Large companies have found a lot of ways to throw away good money, but it’s hard to imagine a higher-profile failure than a catastrophic Super Bowl ad.
Few people remember a poorly played Super Bowl — but a horrible Super Bowl commercial may become inextricably etched in consumers’ brains until the day they die. Several corporations spending $2.6 million for 30 seconds of air time this year will probably end up hurting their brands.
To get noticed, Super Bowl advertisers have to take risks — and sometimes those risks backfire. Bad commercials have led to consumer backlash, harsh words from critics and at least one legal battle between a corporation and the company that created a much-derided ad.
Below are the 10 worst Super Bowl commercials of all time, followed by the reasons that they crashed and burned, and a summary of any chaos that followed. Budweiser has become reliable at turning out minor controversies, but the Top 4 are in a league of their own.
10. Frito-Lay — Dan Quayle ad (1993): For the national launch of Wavy Lays potato chips, much-ridiculed former Vice-President Quayle makes a cameo, with a joke about his inability to spell “potato.”
What failed: Think back to 1993. Other than Heidi Fleiss and possibly Lorena Bobbitt, was there a worse person to associate with your new product than Dan Quayle?
The fallout: Despite some negative reviews, the Quayle ad was followed by more commercials featuring unsuccessful politicians and other losers, including a Chevy Chase ad for Doritos (right after his talk show disaster), Ann Richards and Mario Cuomo for Lays — and Bob Dole for just about everything.
9. Sierra Mist — Bagpipe kilt ad (2004): On a hot day, a kilt-wearing bagpipe player breaks off from a parade and stands above an air conditioning grate — mimicking Marilyn Monroe’s famous scene in “The Seven Year Itch.”
What failed: How in the world is cold air blowing on an out-of-shape sweaty dude’s genitals supposed to make you feel like drinking a lemon-lime beverage? The ad would have made more tactical sense if he was drinking rival beverage Sprite.
The fallout: Three years later, Sierra Mist still plays John Stamos to Sprite’s George Clooney in the beverage market.
8. Budweiser — “Upside Down Clown” (2003): A clown with an upside-down suit walks into a bar, orders a Bud Light, and pours the drink into his mouth through an opening between the suit’s legs.
What failed: The only thing that works up less of a thirst less than thinking about a bagpiper’s naughty parts is watching a commercial where a clown appears to drink beer through his buttocks.
The fallout: Budweiser received just enough positive reinforcement from this commercial to come back the following year with something even more disgusting. (See number 5.)
7. Budweiser — “Bud Bowl VI” (1994): The fake football game between anthropomorphic bottles of Bud and Bud Light returns (again) with more predictable goofiness.
What failed: The Bud Bowl had few good ideas from the start. By Bud Bowl VI the commercials were physically painful to watch – with Marv Albert bleating about the antics of a profanity-spewing, break-dancing giant can. Coaches Mike Ditka and Bum Phillips showed up, looking visibly pained to be involved.
The fallout: After two more Bud Bowls, Budweiser canned the series, concentrating on their frog and lizard-themed ads.
6. Dirt Devil — “Fred Astaire” (1997): Special effects allow legendary hoofer Fred Astaire to revisit some old dance moves – except this time his partner is a red vacuum cleaner.
What failed: A dead guy dancing with a vacuum? What’s next? Digging up Steve McQueen’s corpse so he can sell the new Ford Mustang?
The fallout: The public was split, with some people enjoying the ad while others found it creepy and disrespectful. Undeterred by the polarized criticism, Dirt Devil kept dead Fred on the air for much of the rest of the year.
5. Budweiser – Flatulent horse ad (2004): A romantic evening in a hansom cab is ruined by a farting horse, whose flatulence hits a candle and torches a woman’s hair.
What failed: This ad was criticized for being a disgusting example of sullying a brand, and was lumped in the declining morals discussion kicked off by Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. But mostly we hate it because it rips off an episode of “Seinfeld.”
The fallout: The public flogging that Budweiser took had one positive result – their ads got better, including last year’s clever “Magic Fridge” commercial.
4. Holiday Inn – Sex change ad (1997): A woman at a high school is revealed to be a man, followed by a poor segue that equates her sex change with Holiday Inn’s recent renovations at its hotels.
What failed: On top of being tasteless and insensitive, the ad made almost no mention of Holiday Inn — which in retrospect might have been a blessing.
The fallout: Gay, lesbian and transgender activist groups, already upset about stereotypes on television, were outraged by the commercial — threatening boycotts and other protests. Media critics hated it too, and Holiday Inn quickly pulled the ad.
3. Just for Feet — Kenyan runner ad (1999): A group of mercenaries in a Humvee chase down a barefoot Kenyan running in Africa, drug him unconscious and force a pair of running shoes on his feet.
What failed: The question is: what about this ad didn’t fail? Critics hated the advertisement, calling it racist and imperialist. Just for Feet later acknowledged it was a horrible mistake.
The fallout: Just for Feet sued the advertising firm that created the ads for $10 million and filed for bankruptcy later the same year. Eventually, the lawsuit was dropped and Just for Feet sold its stores. The last one closed in 2004.
2. Burger King — “Find Herb the Nerd” (1986): Burger King urged customers to find Herb, who was supposedly the only person in America who had never tasted the fast food chain’s hamburgers.
What failed: Audience members hated the annoying actor who played Herb (he looked like a balder Rick Moranis), and showed little interest in searching for him at their neighborhood Burger King – even with money involved. While no statistics could be found to back the claim up, we suspect the commercials inspired a new wave of vegans.
The fallout: Burger King spent tens of millions of dollars on the “Herb” series, which was highly ridiculed at the time and is considered one of the worst ad campaigns in history.
1. Apple — “Lemmings” (1985): One year after the Macintosh is introduced with one of the best commercials ever, Apple introduces Macintosh Office with an abstract film that included a spooky version of the tune “Heigh-Ho” and office workers jumping off a cliff.
What failed: The advertisement — paired with a one-sided Super Bowl that had the 49ers beating the Dolphins 38-16 — was dark, depressing and more than a bit morbid.
The fallout: This was the “Speed 2: Cruise Control” of Super Bowl ads. It was widely panned by critics who had loved Apple’s “1984” ad, and even the company’s loyal fan base had a hard time defending it. Apple didn’t advertise during the Super Bowl again until 1999.
Peter Hartlaub writes about pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle