Thirty-four years ago this month, Farrah Fawcett sensuously applied Noxzema to Joe Namath’s manly chin — touching off an escalating arms race of expensive Super Bowl commercials that have frequently been more entertaining than the games.
Last year, advertisers weren’t shy about spending $2.5 million on a 30-second commercial, but only the Budweiser “Magic Fridge” commercial came within striking distance of our Top 10 list.
Below are the best Super Bowl commercials of all time, the keys to their success and the prospects of the company after the spot aired. As you can see, just because people are still talking about an ad more than 20 years later doesn’t mean the product changed the world:
10. Budweiser “Frogs” (1995): Three frogs, perched on a log outside a bar, croaking, “Bud … Weis … Errrrrr.”
What worked: The fact that Budweiser milks every commercial concept to death – does anyone doubt there will be a “Magic Fridge 2” this year? — makes it easy to forget how cool this ad was when you first heard it. The buildup was great, with an oddly infectious catchphrase.
The results: For better or worse, the frog ads and the spin-off lizard commercials made Budweiser — which was starting to become an old-guy drink — cool again for younger partiers.
9. Xerox “Monks” (1977): Faced with a hopelessly mundane copying job, Brother Dominic puts down his quill pen and turns to a Xerox 9200 duplicating system.
What worked: “Monks” seems a bit dated now, like watching NBA video from the early 1950s. But this was the George Mikan of early Super Bowl commercials, with a narrative style and series of punch lines that set the pioneering tone for hundreds of ads that followed.
The results: The promise to reproduce documents “at an incredible two pages per second” may not seem impressive now, but Xerox is now used as both a noun and a verb – the definition of a successful brand.
8. Tabasco “Mosquito” (1998): A mosquito tries to draw blood from a Tabasco-loving yokel — with explosive results.
What worked: The commercial was simple, funny and violent. With no dialogue, no music and only two characters (including the exploding insect), Tabasco memorably promoted its brand.
The results: Tabasco still hasn’t replaced ketchup in the condiment market, and probably never will. With its huge loyal following, does Tabasco even need commercials?
7. Electronic Data Systems “Herding Cats” (2000): A “Bonanza”-like family of cat herders talk about life on the range.
What worked: Kitties and cowboys made this a favorite for both kids and adults, but the near-seamless special effects were the real MVP. Advertiser EDS came back a year later with a similar formula, featuring the “Running of the Squirrels.”
The results: We still don’t know what EDS does, but it has 117,000 employees and just signed a $1.27 billion contract extension with the British Ministry of Defense — so the ad certainly didn’t hurt the company.
6. McDonald’s “The Showdown” (1993): Michael Jordan and Larry Bird engage in a physics-defying hoops-shooting contest for a Big Mac and fries.
What worked: Every basketball fan knows that Bird would win this contest 10 out of 10 times, but it was still a clever idea with a catchphrase that continues to pop up in “Horse” games. (“Over the second rafter, off the floor … nothing but net.”)
The results: This commercial seems to have blessed everyone involved. Jordan won three more championships and Bird transitioned into a solid career as a coach. And while salads and chicken products have been killing off the rest of the menu, the cholesterol-heavy Big Mac value meal remains an untouchable fast-food staple.
5. Monster.com “When I Grow Up …” (1999): A group of kids stare at the camera and declare their desire to “have a brown nose,” “be a yes man” and “claw my way up to middle management.”
What worked: Kids are cute, and even cuter when reciting lines such as, “When I grow up … I want to be forced into early retirement.” It was great brand recognition for the new company.
The results: Monster survived the dot-com implosion and despite a stock controversy in 2006 has become a prosperous company that employs close to 5,000 people worldwide.
4. Reebok “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker” (2003): To boost productivity, a CEO recruits a linebacker from Reebok to slam into a series of “Office Space”-style cubicle drones.
What worked: A series of brutal hits, punctuated by lines such as, “Break was over 15 minutes ago, Mitch!” made this the best Super Bowl ad of the last five years.
The results: Terry Tate got people talking about Reebok for something other than sweatshop controversies. The company provides shoes for all the major sports and hosts clothing lines for rappers Jay-Z and 50 Cent.
3. E*Trade “Monkey” (2000): Two dim-witted guys and a monkey clap to some cha-cha music in a garage, followed by the punch line: “Well we just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you doing with your money?”
What worked: Easily the cheapest ad of the year to produce, it was an instant classic —remaining self-deprecating about dot-com excess while lampooning the well-publicized cost of Super Bowl ad time.
The results: The marketing Gods have a way of punishing tech companies that blow too much money on flashy ads. (See: Pets.com. Or don’t. They haven’t been around since 2000.) E*Trade lost hundreds of millions of dollars in 2001 and 2002, and the company's shares — once trading at more than $60 — dropped below $3 in 2002. The company has since bounced back to profitability.
2. Coke “Mean Joe Greene” (1979): A kid offers his Coca-Cola to a battle-weary “Mean Joe” Greene — who softens up enough to toss his jersey as a reward.
What worked: A cute kid with a soft drink was the perfect foil for the surly Greene. Grown men still burst into tears when thinking about “Mean Joe” throwing that jersey.
The results: The ad became an instant pop culture classic, boosting Greene’s career. Among the offshoots was the inspiring “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid” — perhaps the first hourlong TV movie in history to be based on a one-minute commercial.
1. Apple “1984” (1984): A jogger representing Apple throws a sledgehammer into a giant Big Brother image representing IBM — promising a populist shift in the future of personal computers.
What worked: With “Blade Runner” director Ridley Scott in charge, the ad generated more hype — and post-game water cooler talk — than any television commercial in history. Do you even remember who played in the Super Bowl in 1984? (L.A. Raiders and Washington.) You almost certainly remember the biggest Super Bowl ad of the year.
The results: The most storied Super Bowl ad of all time might have boosted sales of George Orwell books, hot red running shorts and sledgehammers. But it didn’t do much for the Macintosh — Apple continues to be the Reform Party of computer manufacturers. Maybe there was a storage locker filled with iPods behind that huge video screen?
Honorable mentions: Pepsi “Apartment 10G” (1987); Pepsi “Diner” (1995); Pepsi “Sucked in” (1995); Mountain Dew “Bad Cheetah” (2000); Budweiser “Magic Fridge” (2006).
Peter Hartlaub covers pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle.