Super Bowl commercials are almost (though not quite) as innovative as the Puppy Bowl, and they’re in an advertising league all of their own. At parties, you’ll always hear, “Oh, I just come for the food and watch for the ads.” That’s me you’re hearing. I’m the one saying it while stuffing another jalapeño popper in my mouth with one hand and grabbing a handful of chips with the other.
Food and beverage brands are spending upwards of $5 million for 30 seconds of Super Bowl air time. For reference, 30 seconds is the same amount of time it’ll take you to read about 150 words. You’re at 113 right now. I’ll let you know when we hit the $5 million mark.
The goal for Super Bowl ads is lofty: they’re not just trying to be tolerable, but memorable. Loyalty-inducing. They are competing with a mid-game bathroom break for your brain’s attention, and they are intent on winning. (We’ve hit 150 words, baby! That’ll be $5 million!) Here are a few ads from recent Super Bowl history that actually managed to win that battle, and remain lodged in our brains for all time. Love them or hate them, what we’ve eaten as a society for the better part of a century has, in some part, been informed by the success of these commercials—even if we spend every ad break grabbing more buffalo chicken dip.
This was Cheerios’ first ever Super Bowl ad, and it functioned as a sequel to a commercial it ran in 2013 that featured an interracial family with a cute daughter named Gracie. The initial ad sparked bigoted reactions from a vocal minority of viewers, which forced General Mills to disable all YouTube comments. But the national conversation that followed cued Cheerios to release a follow-up ad during Super Bowl XLVIII, once again checking in on Gracie and her (growing) family. There’s no hook here; it’s just a quiet slice of life that associates Cheerios with “love.” But for a legacy brand like Cheerios, it was a significant move to reflect its 21st-century consumers and appear uncowed by bad-faith critics.
Betty White is already understood to be a national treasure and a comedic delight, so using her as the focal point of a Super Bowl commercial seems so obvious as to border on lazy. But 2009 and 2010 were the peak of the Betty White renaissance, and Snickers needed a guaranteed win during this time: sales had slumped, and the candy risked being toppled from its throne as the number-one chocolate bar. As we know all too well in 2020, the tactic was successful. It kicked off the “You’re not you when you’re hungry” ad campaign that continues to this day, and global sales climbed by more than 15%. Maybe the lesson here is that we all really, really want to hear an 88-year-old say, with perfect comedic timing, “That’s not what your girlfriend says.”
From 2007 to 2016, Frito-Lay ran a promotion called “Crash the Super Bowl” in which it invited members of the public to submit their own Doritos commercials, to be aired during the game. “House Rules” was one of four winners in 2010, determined by online vote, and generated a lot of online chatter. It just didn’t look like other Super Bowl ads, because of course, it wasn’t. User-generated content has pretty much become the advertising industry’s bread and butter—just look at how much they want us to “participate” in Super Bowl promotions this year alone—and “House Rules” was an earlier example of how companies can turn to their dedicated fans to build buzz for them.
This commercial was simple, delightful, and weird. But mostly, what we want to make sure everyone knows about this ad is that it was directed by a young Gore Verbinski, he of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring, and Rango fame. (And Mouse Hunt, which makes sense.)
Zoe Kravitz doing ASMR in the mountains. That’s it. That’s the whole tweet. This commercial didn’t play off of humor or heartstrings (the “big two” of Super Bowl advertising), but went instead toward brain-tingling beauty. It was a wonderful reprieve from the emotional rollercoaster of a Pats-Rams game, not to mention the ups and downs of the other ads that surrounded it. Michelob Ultra chose to calm viewers’ senses with an oasis in the midst of the game, offering momentary relaxation and an effective argument for drinking Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, the beer that apparently knows what the young people like.
Securing Peter Dinklage to star in a winking homage to Game Of Thrones probably would have been enough of a recipe for success, especially since Super Bowl LII fell within a year of no new Thrones episodes whatsoever. But this commercial is instead a masterpiece of layering. It’s a laminated dough of an ad. It’s hard to say what an elevator pitch for this campaign could have possibly been, because you’d need 50 floors to get through an explanation of all its elements: Peter Dinklage + Morgan Freeman + Busta Rhymes + Missy Elliot + Westeros aesthetic + Jimmy Fallon-esque lip syncing + the fiery power of Doritos Blaze + the chilling power of Mountain Dew Ice. But it’s memorable as one of the rare instances in which throwing every hot, relevant scrap of pop culture into a blender actually resulted in a fun, over-the-top Super Bowl commercial with lots of rewatch potential. I raise my chalice of Mountain Dew in salute.