Nothing makes the economy appear sound like scores of corporations lining up to spend $3 million for a 30-second advertisement that may or may not help their company. Even after a year filled with government bailouts, Bernie Madoff and $4-plus gas, there’s still plenty of money for Super Bowl commercials.
But will this year’s advertisements be any good? Too often, today’s Don Drapers fail to look at what has worked in the past — mostly simple spots that involve animals, potty humor, violence, celebrities, sentimentality, a stupid catchphrase or some combination of the above.
Below are our choices for the 10 best Super Bowl ads of all time. The picks were heavily influenced by commenters on the MSNBC message boards, who discussed their favorite commercials and voted on the subject two years ago. We also considered the economic impact of the ads, which mostly consisted of disqualifying failed dot-com companies.
10. Master Lock — “Shot Lock” (1974)
One of the first high-profile Super Bowl ads featured little more than a bullet, a padlock and the following words: “On December 5th, 1973, at a rifle range outside of Los Angeles, a high-powered .30-caliber rifle was fired at a distance of 40 yards, to try to open this Master padlock. …” The results were definitely more entertaining than Super Bowl VIII (Miami 24, Minnesota 7).
File under: Violence.
Economic stimulus: Master Lock enjoyed record growth in the 1970s and is still an industry leader in the 21st century. It doesn’t hurt that Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters” recently shot a bullet through a Master Lock and got the same result.
9. Coke — “Parade Balloons” (2008)
Just when we were convinced that memorable advertisements are a thing of the past, Coca-Cola unveiled this gem near the end of last year’s Super Bowl. Parade balloon versions of Underdog and Stewie from “Family Guy” fight for an inflatable Coke bottle over the New York skyline, but are thwarted when a Charlie Brown balloon shows up and steals the drink.
File under: Sentimentality; celebrities.
Economic stimulus: “Family Guy” was mired in a writer’s strike, the “Underdog” movie was a box office disappointment and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade got Rickrolled later that year. Was this commercial cursed?
8. Budweiser — “Sleigh Ride” (2004)
Borrowing heavily from a popular “Seinfeld” episode, a flatulent hansom cab horse turns a candle into a flamethrower and torches a guy’s date. (He escapes the danger because he reaches for a Bud Light.) We learned a valuable lesson after putting this on a “10 worst” list a couple of years ago: There are many, many Americans willing to go to war in defense of a good fart joke.
File under: Potty humor; violence; animals.
Economic stimulus: A gassy horse and third-degree burns didn’t appear to make anyone switch to Coors. Anheuser-Busch will have seven commercial spots in this year’s Super Bowl.
7. E*Trade — “Money out the Wazoo” (2000)
Most of the dot-com ads were terrible, but E*Trade had two classics in 2000. In this one, a man is rushed into an emergency room and is quickly diagnosed with “money coming out of the wazoo.” Several good one-liners followed. (“Does your husband have insurance?” … “Insurance? He’s got money coming out of the wazoo!”)
File under: Potty humor; violence.
Economic stimulus: E*Trade has had its ups and downs, but its mere survival puts it ahead of most of the dot-com companies that advertised in this era. “E.R.,” the television show that this ad appears to spoof, is currently in its 132nd season.
6. McDonald's — “The Showdown” (1993)
Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, two of the most recognizable and popular athletes in the world, engage in an increasingly logic-defying shooting contest for a Big Mac. (“Over the second rafter, off the floor, nothing but net.”) The commercial ends with the players throwing a ball off the John Hancock Tower in Chicago.
File under: Catchphrase; celebrities.
Economic stimulus: Larry Bird’s visible back hair in this ad didn’t seem to hurt sales. The 650-calorie sandwich continues to be a staple, and McDonald’s is posting solid numbers even in a rough economy.
5. Budweiser — “Frogs” (1995)
With the Bud Bowl and its anthropomorphic bottles and cans becoming increasingly intolerable, Anheuser-Busch needed a new gimmick. The best idea advertisers could come up with: Three frogs sitting on a log and croaking the words “buuuud,” “wiiiise” and “errrr.” Americans predictably loved this ad, which included lizard and ferret-themed spin offs.
File under: Animals; catchphrase.
Economic stimulus: Anheuser-Busch didn’t just sell a lot of beer in the 1990s. For the next several years the company also sold the frogs on T-shirts, beer steins, key chains, neon pub lights and a motion sensor-activated frog lamp that repeated the catchphrase when anyone walks by. (It’s currently going for $500 on EBay.)
4. Apple — “1984” (1984)
An Orwellian scene of lockstep fascism is broken up by a woman in red Dolphin shorts, who hurls a sledgehammer through a theater screen. Then we see this text: "On January 24th, Apple will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like '1984.'"
File under: Violence.
Economic stimulus: The Macintosh didn’t quite change the world as we know it — we’re typing on a PC, and bet you’re reading this on one — but Apple has managed to stick around and make a few bucks. While the original Macintosh is likely gone for good, Dolphin shorts have made a comeback.
3. Reebok — “Terry Tate Office Linebacker” (2003)
Workers at a fictitious corporation who breach office etiquette receive bone-crunching tackles from Terry Tate, a Reebok sneaker-wearing linebacker who barks observations like "Break was over 15 minutes ago, Mitch!"
File under: Violence.
Economic stimulus: The nation’s jobless rate may be rising, but Terry Tate actor Lester Speight has plenty of work, including video game voiceovers and a guest spot on TV’s “Prison Break.” Rawson Marshall Thurber, who came up with the Reebok spot, now directs feature films.
2. Budweiser — “Respect” (2002)
The Budweiser Clydesdales, easily the most recognizable icon in Super Bowl ads, walk across a snowy field and the Brooklyn Bridge before taking one knee in front of the New York skyline where the World Trade Center towers used to be. Budweiser followed this theme three years later with its “Heroes” ad, featuring people at an airport applauding returning soldiers.
File under: Sentimentality.
Economic stimulus: Don’t be so cynical. It’s not always about the money.
1. Coke — “Mean Joe Greene” (1979)
Apple spent more money and the frogs were cuter, but there’s no beating Mean Joe Greene (even though this advertisement technically debuted just before the Super Bowl). Greene meets a kid in a stadium tunnel after the game. The kid offers Greene a Coke, and the player smiles and gives him a jersey. You’re crying just thinking about it, right?
File under: Sentimentality; celebrity.
Economic stimulus: This advertisement became an economy in itself. Remakes were made in other countries with different athletes, including one in Argentina with soccer player Diego Maradona. There was even a 1981 movie based on the commercial called “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid.”
Peter Hartlaub covers pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle.