People like to throw around superlatives in discussing Super Bowl ads -- best, worst, funniest, most moving. But what about most important?
How can a Super Bowl ad be important? The six listed below helped change how advertisers, brands and Americans everywhere conceived of what an ad during the Super Bowl could be used to do.
Apple -- "1984" (1984)
It was a big year for Apple. 1984 was the year the company launched the Macintosh personal computer, and it was the moment when the company decided to make the most expensive ad in its history. “That spot is really what launched the Super Bowl of advertising,” said Keith Quesenberry, a former creative director and current lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. “Before that, there was a Super Bowl going on, and just regular ads ran during the Super Bowl.
“Because of the sizable audience,” he added, “Apple decided to turn it into a special moment.” The decision was not unanimous. Members of Apple’s board were very hesitant to spend so much money -- the ad had a $900,000 budget -- which included a hefty fee for Ridley Scott, the director behind "Alien" and "Blade Runner."
And, like so many Super Bowl ads, even though “1984” attracted a mountain of attention, it may not have helped move many units.
Chrysler -- "Imported From Detroit" (2010)
Brands are not in the habit of buying Super Bowl airtime in the midst of historically bad years. But after being rescued from bankruptcy in 2008 and well on the way to its worst sales year since 1962, Chrysler needed to make a big bet. That’s why it laid out nearly $9 million for the 2-minute spot that was supposed to redefine not just the automaker’s brand, but the once-noble principle of buying American.
“It took the perception of cars and flipped it on its head,” Quesenberry said. “This really had this big turning point.”
A year later, the bet looked like it paid dividends: Chrysler’s sales rebounded 17 percent.
E*Trade -- “We just wasted 2 million bucks”
This may sound crazy, but there was once an era when the streets of Silicon Valley were flush with venture capitalists’ cash, teeming with companies built on questionable business models throwing said cash around. On the one hand, this 1999 spot is emblematic of that time -- “It goes back to the excess of the dot-com period,” Qusenberry said -- but on the other, it was the first Super Bowl ad to explicitly acknowledge both its stakes and the place Super Bowl ads occupy in the American cultural imagination.
Plus, the ad gets bonus points for taking the Super Bowl ad’s chief talking point and turning it into a punchline.
Coca Cola -- “America the Beautiful” (2014)
It’s not every day that an ad gets attacked for being too multicultural. But this 2014 Coke ad, which featured people of multiple races, ethnicities and sexual orientations singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages, was apparently too much for some people. So many people took to social media to complain that #SpeakAmerican and #boycottCoke were trending on Twitter within hours of the ad’s first broadcast, though the anger over the ad’s content was met with an equally passionate response from its defenders.
“A brand has to be careful,” Quesenberry said of Coke’s ad. “Being controversial can bring you extra attention, but if it’s negative attention, is it really worth it?”
Wendy’s -- "Big Bun" (1984)
This Wendy’s spot from 1984 showed what can happen when you put a catchy slogan in front of 100 million people. Though it technically debuted a few weeks before the Super Bowl, the ad's punch line, “Where’s the Beef?” became something else after it aired during Super Bowl XVIII.
“It became a cultural phenomenon,” Quesenberry said.
In addition to Walter Mondale using the phrase to criticize his opponent Gary Hart’s proposed economic policies, the phrase was cut into a novelty single and was printed up on T-shirts. It even did something few Super Bowl ads do -- it pushed Wendy’s sales up more than 30 percent.
E*trade -- Baby (2008)
Most brands dream of finding a spokesperson or character that America embraces, but the E*Trade baby, who debuted in 2008, wound up turning into a force that could not be stopped. Created by the ad agency Grey New York, the baby became such a hit that E*Trade wound up using the baby and his pals in five consecutive Super Bowls, as well as countless other spots throughout the year.
But after a while, E*Trade executives began to notice something: People had stopped associating the pitchman with the product. “The baby ate the brand,” E*Trade Chief Marketing Officer Liz Landsman told Fast Company.