Super Bowl ads are the original memes — jokes and big ideas that get shared and copied with slight variations over and over again. Companies spend millions of dollars for 30-second and one-minute spots designed to make you laugh and/or feel something. Some of the most memorable and influential game day ads of all time feature food and beverage products. So here’s a roundup of our 10 favorites, with notes about their creation and impact:
10) Frogs (1994)
This clever commercial, with the frogs croaking the name of America’s favorite beer, works on the very basic level of getting an audience to like and remember a joke that’s inextricably tied to a brand name. The ad was created by copy writer Dave Swain and art director Michael Smith at St Louis agency D’arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. A few years ago, Swain told AdMeter: “There are stories about how we were in a swamp drinking Budweiser when we came up with the idea, or that we had pet frogs as kids. What’s certain is that we were two young creative guys working as hard as we possibly could to come up with creative solutions that would help regain recognition for a storied brand.” Fun fact: “Frogs” was directed by Gore Verbinksi, the filmmaker who would later helm The Ring and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
9) You Got the Right One, Baby (1991)
Like all the best Super Bowl commercials, Diet Pepsi’s 1991 ad has an indescribable X-factor that makes it hard to resist. Ray Charles singing “You got the right one baby,” adjacent to a trio of retro back-up singers/dancers — the Raelettes — quickly became an indelible part of the early ‘90s pop-culture landscape. Perhaps the appeal of this ad, created by BBDO, is that it revives a pop culture icon in a jubilant way, while also making a typically boring product — artificially sweetened diet cola — seem fresh and exciting.
8) Mosquito (1997)
Yes, this commercial is gross. But it’s also effective in terms of establishing the idea of brand obsession. In this clip, a sloppy dude on a swampy porch keeps applying Tabasco sauce to each inch of pizza that he crams into his mouth — and judging by the empty bottles at his feet, he’s been doing this all night. A poor mosquito decides to bite him, and the guy reacts by taking one more lethal bite. As soon as the mosquito zooms away, it explodes like a firecracker — because the guy’s blood-hot sauce level is off the charts. While Tabasco was certainly a well-established brand in 1996, it’s worth noting that this commercial from DDB Needham Dallas was released years before the hot sauce craze reached a mainstream audience in America (see: the mid-aughts Sriracha boom).
7) Betty White (2010)
The main reason this Snickers ad lands on this list is because it’s hilarious watching Betty White talk trash with a bunch of bros playing football. The commercial also has an ingenious conceit/tagline — “You’re not you when you’re hungry” — that frames the product in a new light. Bonus points for the Abe Vigoda kicker at the end. Another BBDO production, this commercial was the most popular ad of Super Bowl XLIV.
6) Clydesdale Team (2008)
The Clydesdale horses are a huge part of Budweiser’s brand mythology. As the story goes, August A. Busch Jr. and his brother Adolphus Busch III surprised their dad August A. Busch Sr. with six Clydesdales and a red beer wagon on April 7, 1933, to celebrate the day that beer became legal to sell again in America. The Clydesdales delivered the first batch of post-prohibition beer in St. Louis. Later that year, the Busch family also decided to send them throughout the Northeast to deliver ceremonial shipments to politicians — the Budweiser Clydesdales even made a stop at the White House, to drop off some suds for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A symbol of Budweiser’s enduring popularity through the decades, the beer company tends to include the horses in one of their annual Super Bowl spots. In years past, the Clydesdales have played football like humans, made friends with a donkey fanboy, and bowed to the fallen heroes of 9/11.
One of the best ads, in terms of sheer silliness, is this minute-long spot from the 2008 game, wherein a Clydesdale doesn’t make the cut for the wagon team, but he trains his way to greatness, thanks to help from a Dalmatian friend. (According to Budweiser lore, each Clydesdale team also has a Dalmatian companion.) This ad was conceived by DDB Chicago, and directed by Super Bowl ad all-star Joe Pytka.
5) Separated at Birth (1999)
The dalmatians were also the focus of Budweiser’s commercial the year before Rocky Clydesdale got into fighting shape. “Separated at Birth” starts out as a sad tale of twin puppies forced apart from each other, but it ends on a celebratory note, with both dogs having achieved greatness — one at the fire house, and the other at the brewery. If you don’t smile with the Dalmatian sticks his tongue out at his long lost brother, you might not have a pulse. “Separated at Birth” is also the handiwork of DDB Chicago.
4) Paparazzi (2005)
Many A-list actors would view shilling for a big beer company as a complete sell-out move. But Brad Pitt saw things a little differently, and decided to star in this commercial the same year that one of his biggest hits, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, landed in the theaters. It succeeds for all the parties involved because it is about how ridiculously famous Pitt is — a win for Brad, and a win for Heineken. The actor took home $4.5 million for doing this spot, which was conceived by Wieden+Kennedy and directed by Pitt’s frequent collaborator David Fincher.
3) The Showdown (1993)
Michael Jordan enters an empty arena where his former Dream Team cohort Larry Bird is shooting some hoops. Jordan’s got a Bic Mac and fries in the bag, and Bird offers to play him for it, with the stipulation: “First one to miss watches the winner eat, no dunking.” And so begins an absurd game of HORSE that ends with the two ballplayers on top of the Sears Tower.
This ad from Chicago agency Leo Burnett coined the catchphrase “nothing but net” and inspired a host of imitators over the years, as well as a direct sequel with LeBron James and Dwight Howard. The food is absolutely not the point of this McDonald’s commercial, but like any great fast-food splurge, it’s frothy and fun. Bonus Trivia: This is another one of Joe Pytka’s masterpieces, and he would later go on to direct Jordan in the feature film Space Jam.
2) Security Camera (1996)
There are no cuts in this Pepsi classic, which is yet another Pytka joint, this time cooked up by BBDO. It’s just one continuous shot, from the perspective of a security camera, showing a Coke delivery man trying to sneak a Pepsi for the road, only to have an avalanche of the competitor’s cans reign down on him. The spot was such a hit that Pepsi decided to re-up with it to promote Pepsi Max in 2012. “Security Camera” is also notable for its usage of an old-timey song, which would become a trope of funny Super Bowl ads for years to come.
1) Hey Kid, Catch! (1979)
The pathos is almost unbearable at the beginning of this Coke commercial. Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene hobbles into the locker room, clearly injured and defeated. A scrappy kid follows him with Coke bottle in hand to ask Joe if he needs any help and tell him that he’s “the best ever.” Joe is skeptical of this assertion. The kid offers him his beverage. Greene hesitates, then gruffly accepts. Cue the cheerful music. Joe downs the soda, but the kid still looks confused — his gift did not repair the fractured hero-fan bond. But upon turning his back, Joe says, “Hey kid, catch,” and tosses him his jersey. The world is complete once again.
This ad, with its clear setup and emotional payoff, could have been created by Don Draper after a boozy night of soul searching — which is fitting, because this is the work of the team from McCann Erickson, the agency that swallows up Sterling Cooper & Partners in the last season of Mad Men. A few years ago, copywriter Penny Hawkey said that the goal was to “invite feelings, not just leave people with a visual impression.” Although the commercial technically aired a few times before the big game, it founds its greatest audience in the middle of Super Bowl XIII, and helped shape the notion of what a game day ad could (and should) be. “Hey Kid, Catch!” is the one that Madison Avenue is still trying to beat.
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