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Explainer: The best Super Bowl ads of the (young) century

  • Image: FedEx "Castaway" ad
    FedEx

    Perhaps it’s not socially acceptable to enjoy Super Bowl ads. Every year, it seems, casual critics declare the commercials were among the worst yet.

    But looking back at the first 10 years of the 21st century, the era has actually been pretty solid, filled with memorable Super Bowl advertisements that were better than the commercials in the 1990s and at least as inventive those from the 1980s.

    A series of culture-altering events — the end of the dot-com boom, the 9/11 attacks and Janet Jackson’s partial breast exposure during a halftime show — seemed to challenge advertising professionals, leading to some of the more creative commercial spots in the Super Bowl's 45-year history.

    Serious and somber commercials have become more commonplace over the past 10 years, and the use of visual effects has improved to near-cinema quality. Coca Cola and Intel both returned to Super Bowl after long layoffs, and relative newcomers such as E*Trade developed reputations for entertaining ads.

    Here are the 10 best advertisements of the century (so far).

  • 10. Gatorade, “Jordan vs. Jordan” (2003)

    The ad: Two versions of Michael Jordan — a computer-enhanced younger Jordan in a Chicago Bulls uniform and the 2003 edition — play one-on-one in a gym. After a tough back-and-forth game, they rest on a bench. “Hey Mike,” an approaching college-aged Jordan in a North Carolina uniform says. “Who’s got next?”

    Sign of the times: Jordan was in his last NBA year with the Washington Wizards, enjoying his retirement tour. This entertaining and visually impressive advertisement was a nice tribute to the greatest pro sports brand of all time.

    Legacy: For better or worse, the success of the Jordan Gatorade commercial led to more special effects tinkering, including a much less entertaining pregame spot in 2010 featuring LeBron James and Dwight Howard.

  • 9. E*Trade, “Babies” (2008)

    The ad: A talking baby using a webcam offers a monologue about his investments, to demonstrate how easy it is to work with E*Trade. “If I can do it, you can do it!” the baby declares, before spitting up on the keyboard.

    Sign of the times: Taking advantage of the shifting demographics watching Super Bowls, E*Trade invests in an ad campaign that seems aimed toward the female demographic. (The men liked it too, based on its appearance in advertising best-of lists for 2008.)

    Legacy: A new generation that hadn’t seen this all before in the “Look Who’s Talking” films enjoyed series. E*Trade has continued the campaign for three years, and viewers should see more in 2011.

  • 8. FedEx, “Castaway” (2003)

    The ad: Playing off a scene in the Tom Hanks movie by the same name, a FedEx delivery guy arrives at a woman’s door after being marooned, to deliver a package he kept unopened on the island for five years. She opens it to find a satellite phone, a GPS locator and a fishing rod.

    Sign of the times: It seemed as if every advertisement in 2003 and 2004 featured a flatulent horse, a clown drinking beer from its butt or an ex-football player selling erectile dysfunction drugs. The simple punch line offered by FedEx was refreshingly tame by comparison.

    Legacy: Never mind that the movie “Cast Away” was nearly three years old, and this joke had been repeated starting with the original reviews of the film. Viewers liked the ad, and it has even appeared on a couple of all-time best lists.

  • 7. Coca-Cola, “Mine” (2008)

    The ad: Parade float versions of Underdog and Stewie from “The Family Guy” jostle over the New York skyline, trying to grab a giant inflatable Coca-Cola bottle. At the last minute, a parade float Charlie Brown swoops above them both and takes the Coke.

    Sign of the times: Coca-Cola had just returned to Super Bowl advertising with multiple high-concept spots that were heavy on the visual effects. This was the simplest and most effective of the group.

    Legacy: It may be too early to call it a trend, but the success of this ad was followed by more special effects spectaculars. (An even more CGI-laden bug-themed Coke commercial followed in 2009.)

  • 6. Google, “Parisian Love” (2010)

    The ad: Google managed to be both simple and ambitious in its first Super Bowl ad. Using the company’s search engine, a student studies abroad in France, falls in love, engages in a long-distance relationship, gets married and prepares for a child.

    Sign of the times: Realizing that Super Bowl parties are getting larger and louder, and advertising one-liners often get lost in the noise, Google crafts a text-heavy ad that still delivers with the sound off.

    Legacy: The advertisement was one of the most hailed in 2010, and succeeded in softening the image for the tech juggernaut. Google received more mileage when hilarious parodies started appearing on YouTube the next day.

  • 5. Budweiser, “Heroes” (2005)

    The ad: In a big city airport, a few tired travelers lift up their heads, as one or two clap their hands. Pretty soon everyone is applauding as a group of weary soldiers appears, carrying duffel bags and walking through the terminal.

    Sign of the times: A year after Janet Jackson’s partially exposed breast shocked the world (or at least U.S. television viewers), many advertisers were lost at sea. In a boring year overall for Super Bowl commercials, Budweiser pulled heartstrings with this memorable spot.

    Legacy: In retrospect, a lot of people probably thought this was an airline advertisement. But it was still another nice reputation-builder for the prolific Budweiser ad-makers, who used “Heroes” to replicate the success of the post-Sept. 11 “Respect” ad (below).

  • 4. Snickers, “Betty White” (2010)

    The ad: During a pick-up football game, a tired teammate (played by Betty White) is chided: “You’re playing like Betty White out there.” She tosses out a few one-liners, eats a Snickers and reverts back to the form of a young man. The spot ends with another player tackling a slow-moving quarterback — played by Abe Vigoda.

    Sign of the times: Snickers took advantage of the popularity of aging actors White and Vigoda, who were already the subject of social networking attention and popular Internet memes.

    Legacy: The ad was hailed as one of the best of the year, and White enjoyed an unexpected career resurgence, hosting “Saturday Night Live” after a Facebook petition was supported by more than 500,000 fans.

  • 3. E*Trade, “Ghost Town” (2001)

    The ad: During the first Super Bowl after the dot-com collapse, the E*Trade chimp rides a horse past a ghost town filled with fictitious failed startups, such as “Pimentoloaf.com.” In a nod to an old public-service announcement featuring a crying Iron Eyes Cody, the Pets.com sock puppet falls to the chimp’s feet, and a tear wells up in his eye.

    Sign of the times: After two years in a row when dot-com advertisements were more prevalent than beer spots, the money seemed to dry up overnight. The E*Trade monkey was an entertaining reflection of the times.

    Legacy: Ten years later, the advertisement is even funnier. E*Trade moved from chimps to talking infants and continues to produce some of the most clever Super Bowl commercials.

  • 2. Reebok, “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker” (2003)

    The ad: Felcher & Sons, a company whose product is never made clear, hires hard-hitting football player Terry Tate to enforce office rules. Actor Lester Speight lays out employees while offering advice such as “Break was over 15 minutes ago, Mitch!”

    Sign of the times: At a time when sexual innuendoes and bathroom humor was hitting its peak, viewers appreciated the novelty of good old-fashioned violence in this ad.

    Legacy: A Facebook page for Terry Tate has more than 30,000 fans, who celebrate Terry Tate Appreciation Day on Feb. 25. (A date determined by his No. 56 jersey number, counting 56 days from the beginning of the year.) Since its release, Terry Tate has appeared near the top of several lists of the all-time greatest Super Bowl ads.

  • 1. Budweiser, “Respect” (2002)

    The ad: A team of Budweiser Clydesdales travels on a long journey in cold weather as somber music plays. They stop on a snowy field, facing the city of New York, and bow in the direction of Ground Zero to honor the fallen in the Sept. 11 attacks.

    Sign of the times: Advertisers were playing it very safe in 2002, just a few months after the attacks, with some sticking to simple messages. Anheuser-Busch took a huge risk with this bold concept. The appropriateness of the ad was debated at the time, but it paid off in the long run.

    Legacy: Somber and patriotic advertising became more common after the Budweiser “Respect” ad. Along with the classic 1980 Coca-Cola commercial with Mean Joe Greene, this Super Bowl commercial has been getting buzz in recent years as the greatest of all time.

    Peter Hartlaub writes about pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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