure way to earn praise. But to go a step further and be remembered as an iconic Super Bowl commercial, it takes extra special thoughts. And for Volkswagen, the car company used a family friendly premise to win big in a field of commercials. In its ad “The Force,” a little boy who’s clearly a huge fan of Star Wars walks around his house in a great Darth Vader outfit. Try as he might, but the little guy can’t use his mind or “the Force” to move objects — including the dog. That is until he points his hands at the family’s 2012 Volkswagen Passat. The car engine starts with no one around and the boy is stunned. And then, the audience sees the father used remote start technology to surprise the child.
The commercial “went viral right after being released and has received 10s of millions of views since,” Business Insider reported. The success couldn’t be better timed for the car company, as the commercial was its “big return to the Super Bowl advertising scene, a booming re-debut of a new era for the company,” according to Bleacher Report. The Force is strong with this ad.
Worst: Gatorade landed in the doghouse
Feeding regular human food to a dog is a classic tradition for any owner. And Gatorade tried to use this premise for the biggest night in football. Even though the sports drink already appeared on the benches of most major sports leagues and is Beyoncé approved, Gatorade wanted to market its beverage during the big game in 2008. The company aired a commercial during the Super Bowl featuring its product and a cute dog. What could go wrong?
The 30-second clip was essentially the sound of a dog slurping and slobbering liquid out of a bowl and off the ground. At the end, the dog stands by three bottles of Gatorade as the tagline “Man’s Best Friend” appears. The ASMR effect of dog noises is almost gross as inference from the commercial. Or as Bleacher Report expressed, “Gatorade: If it’s good enough for the dog, it’s good enough for people!”
Best: E*TRADE appealed to the kid in everyone
Using technology that was not too far removed from deepfake videos, E*TRADE tried to hook viewers in a surprising way for its grand Super Bowl ad. In the commercial, a webcam video shows a baby in a high chair who is using a computer and seemingly talking like an adult. He explains how E*TRADE makes it easy to invest and buy into the stock market, no matter the age of the user. A tool so easy a baby could hypothetically use it. And for slapstick comedy at the end — and to remind the audience that it’s an infant speaking, the character spits up a little puke on his shirt.
The ad was a huge success for the stock trading website. In fact, this first ad performed so well that “the company featured the talking baby in their Super Bowl ads for six years in a row, until he finally retired in 2014,” according to Vogue.
Worst: Just for Feet should have just stayed away
In the late ’90s, the brand Just for Feet experienced massive success. The company ranked sixth “in Fortune magazine’s recent list of ‘America’s Fastest Growing Companies,'” Salon recapped. But at that point, the outlet continued, “Just for Feet had never before tried its hand at national brand advertising.” So, the company decided to go all in and shell out millions for an ad that would air in the most famous night of TV spots… and live in infamy. During a break in the third quarter of the 1999 Super Bowl, viewers witnessed the head-scratcher of a commercial.
In what AdAge called “some sort of colonialist fever dream,” a group of white men in a Humvee chase a Black barefoot runner, then one member of their goggle-clad team gives the thirsty man a cup filled with an unmarked liquid and pills. The runner, who is wearing a jersey that reads “Kenya,” soon stumbles and passes out as the Humvee pulls up. The four pursuers tower over the incapacitated man, who wakes up wearing a pair of sneakers. He screams at the sight of the footwear placed unwillingly on his feet in an, as Salon put it, “ad from hell.” The result received terrible reception, and as Salon noted, Just for Feet’s CEO sued the ad agency he hired, “arguing the Super Bowl commercial was so bad it amounted to advertising malpractice.”
Best: Snickers kicked off an epic tagline
For a cross-generational ad, Snickers decided to call upon America’s favorite “Golden Girl.” The snack bar company enlisted the beloved Betty White to get dirty for its Super Bowl commercial. In the 2010 ad, the audience sees White — 88 years old at the time — playing backyard football with a bunch of guys. As she’s about to catch a pass, a defender tackles the actor down into a puddle of mud. The other characters refer to her as “Mike” and say that she’s playing “like Betty White” in the game. Then the TV icon quips back, “that’s not what your girlfriend says.”
Then Mike’s girlfriend appears to hand over a Snickers bar — and the audience sees the transformation to the real Mike. With this commercial, as Business Insider noted, the company’s “‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’ tagline was born.” Snickers created a series around the premise, and in 2020, the candy brand celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the original ad with “Snickers Fix the World.”
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