For more than 40 years, companies have been shelling out a huge chunk of change to air their most creative ads during the Super Bowl. This year, a 30-second spot during the CBS broadcast of Super Bowl LV cost a reported $5.5 million. So whatever runs must be memorable.
The airing of the expensive ads has even morphed into a competition of sorts. Since 1989, USA Today has used an AdMeter, a now online poll where viewers state their opinion on commercials almost as they happen that determines the best of the Super Bowl broadcast. (Anyone can sign up to do this at admeter.usatoday.com).
For me, an ad’s greatness is not determined that night, but if we remember it years later. With that context in mind, here are the 20 best Super Bowl commercials of all time.
— Compiled by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
20. EDS: Cat Herders – Super Bowl XXXIV (2000)
Then-President Bill Clinton said this goofy ad with cowboys herding cats was his favorite commercial. If Hewlett-Packard had not bought EDS in 2008, this ad would probably have had longer staying power.
19. Noxzema: Farrah Fawcett Creams Joe Namath – Super Bowl VIII (1974)
Next time someone says modern pop culture has lost its morals, tell them to take a break from watching Blue Bloods to check out this ad. This sleazy commercial is so full of innuendos that Joe Namath couldn’t even keep a straight face while filming it.
18. Snickers: Marv Levy – Super Bowl XXX (1996)
The Buffalo Bills’ four straight Super Bowl losses were heartbreaking for the players and fans. The fact that they were able to poke fun at it made for one of the best ads in Super Bowl history.
17. Diet Pepsi: “You Got the Right One Baby” – Super Bowl XXV (1991)
With the nation in the midst of the Gulf War, this number by Ray Charles and the Uh-Huh Girls provided the perfect escapism.
16. Monster.com: “When I Grow Up” – Super Bowl XXXIII (1999)
The best of the dot-com ads played on the emotions all of us feel at some point in our careers in tragic comedic fashion.
15. Reebok: Terry Tate – Super Bowl XXXVII (2003)
In turn, this ad featuring office linebacker Terry Tate (played by actor Lester Speight) provided a catharsis for the day-to-day annoyances in the workplace.
14. Master Lock: Tough Under Fire – Super Bowl VIII (1974)
Do Super Bowl ads pay off? Ask Master Lock. After running this simple, but effective ad showing its lock remaining intact after being pierced by a bullet, its annual revenues went from $35 million to $200 million over the next 20 years.
13. Nike: Hare Jordan – Super Bowl XXVI (1992)
“Who’d you expect, Elmer Fudd?” This team-up of Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny is the only commercial on this list to inspire a movie. The two would team up four years later in Space Jam.
12. Budweiser: Bud Bowl I – Super Bowl XXIII (1989)
If you had to pick the one company that has consistently produced the best Super Bowl ads over the past 30 years, it would have to be Budweiser. It all started with this ad of beer bottles playing football with Bob Costas doing the play-by-play.
11. Pepsi: Drivers – Super Bowl XXIX (1995)
Pepsi did a few commercials with the conflicted Coca-Cola truck driver. This one of Pepsi and Coca-Cola deliverymen meeting in a diner is the most memorable.
10. Doritos: Crystal Ball – Super Bowl XLIII (2009)
Frito-Lay’s run of commercials featuring doofuses and their Doritos came to an end last year because the company has chosen a new marketing direction. This one featuring a crystal ball being hurled at a vending machine is the best of the lot.
9. E-Trade: Wasted – Super Bowl XXXIV (2000)
No ad has ever mocked the price of a Super Bowl spot and reached consumers more effectively.
8. Volkswagen: The Force – Super Bowl XLV (2011)
Many have criticized how George Lucas handled the Star Wars franchise after Return of the Jedi, but as this commercial shows, he still does have a sense of humor.
7. Budweiser: Brotherhood – Super Bowl XLVII (2013)
Budweiser has been making Clydesdale commercials for the last 20 years. This is the most touching of all of them.
6. Pepsi: Cindy Crawford – Super Bowl XXVI (1992)
Pepsi memorably used one of the biggest supermodels of all time to introduce its new logo.
5. McDonald’s: The Showdown – Super Bowl XXVII (1993)
Two of the greatest basketball players ever, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, engage in an epic game of Horse. Nothing but net.
4. Budweiser: Frogs – Super Bowl XXIX (1995)
Gore Verbinski, director of The Ring and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, helmed this classic ad, which launched a pop culture phenomenon.
3. Wendy’s: “Where’s the Beef?” – Super Bowl XVIII (1984)
Whenever you worry that your best years are behind you, just remember that Clara Peller went from being a retired manicurist to voicing one of the biggest catch-phrases of the 1980s when she was 81 years old.
2. Apple: 1984 – Super Bowl XVIII
This Ridley Scott-directed ad that introduced the Macintosh computer only aired once. It clearly made its point.
1. Coca-Cola: “Hey Kid, Catch!” – Super Bowl XIV (1980)
This ad featuring “Mean” Joe Greene tossing his jersey to a kid, played by Tommy Okon, actually debuted on Monday Night Football in October 1979. The fact that it still tops this list is a testament to its greatness.