Sign of the Times: The History of Super Bowl Ads

I’m sure by now we know the scene well: it’s the day after the Super Bowl and you’re at the water cooler, or the break room, or another pointless meeting, and all anyone wants to talk about is which was their favorite commercial. The Clydesdale and the puppy. Cardi B taking over Alexa. Or maybe it’s the Old Spice guy.

When I lived in Europe, the Game would come on after midnight but without the American commercials. The most American event of all is so entangled with corporate ads that one without the other just seems, well, almost foreign.

In the beginning, Super Bowl ads were little more than man-mercials. In 1967, the $45,000 30-second spots (about $325,000 in today’s money) were full of beer, cigarettes, and cars. There was one commercial that catered to the women in the room: a distressed damsel on the side of the road, inspecting a flat tire. “When there’s no man around,” the misogynistic tagline read, “Goodyear is there.” 

“Super Bowl ads can give you a good sense of cultural context.”

It wasn’t that the commercials were all bad, it’s just that they were lacking in imagination. Still, Madison Avenue knew they had hit on something unique. Football was tailor-made for advertising; with long breaks in the middle of the action, it made for a captive audience in a way America’s pastime—baseball—could never quite figure out. 

As the industry was undergoing its own cultural revolution, advertising was becoming younger, more diverse, and eschewing whatever boundaries previously existed. The Super Bowl became its playground. Advertisements could be daring and emotional, but mostly fun. Perhaps my personal favorite Super Bowl commercial is the 1976 Xerox spot. A beleaguered monk is locked away in a monastery painfully transcribing ancient texts, before sneaking away into… a Xerox office to make 500 copies. 

Photo Courtesy of Apple.

We grilled Kirsten Rutherford, Group Creative Director from TBWA\Chiat\Day, about the legacy of Super Bowl commercials throughout the years. The agency knows a thing or two about big, disruptive moments in Super Bowl advertising. They were behind 1984, the ad that launched Apple Macintosh PCs to the world during Super Bowl XVIII. “Talk about brave,” she said. “The minute-long film didn’t name the brand until 50 seconds into the story. And the only pack shot was a stylized line drawing on the heroine’s tank top.” 

Directed by Ridley Scott, the ad only ever aired nationally once, but has since been named one of the top 50 ads of all time. It turned a little-known start-up into a behemoth overnight. What made the commercial work isn’t just its take on a classic book, but that when the ad ran in 1984, America was breaking out of the Cold War and everyone could relate to that omnipotent evil force the public had been told about for decades. It was a mini-Hollywood movie that reflected society around it and set ads on a new path.

“Super Bowl ads can give you a good sense of cultural context,” said Rutherford. “Chrysler’s It’s Halftime, America brought us the grizzled Clint Eastwood hope we needed back in 2012. Last year, when COVID hadn’t yet turned our world upside-down; Jeep’s Groundhog Day brought us some nostalgia and fun-filled freedom.”

Photo Courtesy of VW.

“Back then, Big Game ads were shrouded in secrecy until game day. But the way we consume advertising has evolved,” she added. In 2011, VW’s The Force broke with all tradition when the brand released their spot-on YouTube rather than keeping it under wraps. Before kick off, they racked up 17 million views. Today, it’s still the most shared Super Bowl ad of all time, and a large majority of advertisers seize on excitement by drip feeding us teasers or launching their spots online in the days leading up to Sunday.

Other brands have taken that to the extreme—in 2018, Skittles made an ad so exclusive, only one lucky fan got to see it. Rutherford told us, “This morning, M&M’s launched their spot via zoom to 50,000 lucky viewers. I had an invite but couldn’t face another zoom call, even one that sweet.”

This year, the going rate for an ad is $5.5 million for 30-seconds—up slightly from the year before. In many ways, nothing has really changed since we were here last February, standing on the edge of an invisible abyss. The NFL has attempted to conduct business as usual, despite nearly empty stadiums and Covid-19 outbreaks; and in the end, just like old times, stalwart Tom Brady and his heir apparent Patrick Mahomes are back at the Big Game. 

Photo Courtesy of Old Spice.

But of course, everything has changed. Brands like Budweiser, Coke, and Hyundai decided to sit out the Super Bowl, either to divert money to Covid relief or find other ways to attract business. Still, there’s no shortage of companies willing to advertise, and most of the commercials that have leaked early can’t avoid looking back at 2020 — “the year of lemons,” as one Seltzer ad called it. 

So what can we expect from this year? Rutherford said to expect to see “a roster of brands that reflect our socially distant lives. There’ll be some heartfelt stuff, some some silly stuff, and a lot of ‘they obviously shot this production remote and 6 feet apart’ stuff.” 

Should we expect to see something as brave as 1984 this year? Probably not. But we can likely expect some nostalgia for a simpler time. When we could all sit around the break room, together, and talk about the puppy and the Clydesdale.  

According to Rutherford, here are the Super Bowl ad trends we can expect this year.

A lot of Super Bowl stalwarts have decided to sit this year out. Covid is shifting attitudes among brands (and their consumers) as to how they should spend their money. Target has developed a Super Bowl themed mobile game in lieu of a multi-million dollar campaign. Planters are using their ad budget to reward people doing good in the community. Budweiser is donating their ad spend to a vaccine-education initiative—although you’ll spot 4 minutes worth of ads for other Anheuser-Busch brands during the game.

Tech brands are taking their place in the line up. From an e-commerce platform offering to launch consumers into space (literally), to a Jonas Brother fronting a new high tech diabetes monitoring system, to the tech brands who’ve seen an uptake in pandemic business—like GrubHub, UberEats, Fiverr and Indeed. 

Inclusion should be in the spotlight- both in front of, and behind the camera. The 3% Movement began not too long ago, when only 3% of Creative Directors were female. Every year, they run the SuperBowl Tweet Up, where industry professionals live tweet their reactions to the ad line up. Why? In their very eloquent words—“Women not only watch equally on Super Bowl Sunday, but they buy and share socially in greater numbers than men. Which means ads with female appeal are the best return on that $5 million price tag.”

This year, I hope we’ll continue to see advertisers bringing thoughtfulness to diversity and inclusion within their work, although it doesn’t seem like that same thoughtfulness has extended to their choice of BIPOC or female directors. 

We all desperately deserve a little levity. We could all use a smile, and sometimes the most memorable ads are the weird ones that come out of nowhere. I became slightly obsessed with Mountain Dew’s Puppy Monkey Baby backduring SB50. Sure, the combo of Dew, Juice and Caffeine sounds repulsive, but the awesome combo of Puppy, Monkey, Baby was genius enough to have me giggling like a kid every time I saw it.

Admittedly their star talent will have cost a lot more than a CG-canine-simian-human hybrid, but I’m already madly in love with this year’s Uber Eats spots bringing Wayne and Garth back to the big (local access) screen to support an ‘Eat Local’ initiative. Launching their teaser during SNL’s ad break? Most Excellent. Following that up with a 2 hour long YouTube film highlighting Uber Eats’ 89,151 local restaurant partners…that I wanted to watch every second of? We’re not worthy.


APPLE MACINTOSH: 1984 (1984)

Courtesy of Apple/YouTube


Courtesy of Budweiser/YouTube


Courtesy of McDonalds/YouTube


Courtesy of Amazon/YouTube


Courtesy of Old Spice/YouTube


Courtesy of Volkswagen/YouTube

NFL: THE 100-YEAR GAME (2019)

Courtesy of NFL/YouTube


Courtesy of Hyundai/YouTube


Courtesy of Snickers/YouTube


Courtesy of Tide/YouTube


Courtesy of Pepsi/YouTube

FEDEX: 10 THINGS (2005)

Courtesy of FedEx/YouTube


Courtesy of Hyundai/YouTube


Courtesy of Coca-Cola/YouTube


Courtesy of Noxema/YouTube