Image: Farrah Fawcett, Joe Namath
Was it the tension between Joe Namath and Farrah Fawcett?
By contributor
updated 2/1/2009 11:47:56 PM ET 2009-02-02T04:47:56

There are two ways to make a Super Bowl ad that no one will forget.

Go with a sweet and sentimental image (think Mean Joe Greene giving up his game jersey to a kid and Clydesdales kneeling in front of the empty skyline where the World Trade Center once stood).

Or you can feature a clown that appears to drink beer through its butt, a busty model whose camisole strap keeps breaking and an endless row of people who keep falling off a cliff.

This list is about that second group of commercials, which often reaps more rewards for advertisers than the first.

Below are our picks for the 10 most infamous Super Bowl commercials of all time. The “winners” have been broken down into “good infamous” and “bad infamous,” depending on whether we think the controversy ended up being positive for the company. Despite’s efforts to fill out the entire field, only one ad per company was chosen.

10. — “Success” (2007)
The ad: This commercial wasn’t racist or homophobic or violent or sexy. It was just bad. Looking like something made at a short-staffed public access channel, the advertisement followed a cheesy salesman named Pierce, who used his leads to buy a new sports car. “Glengarry Glen Ross” it wasn’t. Salesgenie ended up on many Super Bowl ad “worst” lists for 2007 and came back in 2008 with a deliberately horrible commercial with a racially insensitive Panda caricature.  

File under: Good infamous.

Be sure not to miss … Pierce’s red sports car, which looks suspiciously as if it was borrowed from the set of “Magnum P.I.”

9. Noxzema — “Joe Namath” (1973)

The ad: Football star Joe Namath stares at the camera and says, “I’m so excited! I’m going to get creamed!” Farrah Fawcett shows up and rubs his face lovingly with Noxzema shaving cream while lip-synching a song that sounds kind of like “Happy Birthday” set to porn soundtrack music.

File under: Good infamous.

Be sure not to miss … Namath’s awesome rust-colored velour shirt, which confirms that this commercial was filmed in the early 1970s. If he was wearing that shirt when he offered to kiss Suzy Kolber on the NFL sidelines a few years back, she wouldn’t have been able to resist.

8. Just for Feet — Kenyan runner (1999)
The ad: A group of mostly white mercenaries in a Humvee hunt down an African runner, drug him unconscious and force running shoes on his feet. Critics have complained about racist undertones in advertisements before, but this may be the first campaign that was also accused of imperialism.

File under: Bad infamous.

Be sure not to miss … the lack of a Just for Feet outlet in your local mall. This ad arguably started a death spiral for the company, which declared bankruptcy the same year and sued the advertising company that made the ad. The last Just for Feet closed in 2004.

7. Levitra — “Mike Ditka’s Levitra Challenge” (2004)
The ad: There was a plague of erectile dysfunction commercials during sporting events in 2004, the same year that Janet Jackson’s halftime show nipple slip caused outrage. But this one stood out because it featured “Iron” Mike Ditka, looking stern and grandfatherly, as he urged male viewers with erectile dysfunction to “stay in the game.” 

File under: Good infamous.

Be sure not to miss … Ditka throwing a football in a perfect spiral through a tire swing — perhaps the most obvious metaphor for intercourse since the power outlet was invented.

6. Dirt Devil — “Fred Astaire” (1997)
The ad: Astaire’s partners in dance included Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse … and an ugly red vacuum cleaner. Whoever decided to use the miracle of special effects to make Astaire appear to dance with a Dirt Devil vacuum may have thought they were honoring the actor, but the end result just looked creepy. Despite strong criticism of the commercials, including harsh words from Astaire’s daughter, the ads stayed on the air for much of the rest of the year.

File under: Bad infamous.

Be sure not to miss … film critic Roger Ebert’s take on the subject in a 1997 interview, where he said commercials like this are  “akin to grave robbery.”

5. Snickers — “Kiss” (2007)
The ad: Two auto mechanics share a Snickers, with their lips growing ever closer like the “Lady and the Tramp” spaghetti scene. When they realize they’re kissing, one guy says, “Quick, let’s do something manly,” and both men rip out a chunk of their own chest hair. The makers of Snickers quickly dumped the ad, which was actually one of the more popular Super Bowl commercials of the year.

File under: Good infamous.

Be sure not to miss … the Web page, which is still registered two years after the controversy. It sends Internet surfers to the main Snickers site.

4. “Proceedings” (2005)
The ad: “Go Daddy Girl” Nikki Cappelli, with a broken camisole strap, testifies before a government panel about the latest commercial. As she keeps threatening to flash the room, one legislator needs an oxygen mask, while another prudish official says, “May I suggest a turtleneck.”

File under: Good infamous.

Be sure not to miss … the fictitious cable network covering the hearing, which lists the location of the inquisition as “Salem, MA” — clearly comparing attempts to ban GoDaddy’s risqué ads with the Salem witch trials.

3.Holiday Inn – Sex change (1997)
The ad: A sexy transgender alumnus walks through her class reunion, where a leering guy discovers that “Bob Johnson” is now a woman. Then the voiceover: “It’s amazing the changes you can make for a few thousand dollars. Imagine what Holiday Inns will look like when we spend a billion.” Gay, lesbian and transgender groups protested, and Holiday Inn quickly pulled the ad.

File under: Bad infamous.

Be sure not to miss … the guy who mistakes “Bob Johnson” for a woman is played by Steve Hytner, who was Kenny Bania on “Seinfeld.”

2. Apple — “Lemmings” (1985)
The ad: Hundreds of blindfolded office workers shuffle up a mountaintop, falling off a cliff one by one. And if that wasn’t enough to scare the kiddies, they’re all whistling a haunting version of “Heigh-Ho” from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” All of this was supposed to make us want to buy the MacIntosh Office? We’re still having nightmares.

File under: Bad infamous.

Be sure not to miss ... Apple didn’t advertise during the Super Bowl for another 15 years. And the company probably should have waited 20. A 1999 ad with the HAL computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey” was forgettable.

1. Burger King — “Find Herb the Nerd” (1986)
The ad: Herb was supposedly the only person in the country who hadn’t tried a Whopper yet, and if he showed up in your Burger King you won a prize. More than two decades later, this is still an example of how not to run your $40 million ad campaign.

File under: Bad infamous.

Be sure not to miss … Burger King’s current “Whopper Virgin” advertising campaign, which initially sounded a lot like “Find Herb the Nerd” without Herb the nerd.

Honorable mention: Frito-Lay “Dan Quayle” (1993); Bud Light “Upside Down Clown” (2003); Cialis “Will You Be Ready” (2004); Bud Light “Sleigh Ride” (2004); “Talking Panda” (2008).

Peter Hartlaub covers pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle.


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