For many, the Super Bowl means epic shootouts, defensive shutdowns and last-minute, game-on-the-line Hail Marys. For others, it’s all about another skirmish: The Battle of the Brands.
Every year, companies spend millions of dollars for just a few seconds of airtime in hopes of getting consumers attention—and then, maybe, their money. Whether funny, sad, self-referential or downright weird, Super Bowl ads have become a spectacle and tradition in their own right.
How did the commercial sideshow become as engrossing as the main event? Between the first Super Bowl in 1967 and through the mid-80s, Super Bowl commercials were generally repeats. It was Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial that turned them into a bespoke phenomenon, after which more brands started to create ads specifically for the big game.
Not that the playbook for a successful Super Bowl ad hasn’t changed. While they were once top-secret, many companies today pre-launch their ads online, or post “teasers,” to drum up attention. The average cost to air a 30-second Super Bowl spot is now $5 million, while it costs essentially nothing to upload a video to YouTube. (Of course, that excludes the cost of creating the ad itself which can range from tens of thousands of dollars to many, many millions.)
Is television in danger of pricing itself out? Analysts say not any time soon. “The Super Bowl is still the biggest marketing event of the year in this country, by far,” says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing and creator of the Kellogg Super Bowl Advertising Review at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago. “The Super Bowl is more and more unique, as media is fragmenting, and there are more and more media properties vying for people’s attention.” In other words, there may be more and more places to see ads (of all kinds), but fewer and fewer places where a mass audience can see the same ads all at once.
Roughly 112 million people watched the Super Bowl last year, despite the NFL’s ratings decline overall. A similar number are expected to tune in to this year’s contest, between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. The ads will be there. Ahead of the game, TIME ranked the most influential Super Bowl ads ever. The list—which is ordered by influence—was assembled and deliberated on at (extreme) length by TIME’s entertainment, culture and business staff.
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Apple — "1984"
The ad that broke all the rules and wrote a few new ones. Directed by renowned Hollywood filmmaker Ridley Scott, this spot is considered the first Super Bowl ad that was a more than a 30-second jingle and more like a short film. After it was broadcast (just the once), Super Bowl ads were expected to be elaborate, plot-driven commercials. Broadcast during a hot Cold War, Apple’s ad played on people’s fears by likening its rival, IBM, to an Orwellian Big Brother, set on dominating the personal computer industry. And featuring a female heroine, the ad appealed to younger consumers with more liberal views on gender roles.
Wendy's — "Where's the Beef?"
“Where’s the Beef?” started out straightforward enough: as a way for Wendy’s to call out rivals McDonald’s and Burger King for skimping on their hamburgers. But the catchphrase quickly earned pop culture valence and was used to call into question seemingly anything appearing to lack substance. The 1984 ad, which was first broadcast in the days leading up to Super Bowl XVIII, not only helped to boost Wendy’s revenue by 31% that year, it played a supporting role in the 1984 Democratic primaries, when former Vice President Walter Mondale used the phrase to criticize policy proposals from Senator Gary Hart. The slogan has been credited for helping Mondale revive his flagging campaign, not to mention sell more meat.
Coke — "Hey Kid, Catch"
Voted the best Super Bowl commercial of all-time in 2011 by readers of Advertising Age, Coke’s “Hey Kid, Catch” told a full, heartstrings-pulling story in 60 seconds while setting the standard for featuring sports celebrities in commercials. The 1980 ad was so popular that the following year NBC released The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid, an hour-long TV movie based on the ad, in which “Mean” Joe Greene adopts a 9-year-old boy. Multiple versions of the ad were created for international audiences, some featuring soccer stars like Diego Maradona.
McDonald's — "The Showdown"
By playing off the famous rivalry between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, “The Showdown” popularized the now-iconic basketball saying “nothing but net” in the middle of the biggest football game of the year. The catchphrase has become one of the most recognizable phrases in the sports world, permeating other pop culture arenas. Remakes and parodies of the original ad—including a 2010 Super Bowl spot staring LeBron James and Dwight Howard—have been cropping up ever since.
Budweiser — "Whassup?"
The ad textbooks tell you to put the product front and center, to make it inescapable. The point, after all, is to get people interested enough to buy whatever’s being shown. Beer ads in particular tend to show some sort of young, college-aged, aspirational lifestyle. But in Budweiser’s “Whassup” ad, the beer is subtle, in the background, almost beside the point. The focus of the ad is dudes being goofy, and it arguably began an entire genre of Super Bowl commercials designed merely to entertain. The “Whassup” phrase was widely parroted by real-life dudes in the days and months afterward while also spawning a number of other “Whassup” Budweiser spots.
Volkswagen — "The Force"
After not running a game day spot in over a decade, Volkswagen kickstarted a new era of Super Bowl advertising by unveiling “The Force” online the week before the championship. The early release—which has since become a widespread practice—created unprecedented pre-kickoff buzz around the commercial, helping it earn the titles of most-shared Super Bowl ad of all-time and second most-shared TV commercial ever.
Budweiser — “Respect”
Budweiser’s Clydesdales are a regular presence during the Super Bowl. But “Respect” stands apart. The ad—without narration—paid tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. It also featured footage taken by the first film crew allowed to operate in the airspace above lower Manhattan since the attacks. Ten years later, Budweiser released an updated version showing One World Trade Center’s construction in progress. The original ad aired only once, and laid a template for brands to tastefully respond to national crises.
Pepsi — "Cindy Crawford"
This 1992 ad capitalized on supermodel Cindy Crawford’s sex appeal while subverting viewers’ expectations by revealing the focus to be on Pepsi’s newly redesigned can—and not on Crawford (exactly). This year marks the ad’s 25th anniversary, and still it endures as a classic pairing of star power and marketing with a not-quite-unwholesome twist.
Old Spice – "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like"
The absurdist, non-sequitur humor of Old Spice’s viral 2010 hit was made of and for the Internet meme era. The continuous-take commercial was a runaway success online, and cemented Old Spice’s distinctly off-kilter brand voice—where did those diamonds come from, anyway?—which remains intact today. The spot also keyed off and made a virtue of the unpolished production values of home-made web content, bucking the ultra-high-production values of many game day spots.
Noxzema — "Farrah Fawcett and Joe Namath"
“Let Noxema cream your face” isn’t a tagline easily forgotten after seeing this bawdy 1973 commercial for Noxema shaving cream featuring legendary Jets quarterback Joe Namath and a pre-Charlie’s Angels Farrah Fawcett. (You may imagine the poster now.) All innuendo aside, the combined star power of two pop culture icons like Namath and Fawcett in this flirtatious spot paved the way for flashy combo celebrity endorsements in future ads.
Budweiser — "Budweiser Frogs"
One of the most well-known ads in Super Bowl history, this Budweiser commercial helped prove the enduring power of a catchphrase. As with Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” before it, the “bud-wei-ser” slogan permeated consumer culture and helped the campaign survive for years before Bud’s formula evolved. Its trans-state-like delivery only made the message sink in deeper.
Pepsi — "Britney Spears"
What’s the recipe for unprecedented ad success? Hire the world’s biggest pop star, wearing a Pepsi-brand outfit (plus belly button ring, natch), and give her a song and dance to a catchy jingle. Spears’ seminal 2001 Pepsi ad was more a full-scale music video than a commercial, sharp choreography included. It even featured a cheeky cameo from onetime presidential hopeful Bob Dole, and heralded a new era of matching musical talent with mass-market products.
Always — "Like a Girl"
Women make up the majority of consumers, commanding a whopping 70% to 80% of all consumer purchases. So why aren’t more advertisements made to resonate with them? That’s in part why Always’ 2015 ad for feminine care projects stole the show during a night dominated by displays of hyper-masculinity. By recasting the phrase “like a girl,” the spot made an emotional appeal for women to empower themselves, especially when it came to sports.
E*Trade — "Wasted"
E-Trade, a favored online platform for digital day-trading, was one of the first brands to break the fourth wall of Super Bowl ad spending with “Wasted,” a 2000 spot featuring, well, a dancing monkey. The ad was doubly effective in that it ridiculed the immense cost of Super Bowl advertising and its questionable efficacy while simultaneously driving home the brand’s raison d’être: Helping users make the most out of their own money.
Nike — "Michael Jordan & Bugs Bunny"
Before there was 1996’s Space Jam, there was this 1993 ad featuring the first buddying up of “Air Jordan” and “Hare Jordan.” The ad was visually significant for blending real-world footage with cartoon images, a style pioneered by films like 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Meanwhile, it treaded new ground for the well-worn approach of pairing two American icons to drive sales—with the twist that, in this case, one of those icons was fictional.
Pets.com — "Pets.com"
Pets.com’s 2000 Super Bowl ad, featuring the company’s iconic puppy puppet and a montage of sad animals, was a massive hit with audiences. Less than a year later, the company was dead, one of many casualties of the dot-com crash. What happened? The company spent millions of investors’ dollars on marketing, but never came close to making that kind of revenue. (The Super Bowl ad alone cost $1.2 million. Said one observer at the time: “It was an expensive sock puppet.”) The ad’s influence is hard to measure because it became a cautionary tale to other booming tech companies: focus on marketing, over building products, at your own peril.
NO MORE — "Listen"
This 2015 PSA from the NO MORE movement, which featured a real 911 call, became the first-ever Super Bowl commercial to address domestic violence and sexual assault. The airtime was donated by the NFL as part of a campaign to manage controversy surrounding its handling of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s assault of his then-fiancée. NO MORE ran a similar ad in 2016 that also garnered major attention.
Chrysler Feat. Clint Eastwood — "Halftime in America"
The national mood can often be a powerful undercurrent on Super Bowl Sunday. And in 2012, the mood was somber. The U.S. was still digging its way out of the Great Recession, and the domestic auto industry was flat on its back. So Chrysler did something bold. It created a two-minute ad featuring the eternally rugged Clint Eastwood giving the auto industry — and America at large — a rousing halftime speech to rally and pull together. Few if any ads have been so pointed about the emotional state of the country at its time of airing, giving this spot an extra layer of historical significance.
Beyoncé — "Formation World Tour"
Until 2016, Super Bowl halftime performers were expected to make a splash on stage, not during the breaks. That changed in 2016, when Beyoncé capitalized on her halftime show with an eye-catching commercial announcing a new global tour. The ad made Beyoncé the first superstar to use a Super Bowl spot to endorse her own brand, rather than a consumer product, and helped turn the Formation World Tour one of the top 20 highest-grossing musical tours of all time.
Doritos — "Live the Flavor"
This 2007 spot became the first-ever consumer-created ad to air during a Super Bowl, launching Doritos’ highly successful “Crash the Super Bowl” campaign. The savvy marketing move enabled the brand to repeatedly crowdsource its biggest commercial of the year. The tactic was widely recognized as genius in the advertising world, as it allowed Doritos to drop the costs of hiring an ad agency while simultaneously engaging its most loyal customers.
Pepsi — "Delivery Guys"
Should a brand’s advertising ever show its competitor’s products? That may be par for the course today, but Pepsi took a big risk with this 1996 spot, wherein rival delivery guys bond, then fight again, over a glass of Pepsi-Cola. Ads like these gave rise to the general rule that you’ll never see the dominant competitor in a corporate rivalry show their rival’s wares in an ad. Meanwhile, it laid the groundwork for now-famous comparison spots like Apple’s iconic “Mac vs. PC” ads.
Chrysler — “Imported From Detroit”
This 2011 ad did more than try to sell cars: It was a celebration of Detroit, American industry, and Chrysler’s comeback from bankruptcy. The oxymoronic tagline both caught viewers’ attention and argued that American-made vehicles could once again go toe-to-toe with anything from Germany or Japan. Though it’s six years old, the spot’s themes continue to resonate as we grapple with the blessings and curses of our modern economy.
Monster.com — "Kids"
Budweiser — "Puppy Love"
2014’s most popular Super Bowl ad was also one of its most adorable: the sweet love story of an adorable golden retriever puppy and one of the beer brand’s iconic Clydesdale horses. Set to the dulcet tones of Passenger’s “Let Her Go,” the ad racked up tens of millions of online views and proved that the combination of fluffy animals and a heartfelt message, divorced from the product itself, is often a winning combination.
Snickers — "Betty White"
Snickers’ 2010 ad spot featuring an 88-year-old Betty White laid the framework for the candy brand’s now-familiar “You’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign, while becoming a viral hit in its own right. The popularity of the commercial was a testament to the five-time Emmy winner’s enduring charisma as an actress. That was only further confirmed by White’s career revival following the ad spot, included a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live and a return to the small screen with Hot in Cleveland. The Snickers campaign, meanwhile, has since featured stars like Liza Minnelli and the late Robin Williams.