From McDonalds to Michael Jordan and Budweiser, the Best Super Bowl Commercials of All-Time


This piece was co-authored by Jonathan Weidman.

The Super Bowl is consistently among the most watched television events in the world. The Big Game started out 45 years ago, and has since gotten much bigger: In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson counted the 200 millionth American. That year, Super Bowl I had about 24 million US viewers. In February 2011, the US had a population of just under 311 million people; over 111 million of them tuned into Super Bowl XLV on February 6, making it the most watched television program in U.S. history.

Between segments of watching giants (go Giants!) battle for the World Championship, advertisers spend top dollar battling for our attention — with great success. Long before YouTube links, social this, and viral that, the Super Bowl commercial unified viewers by showcasing the biggest consumption and pop culture trends — both current and desired — in the national spotlight. Still true now, the Super Bowl ad has become the single most pervasive (and expensive, now at $3.5M a pop) platform for advertising media.

In honor of the 2012 Super Bowl, we’ve listed 12 of the biggest Big Game ads, and why they were such gamechangers (or, in some cases, just why they were so cool):

1. Plymouth “Road Runner” (1969)

Let’s start with something fun. What made this commercial so great was that it was, while distinctly an ad, a precursor to what we now call “branded entertainment.” This spot is first and foremost a piece of standalone entertainment that draws consumers in naturally, and integrates the product in a more nuanced, but still effective way. We should all be able to appreciate ads like this, particularly in light of the same hyper-aggressive truck commercials that have been shoved down our throat during the long season leading up to the Super Bowl.

2. Coca-Cola “Mean Joe Green” (1980)

We have ourselves a tricky one here. Nothing can be diminished from the impact this spot had; it is one of the most memorable ads of all time. One of the most famous pitchmen ever, Bill Cosby, espoused that “in [this] short amount of time the story that was told was absolutely fantastic.” Tapping into ethnic tensions, you can certainly debate the social merits of a white child softening the hard, aggressive black-male veneer through a soda product. What you can’t debate, however, is the iconic status of the ad and the “Thanks, Mean Joe” line it immortalized.

3. McDonalds “Hopscotch” (1982)

A lot has changed in thirty years. Think McDonald’s could get away with using kids to shill their fatty foods in 2012? This ad created the odd juxtaposition of kids actively jumping around while hawking a burger that has 29 grams of fat. Damn you childhood obesity epidemic, they can’t even advertise Happy Meals anymore! This spot shows how much McDonalds has rebranded over the years, through their introduction of the adult-oriented McCafe line and the “I’m Lovin’ It” tagline.

4. Apple “1984” (1984)

This iconic Apple spot has been written about endlessly, particularly in light of the recent passing of Steve Jobs (a notorious stickler for marketing, not just design). This was the original Mac vs. PC commercial, without calling out their competitor by name. Interestingly, in 23 years, the Apple brand personified seems to have evolved from the busty rebel found here to, er, Justin Long.

5. McDonalds “Larry vs. Michael” (1993)

Sadly, many young whippersnappers familiar with the Lebron vs. Dwight re-make of this iconic spot probably have no idea why Larry Bird comes out of nowhere to eat the Big Mac at the end (nice dig at Gen-Y with the “Who’s that?” comment at the end). This is the glorious original H.O.R.S.E.-for-burger matchup, and we would argue the much more compelling one (Come on, we’re all pretty sick of the commercialized and contrived dunk contest concept by now aren’t we?).

6. When I Grow Up (1999)

A classic spot that featured children in order to capture the attention of its target adult audience,’s first Super Bowl ad took place at the height of the growth of the dot-com bubble. This ad provides an odd case study in the differences in the American psyche 13 years ago compared to today. Back then, people were concerned with upgrading their middle-management jobs to cash in on booming economic growth. Today, Americans are more focused on keeping whatever jobs they already have.

7. Budweiser “Wassup?” (2000)

A cool, funny, memorable commercial that spoke directly to Budweiser’s target demographic. Before Twitter #hashtags, it wasn’t as easy to spread fad phrases. This did it perfectly. Budweiser has had well-documented trouble branding itself in recent years, so it’s easy to forget the impact campaigns such as this one and the Bud-Weis-Er frogs once had.

8. Miller High Life “One Second” (2009)

Days before the 2009 Super Bowl, Miller began building the hype for its One Second ad by airing 30-second spots in which the lead character, a Miller delivery man, ridiculed Super Bowl ad prices. In the One Second spot that aired on Super Bowl Sunday, the delivery man gave his 1-second pitch for his employer. Miller stayed true to its brand with this ad, associating its product with low cost, and incurring low costs from its short commercial.

9. Hulu “Alec Baldwin” (2009)

Cord cutting — the act of cancelling cable subscriptions in exchange for television consumption through the web — is a relatively new phenomenon, legitimized by companies like Hulu and Netflix. In this Hulu commercial, Alec Baldwin embraces the stereotypical negative effects of television, and claims them for Hulu, the internet TV service. “TV only softens the brain … like a ripe banana. To take it all the way, we’ve created Hulu.” He alludes to cord-cutting, stating that the computer is the new device for TV consumption: “What are you going to do, turn off your TV and your computer?” Hulu wants viewers to hear in plain language that entertainment is changing mediums. The result? Hulu’s market share rose considerably from December 2008 to 2009, which was a growth year in general for online viewing, as Americans watched almost twice as many videos online.

10. Google “Parisian Love” (2010)

In Google’s first ever commercial, we’re told the story of finding true love, marrying, and having a family, all through its homepage search bar. The spot is powerful, never straying from close-ups of search or map results, and ending with the phrase “Search On.” Google’s statement is that search isn’t just a quick-hit informational tool, but that it’s here to help build our lives. For a company so focused on branding but previously averse to traditional advertising, this ad says a lot about the power of a Super Bowl spot. What this says about our growing inability to discover life’s joys without a computer screen is another matter.

11. NFL “Best Fans Ever” (2011)

Not too much needs to be said about this one. This is a not-so-subtle “humblebrag” by the NFL.  The point here is presented in an entertaining way, but is very blunt: Football is now America’s pastime (sorry baseball, control your ‘roid rage).  It has the most valuable franchises, the most coveted TV deals, and, let’s face it, the Super Bowl is far more embedded in the national pop culture psyche than any other sporting event, as demonstrated here.

12. Volkswagon “The Bark Side” (2012)

It’s 2012, and everything is social, particularly with regards to this year’s Super Bowl ads. Hey, when you’re spending $3.5MM for 30 seconds, you have to find creative ways to recoup. Building off the buzz of last year’s Star Wars tie-in, Volkswagon released this teaser for their TV spot two-and-a-half weeks in advance of the Big Game. Success? Well, it racked up nearly 3 million views in less than two days, and a commercial that hasn’t even aired yet is already the most talked about Super Bowl spot of 2012. Success.

Share your favorite ads and your comments below.

Follow Jonathan Weidman on Twitter @gojonno. Follow Justin White on Twitter @justiNYte.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons