Super Bowl ads are commercials run during the National Football League (NFL) championship game, among the United States’ most watched television broadcasts, with Nielsen having estimated that Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was seen by at least 114.4 million domestic viewers, surpassing the previous year’s game as the highest-rated television broadcast in US history. As such, advertisers have typically used commercials during the Super Bowl as a means of building awareness for their products and services among this wide audience, while also trying to generate buzz around the ads themselves so they may receive additional exposure, such as becoming a viral video.
Super Bowl commercials have become a cultural phenomenon of their own alongside the game itself with some viewers reporting that they are more interested in the commercials than the game. In 2015, Dish Network went as far as allowing the ‘commercial skipping’ features on its Hopper digital video recorder to function in reverse and allow users to view a recording of the Super Bowl that skips over the game itself and only shows the commercials.
The audience for the NFL championship is also extremely diverse, spanning many demographics and age groups, and women have accounted for at least 40% of Super Bowl viewers. The prominence of airing a commercial during the game has also carried an increasingly high price: the average cost of a 30-second spot has ranged from $37,500 at Super Bowl I, to around $2.2 million at Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000, and by Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, had doubled to around $4.5 million. Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Doritos, GoDaddy and Master Lock, are known for making repeated appearances during the Super Bowl. Because of the overall buzz surrounding them, commercials aired during the Super Bowl receive additional airplay and exposure outside of the game as well, such as during newscasts and morning shows. National surveys (such as USA Today’s ‘Super Bowl Ad Meter’) judge which advertisement carried the best viewer response, and CBS has aired yearly specials since 2000 chronicling notable commercials from the broadcast.
The popularity of video sharing websites such as YouTube have also allowed Super Bowl advertisements to become viral videos; to take advantage of this, a growing number of advertisers have elected to post previews of their ads, or the ads themselves, online prior to the game. A notable example of this strategy occurred at Super Bowl XLV: on February 2, 2011, four days prior to the game, Volkswagen posted the full version of its Star Wars-themed ad ‘The Force’ on YouTube. By Sunday, the ad had already received over 16 million views, and went on to be the most shared Super Bowl advertisement ever. Ironically, until Super Bowl 50, official online streams of the Super Bowl provided by US broadcasters did not include all of the commercials from the television broadcast; at Super Bowl XLIX, only 18 advertisers bought ad time within NBC’s stream of the game (although NBC did post all of the ads on a Tumblr blog throughout the game). At Super Bowl 50, CBS mandated that each advertiser buy a package of advertising time on both the television and digital broadcasts, meaning that the online stream of Super Bowl 50 provided by CBS will, for the first time, include all national commercials from the television broadcast.
The high cost of purchasing advertising time, on top of the cost of producing the commercial itself, has led to concerns by marketers that the increased sales that can result from a Super Bowl commercial may not recoup the cost of buying the ad time. Some advertisers, including Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, General Motors and Pepsi, chose to skip recent Super Bowls—although Pepsi would return in 2013, followed by GM in 2014. As a lower-cost alternative, some advertisers have elected to purchase advertising time during the games’ extended pre-game shows (which, during Super Bowl XLVIII, ranged from $100,000 to $2 million), or from individual network affiliates that are broadcasting it.
Many Super Bowl advertisements have become iconic and well-known because of their quality, unpredictability, humor, and use of special effects. In recent years, advertisers have also attempted to stand out from others by producing ads with cinematographic qualities, and ads that channel emotions and real-world issues. The use of celebrity cameos has also been common in Super Bowl ads, ranging from then-unknown personalities, to unexpected combinations of celebrities, such as a 2007 CBS network promo for ‘Late Show’ that featured David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey—whom Letterman had conflicts with following a joke directed at her during the 67th Academy Awards, and a 2010 sequel that also included Jay Leno (the former host of its competitor, ‘The Tonight Show,’ who was slated to return to the program following a publicized conflict between NBC and Conan O’Brien).
Among the most prominent of campaigns during early Super Bowl games were those of Master Lock. In 1965, the company had first ran a television commercial demonstrating the strength of its padlocks, by having a person shoot it with a handgun in a failed attempt to breach it. The campaign was pulled after the company’s advertising director, Edson F. Allen, realized the stunt could be imitated by those who were unsure over the commercial’s authenticity. By the 1970s, Allen discussed the possibility of reviving the concept, but using a rifle rather than a handgun to make it harder to imitate. The resulting commercial would premiere in 1974 during Super Bowl VIII; despite concerns by the staff of Master Lock and their agency, Campbell Mithun, over the content of the ad, the commercial was well received by the general public.
When Cramer-Krasselt took over as Master Lock’s agency later in the year, the company decided to make the gun ads a tradition, and began to produce new ads themed around the concept (including one featuring skeptics of previous editions of the ad, and one showcasing the company’s major corporate clients) for future Super Bowls during the subsequent decades (aside from a brief hiatus in 1986 and 1987), and the early 1990s. Allen went as far as describing the ads as an ‘event’ that continued to attract media attention after the game. The Super Bowl ads helped improve Master Lock’s market share; from 1973 through 1994, sales had increased from $35 million per year to $200 million per year. Master Lock had placed such a large emphasis on Super Bowl advertisements, that the yearly spot accounted for nearly all of the company’s annual advertising budget.
At Super Bowl XIV in 1980, Coca-Cola aired an advertisement popularly known as ‘Hey Kid, Catch!,’ featuring Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro defensive lineman ‘Mean Joe’ Greene being offered a Coca-Cola by a young fan, drinking it in one sip, and tossing the kid his game-worn jersey as repayment. The advertisement was filmed in 1979 and premiered that October, but did not gain mainstream attention until its airing during Super Bowl XIV. ‘Hey Kid, Catch!’ became one of Greene’s most famous roles; the ad would win a Clio Award, spawn a made-for-TV movie on NBC entitled ‘The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid,’ and be re-made for other markets with local athletes. In a 2011 poll by ‘Advertising Age,’ readers named ‘Hey Kid, Catch!’ as the best Super Bowl commercial of all-time.
The ad also became the subject of parodies on television series, such as ‘The Simpsons,’ and in other ads. At Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, Coca-Cola aired a parody of the ad for its ‘Zero’ brand starring Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. Continuing an ongoing theme in the promotion of Coke Zero, the ad was interrupted by a Coca-Cola ‘brand manager’ accusing Polamalu of ‘stealing’ their commercial; in response, Polamalu tackled him and ripped off his shirt to give to the child. In 2012, Procter & Gamble aired a parody of the ad entitled ‘Stinky.’ The ad saw Greene reprise his role, but having the young fan throw Downy Unstoppables fabric softener to Greene instead of Coca-Cola, and the fan rejecting his jersey because it smelled.
Of late, Coca-Cola has used the Super Bowl for other campaigns raising awareness of social issues. In 2014, the company aired the multiculturalism-themed ad ‘It’s Beautiful,’ which featured scenes of Americans of various races and ethnicities, including the first ever same-sex couple featured in a Super Bowl commercial. However, the ad attracted controversy due to its use of a multilingual rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ as its soundtrack. In 2015, the company aired ad entitled ‘#makeithappy’; themed around cyberbullying, the ad featured negative comments directed towards a teen being transformed into positive messages after a technician accidentally spills a bottle of Coca-Cola on a server.
At Super Bowl XVIII in 1984, Apple Computer broadcast an advertisement for its Macintosh computer computer entitled ‘1984,’ created by the agency Chiat/Day and directed by Ridley Scott, who had just finished directing ‘Blade Runner.’ The advertisement, which incorporated elements inspired by the novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ featured a woman wearing track-and-field clothing (including orange pants and a white shirt branded with an image of the Macintosh) sprinting into a large auditorium and hurling a large hammer into a screen (displaying a large Big Brother-like figure speaking to a massive assembly of drone-like people in the audience), concluding with the message ‘On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.” The advertisement received critical acclaim from both viewers and critics alike for helping position the Macintosh as a unique entry into the personal computer market, and is often considered to be one of the best Super Bowl advertisements of all-time. Apple attempted to follow-up ‘1984’ the next year with an ad entitled ‘Lemmings,’ to promote its Macintosh Office system. The ad, which featured blindfolded businessmen walking over the edge of a cliff in unison, was criticized for its ‘dark’ theme and exaggerated premise.
The beer brand Budweiser has a long-term contract with the NFL that allows it to buy several slots of air time from the game’s broadcaster each year at a steep discount. It thus runs several advertising campaigns throughout each game, one of which has traditionally featured the Budweiser Clydesdales. Budweiser’s parent company Anheuser-Busch has been the most successful advertiser in the annual Super Bowl Ad Meter survey organized by USA Today, winning the survey fourteen times in its 27-year history. During Super Bowl XXIII, Budweiser aired an episodic series of commercials known as the ‘Bud Bowl’—which featured a football game between stop motion-animated beer bottles representing Budweiser and Bud Light, with commentary by Bob Costas and Paul Maguire. Proving popular, the Bud Bowl would return at subsequent Super Bowls; it had become so popular that some viewers actually wagered on the outcome of the Bud Bowl as if it were an actual event. In 1995, Budweiser introduced the first of a series of ads featuring a group of three frogs named ‘Bud,’ ‘Weis,’ and ‘Er.’ The frog ads were a major success for the brewery after the game, and ranked as one of its most popular advertising campaigns following its premiere.
Super Bowl XXXIV (2000) became notable for featuring a large number of commercials from dot-com companies, so much so that some dubbed the game the ‘Dot-com Super Bowl.’ With a 30-second ad costing around $2.2 million, 20% of the commercial time sold went to dot-com companies—constituting $44 million of the $130 million spent in total on Super Bowl advertising time that year. Despite their aspirations and the boosts in traffic they received from the ads, all of the publicly held companies which advertised saw their stocks slump after the game as the dot-com bubble began to rapidly deflate. Some of the companies that advertised during the game—including Epidemic Marketing and Pets.com, had become defunct by the end of the year, and at Super Bowl XXXV, only three dot-com companies—E-Trade, HotJobs, and Monster.com—advertised during the game.
Notable dot-com ads broadcast during the game included ‘If You Leave Me Now,’ an ad for Pets.com which introduced the website’s iconic sock puppet mascot, a self-proclaimed ‘worst commercial on the Super Bowl’ by LifeMinder.com that consisted only of text captions on a yellow background with ‘Chopsticks’ playing in the background, and ‘Monkey’—a deliberately nonsensical E-Trade ad that featured a monkey dancing to ‘La Cucaracha,’ and the tagline ‘Well, we just wasted $2,000,000. What are you doing with your money?’ Electronic Data Systems also aired an ad during the game that featured cowboys who herded cats instead of cows.
In 2006, Doritos began holding a promotion known as ‘Crash the Super Bowl,’ soliciting viewers to film their own Doritos commercials to possibly be aired during the game. At Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, an additional bonus prize of $1 million was added if any of the winning entries were named #1 on the ‘Super Bowl Ad Meter’ survey results; Doritos would reach the #1 spot on the survey that year with an ad entitled ‘Free Doritos,’ created by Joe and Dave Herbert of Batesville, Indiana. The ad featured an office worker attempting to fulfill a prediction that he would receive free Doritos by smashing open a vending machine with a crystal ball. The following year, additional prizes of $600,000 and $400,000 were added for reaching second and third place on the poll, plus an additional $1 million bonus for each if three of the ads were to sweep the top three.
The domain registrar and web hosting company GoDaddy was well-known for producing Super Bowl commercials featuring female spokespersons it dubbed ‘GoDaddy Girls,’ such as IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick, and for its 2011 ad, comedian Joan Rivers. Many of the company’s planned Super Bowl ads were allegedly rejected by broadcasters due to their risqué subject matter, leading to GoDaddy instead airing a ‘teaser’ ad during the game that instructed viewers to watch the uncensored version of the ad on their website. The company’s first appearance at Super Bowl XXXIX parodied the ‘wardrobe malfunction’ that had occurred at last year’s halftime show, featuring a strap of a woman’s tank top popping off whilst testifying to Congress about why GoDaddy wanted to advertise during the game. The ad was scheduled to air twice, but its second airing was pulled in response to concerns by Fox and the NFL over its content.
As a byproduct of the increased cost of ad time at the Super Bowl, financial software company Intuit made its debut at Super Bowl XLVIII by hosting a promotion known as ‘Small Business, Big Game,’ in which small businesses with ‘inspiring’ stories competed for a chance to earn a commercial during the Super Bowl funded by Intuit, as decided by user votes. Company CEO Brad D. Smith explained that the promotion was an extension of the company’s goals to improve financial lives ‘in a way that you’d never imagine going back,’ while Ken Wach, senior vice president of marketing for Intuit’s Small Business Group, explained that ‘normally you’re looking at Budweiser ads or Chevy ads, so this was about putting small businesses on the national stage and shining the spotlight on them as heroes of the economy.’ The winner of the 2014 edition was GoldieBlox, a toy company with a focus on promoting mechanical engineering to girls. At Super Bowl XLIX, Intuit did not hold the promotion, but still aired an ad for its own TurboTax product. The contest returned in 2015 for Super Bowl 50, and was won by Death Wish Coffee.
Some advertisers, in order to dodge the high costs of obtaining national ad time, or to broadcast more regionalized campaigns, have instead purchased local ad time from individual network affiliates airing the Super Bowl, such as the Church of Scientology, who bought local ad time in major urban markets such as New York City, and Bank of Montreal, who bought local advertising time in some markets to promote its BMO Harris Bank branches. In 2012, Old Milwaukee broadcast a Super Bowl ad starring Will Ferrell; as an extension of the beer’s regional campaign with the actor, the ad only aired in the city of North Platte, Nebraska. In 2015, Newcastle Brown Ale bought time on local NBC stations to air an ad that, as a commentary on the high cost of national Super Bowl advertising time, contained plugs for 37 other products and companies it had recruited in a crowdfunding campaign.
A number of Super Bowl commercials have been considered controversial by viewers and critics, or even outright blocked by networks’ Standards and Practices departments, because of concerns surrounding their contents. Political advertising and most direct forms of issue-related advertising are usually not aired during the Super Bowl because of equal-time rules or other factors. At Super Bowl XLIV, the non-profit evangelical organization ‘Focus on the Family’ aired an advertisement featuring Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. Prior to becoming pregnant with Tim, and while serving as Baptist missionaries in the Philippines, Pam had contracted amoebic dysentery and fell into a coma. She discovered she was pregnant while recovering. Because of the medications used to treat her, the fetus experienced a severe placental abruption. Doctors expected a stillbirth and recommended an abortion. The Tebows decided against it, citing their strong faith. In the ad, Pam described Tim as a ‘miracle baby’ who ‘almost didn’t make it into this world,’ and remarked that ‘with all our family’s been through, we have to be tough’—after which Pam was promptly tackled by Tim. The ad itself made no reference to abortion or Christianity, and directed viewers to the organization’s website.
The then-unseen ad drew criticism from some women’s rights groups, who asked CBS to pull the ad because they felt it would be divisive. Planned Parenthood released a video response of its own featuring fellow NFL player Sean James. The claim that Tebow’s family chose not to perform an abortion was also widely criticized; as abortion is illegal in the Philippines, critics felt that it was implausible that a doctor would recommend the procedure in the first place. CBS’s decision to run the ad was also criticized for deviating from its past policy of rejecting issue and advocacy-based commercials during the Super Bowl, including those by left leaning or perceived left leaning groups such as PETA, MoveOn.org, and the United Church of Christ (which wanted to run an ad that was pro-same-sex marriage). However, CBS stated that ‘we have for some time moderated our approach to advocacy submissions after it became apparent that our stance did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms on the issue.’
Avid Life Media, the owners of the unconventional online dating services Ashley Madison and ManCrunch, has had two Super Bowl ads rejected by broadcasters. In 2009, NBC rejected an ad for the extramarital dating site Ashley Madison, which featured the tagline ‘Who Are You Doing After the Game?,’ from appearing during Super Bowl XLIII. The following year at Super Bowl XLIV, an advertisement for Ashley Madison’s sister site ‘ManCrunch’—a dating website for homosexual relationships—was rejected by CBS. The ad featured two male football fans reaching into the same bowl of chips, and after a brief pause, passionately kissing and dry humping each other, much to the surprise of another man present. Company spokesperson Elissa Buchter considered the rejection to be discrimination, by contending that CBS would not have objected to the ad had it featured a kiss between a man and a woman. A ‘New York Post’ writer called their ad: ‘no more racy than nearly any beer commercial not starring the Budweiser Clydesdales.’ Avid Life was also accused of ambush marketing by critics, who argued that the company was intentionally submitting ads that would get rejected by broadcasters and receive free publicity from the ensuing ‘controversy,’ thus removing the need to actually buy ad time during the game. However, the company denied these claims, and indicated that it did have serious intentions to purchase ad time during the game if its commercials were accepted.
At Super Bowl XLVI, Chrysler Group LLC broadcast ‘Halftime in America,’ a two-minute long commercial created by the agency Weiden + Kennedy, directed by David Gordon Green, written by poet Matthew Dickman and narrated by actor Clint Eastwood. The commercial recounted the automotive industry crisis of 2008–10, set to scenes showing Americans in despair, but then in hope. The narration of the ad equated the emergence from the crisis to the second half of a football game, explaining that ‘All that matters now is what’s ahead: how do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of us. This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do the world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines.’ The ad was heavily-viewed online after the game, receiving over 4 million views on YouTube within 36 hours.
‘Halftime in America’ became controversial due to its political overtones, especially as it came during the lead-up to the 2012 Presidential election. Critics interpreted the ad as being in support of re-electing Barack Obama, due to his support of George W. Bush’s bailout of Chrysler while acting as a Democratic senator, and that the metaphor of ‘halftime in America’ also symbolized the performance of Obama’s first four-year term as president going into his reelection campaign. It was also noted that Eastwood had made statements against the bailouts in 2011, had stated that he ‘couldn’t recall ever voting for a Democratic presidential candidate,’ and that he was a supporter of Republican candidate John McCain during the 2008 campaign; Eastwood would later appear as a surprise guest at the 2012 Republican National Convention in support of nominee Mitt Romney, infamously addressing an empty chair meant to represent Obama.
In 2013, SodaStream submitted a Super Bowl advertisement directed by Alex Bogusky, which featured a pair of Coca-Cola and Pepsi deliverymen finding their bottles exploding and disappearing when another person uses the SodaStream to make their own beverages; representing a disruption of the soft drink market. The ad was rejected by CBS for its direct attacks towards the two rival companies. A Forbes writer expressed concern that the network may have had intentionally shown protectionism towards the two soft drink companies (who have been long-time Super Bowl advertisers), and drew comparisons to a recent incident where the CBS-owned technology news site CNET was controversially forced by its parent company to block Dish Network’s Hopper with Sling digital video recorder from being considered ‘Best in Show’ at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show because the broadcaster was in active litigation over an automatic commercial skipping feature on the device.
At Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, after an eight-year hiatus, Nationwide Insurance returned to the game with two new advertisements. The second of these advertisements, ‘Boy,’ featured a child explaining that he ‘couldn’t grow up’ because he had already died—followed by scenes of an overflowing bathtub (implying drowning), spilled cleaning products (implying poisoning), and a television having fallen off of a wall. The ad was intended to promote Nationwide’s child protection campaign ‘Make Safe Happen’; operated in partnership with Safe Kids USA and Nationwide Children’s Hospital, it aims to draw awareness to deaths caused by preventable household accidents. Viewers and critics acknowledged that the subject matter of ‘Boy’ was a major contrast to other, upbeat ads broadcast during Super Bowl XLIX, and the response was overwhelmingly negative; viewers criticized the company via social media for its decision to broadcast an ad dealing with such subject matter during the Super Bowl. Nationwide CEO Matthew Jauchius defended the ad, noting that the negative response was ‘a little stronger than we anticipated,’ and that ‘Boy’ was intended to ‘begin a dialogue to make safe happen for children everywhere.’