By now, Budweiser ads have become Super Bowl mainstays, but the company’s 2017 big game commercial has still made news: The minute-long spot “Born the Hard Way,” made for Sunday’s match-up between the Patriots and the Falcons, tells the story of how the German-born co-founder of Anheuser-Busch immigrated to St. Louis in 1857 to start a brewery. The ad, which was published ahead of the game, has earned headlines for its timeliness as Americans debate President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration restrictions.
But, as it turns out, for more than 30 years that timeliness has been part of what has made Super Bowl ads special. These commercials—the air time for which can now cost an average of $5 million for 30 seconds—can provide a surprising window into what’s happening in the American economy and politics at the time of their release.
The history of ads that reflect history begins, conveniently, with the first Super Bowl ad as we know the form today — meaning, the first ad that was designed specifically for the game and was more like a short film than a 30-second jingle.
This ad set the bar for elaborate, plot-driven commercials kept secret until the game. Directed by renowned Hollywood filmmaker Ridley Scott, Apple’s ad, inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 and broadcast during the Cold War, played on people’s wars by appearing to liken its rival, IBM, to an Orwellian Big Brother, set on dominating the personal computer industry.
Making the ad Cold War-themed was a no-brainer, given the earth-shaking potential impact of personal computers, says Steve Hayden, retired Vice Chairman at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, who created the ad with Steve Jobs while at Chiat Day and wrote the speech delivered by the fictional dictator in the ad.
“Copy machines began appearing in the Soviet bloc, [generating] an explosion of written material and free press. Our thought was, well, if the copy machine would have such power to affect politics and support movements like the solidarity movement in Poland and freedom movements in Russia itself, imagine how much more impact the personal computer could have — something capable of doing real typefaces and that could even talk,” he tells TIME. “Many think the dictator is IBM, but it was [also] faceless authoritarian government.”
The ad also featured a female hammer-throwing heroine who embodied a spirit of liberty. According to Hayden, the creative director of Chiat Day had originally suggested having her throw a baseball bat at the screen, but Ridley Scott suggested that a work hammer would be “both more international and more visually powerful.’”
Super Bowl ads similarly suggested their global economic context in the late 1990s, during what advertising insiders refer to as the “Dot-Com Bowl” period, when web startups that had just gotten their venture-capital were looking for a quick way to generate name recognition. In 2000, the price of a 30-second spot rose from $1.6 million to $2.1 million, reflecting the height of the dot-com frenzy. To show they had money to spend, online investing website eTrade’s “Monkey” ad famously flashed, “Well, we just wasted two million bucks…” across the screen while a chimpanzee danced. In 2001, the company aired a “Sad Monkey” ad that reflected the downturn in the market.
Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing and creator of the Kellogg Super Bowl Advertising Review at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, points out that in 2005 and 2006 — when the housing bubble peaked — Ameriquest’s ads assured viewers, “Don’t judge too quickly. We wont,” implying that “they’re going to be lenient when it comes to mortgages.”
And when the Great Recession hit, Super Bowl sponsors reflected the more somber mood in America. Advertising experts say Hyundai’s 2009 spot “Assurance,” could not have been more in sync with what Americans were thinking and feeling at the time, reassuring them that if they bought a car, they could return it if they lost their jobs. That same year, a Cash4Gold ad encouraged viewers to trade in their gold jewelry if they were short of funds. Over the following years, Calkins says he noticed more ads taking a cautious tone that focused on financial planning and low-fee investments.
Chrysler’s 2011 ad “Imported from Detroit” — starring the Motor City’s native son, the rapper Eminem — was not only trying to sell cars, but also trying to sell Americans on American-made cars again, after the company went bankrupt and accepted a bailout package from the federal government, argues Pete Favat, Chief Creative Officer at the design and advertising firm Deutsch North America.
“The reason why it really struck a chord is that Americans couldn’t make cars anymore,” he says. “The Japanese, Koreans, Germans were making superior cars, and Detroit took a knockout punch. It put whole auto industry into a tail spin.”
By 2016, as the economy improved, about 10 different car brands were advertising, and more and more real estate companies are advertising, arguably reflecting more confident times, Calkin argues.
And it’s not just economics and global politics. Calkin also points out that some commercials show how much Americans’ views on certain social issues have evolved.
For example, ads like Chrysler’s 2012 “Halftime in America” starring Clint Eastwood have evoked patriotism, and Colgate’s 2016 ad, urging viewers not to keep the faucet running, scored bonus points with environmentalists. And though women in Super Bowl ads used to more frequently appear as either scantily-clad sex symbols, as in the famous GoDaddy ads, or annoying nags as in Dodge’s 2010 “Man’s Last Stand” ad—which TIME’s former TV critic James Poniewozik described as “the dark flip side of the Dove for Men commercial”—advertising agencies have been steering clear of those types of ads, and this year Audi’s commercial has drawn notice for its focus on equal pay for women. But as marketers report that 70% of millennials are willing to spend more on brands that support causes that they care about, Favat warns that a Super Bowl ad that raises awareness about a cause will only be worth the money if the company is fully committed to that cause: “You have to walk the walk in your company as well. You cant just do it in TV commercials.”
And truly successful Super Bowl ads don’t just reflect their times, says Hayden. Rather, they help viewers see those times in a whole new way : “People will always be looking for something new, something unexpected, stuff that reframes the world in way we haven’t seen it before.”