Touchdown! The 5 Greatest Superbowl TV Ads

The Superbowl – 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 itself, interest in the event has been growing over here in the land of proper football.

This year, the Superbowl will, once again, be broadcast live on BBC One. Of course, those brave souls staying up ’til 4am to watch the game on the beeb will be missing the best part of the night: the Superbowl adverts.

A Superbowl 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.

Commercials created especially for the Superbowl are thought of as advertising royalty, and ad agencies respond to the challenge by bringing out their big guns – their most extravagant, high-concept and costly commercials, featuring as many A-listers as they can bankroll! 

Consumers and cultural commentators look forward to the new Superbowl ads with the keen anticipation that we, in Britain, reserve almost exclusively for John Lewis’ Christmas ads. This is because Superbowl 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!

So, let’s kick-off our selection of 5 Fantastic Superbowl Ads:

#5: Apple – “1984”

Agency: Chiat\Day

Year: 1984

Directed by one-man movie studio, Ridley Scott, coming off the back of his joint masterpieces, ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’; this 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 becoming slaves to boring business computers. Two days after the Superbowl broadcast, the Apple Macintosh was released – an exciting and definitely non-conformist computer.

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

#4: Budweiser – “Wassup”

Agency: DDB Chicago

Year: 2000

What may be considered the first Superbowl 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’.

#3: Hulu – “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.

#2: Volkswagen – “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 Superbowl 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 Superbowl, and has been rewarded by being recognised as The Most-Shared Superbowl 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.

It was the first major ad to be released online before the Superbowl, and has been rewarded by being recognised as The Most-Shared Superbowl 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.

#1: Tourism Australia – “Dundee”

Agency: Droga5

Year: 2018

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

All of which nicely leads us to a campaign from 2018, which played the game brilliantly:

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 Superbowl, 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 Superbowl:  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.

How Did We Do?

So, what cunning, disruptive, meme-inducing commercials do you think we’ve missed, from the Superbowl’s 54-year history? Hit us up on Facebook or Twitter with links to the Superbowl stars we left off the field.

Let’s share and enjoy.