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It’s a poorly kept secret that the Super Bowl isn’t really about football. Oh sure, there’s a game being played, and some people really care about who wins. But most of us root for teams that have long since been booted, and we have to find other reasons to celebrate the big game.
Maybe it’s snacks, or the drinks, or the party atmosphere. Maybe it’s the plethora of big blockbuster movie trailers that are shown during breaks in the game. But many viewers tune in for the commercials, those two-minute-or-shorter mini-movies that sell a product but also make us laugh — or sometimes cry.
The best ones have passed into legend. They turn into catchphrases, are memorialized on hats and T-shirts, or are mimicked on school playgrounds for weeks after the game. Here’s a list of 16 ads that scored touchdowns with fans.
Master Lock: Shooting padlock, 1974
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You might not remember this 1974 Master Lock ad from the big game’s early days, but it marks the first time a Super Bowl commercial really hit its target. That’s figuratively and literally, since the ad shows a sharpshooter firing a high-powered rifle at a Master Lock padlock, which gets a hole blown through it, but doesn’t unlock. Every thing about the ad feels vintage now, from the don’t-try-this-at-home use of a rifle to the narrator’s stentorian voice. But it was the kickoff of what’s now a Super Bowl big-ad tradition.
Coca-Cola: Mean Joe Greene, 1980
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The Mean Joe Greene Coke ad had aired a few times before the 1980 Super Bowl, but it was that airing that punted it right into the pop-culture hall of fame. So many questions! How did some random kid get into the tunnel to the team’s locker room? How sweaty was that jersey Mean Joe pitches at him? And how does the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle manage to drink that whole bottle of Coke in one gulp without stopping? Back story: He actually burped a lot, Greene told the Baltimore Sun, but they didn’t use those takes. Drink up!
Apple: Macintosh, 1984
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Remember when computers seemed novel and even a bit scary? The famed 1984 Apple Macintosh ad brings it right back. Directed by “Blade Runner” director Ridley Scott and shown during the 1984 Super Bowl, the ad shows a creepy “Big Brother”-esque world where technology is controlled by an evil few. But then a woman (British discus thrower Anya Major) throws a sledgehammer at Big Brother’s face on the screen, and everything explodes. Apple was all about taking a bite out of new things, right from the start.
McDonald’s: Bird-Jordan showdown, 1993
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Everyone who’s ever held a basketball has probably played a good ol’ game of H-O-R-S-E, where you and a friend take turns shooting baskets, and each must copy the opponent’s previous shot style. In this 1993 spot, hoops legends Larry Bird and Michael Jordan play each other with a McDonald’s Big Mac on the line, and their shots get crazier and crazier as the ad goes on. The popular spot was remade in 2013 with a football theme, as quarterbacks Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens and Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers duked it out for McDonald’s chicken wings. But the original’s the best.
Budweiser: Frogs, 1995
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It’s not always bad to have a froggy voice. In this 1995 ad, three frogs croak — “Bud,” “weis” and “er” — to form the name of the giant American beer brand Budweiser. Viewers found them to be quite ribbit-ing, and the ads sparked a whole series of similar commercials featuring other creatures joining the frogs in the swamp. And a note: This may be the first Budweiser ad on this list, but it’s far from the last. Hope you can grin and beer it.
Pepsi: Pepsi vs. Coke, 1995
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Chocolate, or vanilla? Peanut butter, or jelly? Coke, or Pepsi? This entertaining 1995 ad tackled that last question with a sweet touch that turned into a laugh-out-loud slapstick ending. A Coke delivery driver and his Pepsi rival meet in a diner, and soon they’re sharing kid photos and even drinks from their respective sodas. But when the Coke driver doesn’t want to give back the Pepsi, things really start to pop.
Monster.com: When I grow up, 1999
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Kids have big dreams for their futures, but not many of those dreams involve filing all day, clawing their way up to middle management, or becoming brown-nosers or yes-men and yes-women. This 1999 Monster.com ad reminds viewers that there are better jobs out there, and encourages them to use the job site to find them.
E*Trade: Chimp, 2000
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This 2000 E*Trade ad pokes fun at the very idea of spending a ton of money on a Super Bowl commercial. There’s a chimp wearing a T-shirt, and “La Cucaracha” is playing on a boom box, and two guys are clapping in a garage, and well, all you really need to know is the tagline: “Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks.” The financial-services company’s message? Maybe you, too, are wasting your money, so invest it with them. In short: Quit monkeying around.
Budweiser: “Whassup?”, 2000
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The Budweiser “Whassup?” ad series turned into a super-annoying catchphrase, but when this first one aired in 2000, it felt fresh and funny. A bunch of guys (we didn’t call them “bros” back then) patch into the same phone call, each shrieking “Whassup?” at each other in various tones of dude-dom. Endless parodies and tributes were made, including one by the same cast and director in 2008, (without Budweiser’s involvement), that urged viewers to vote for Barack Obama for president.
EDS: Cat herders, 2000
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It’s a common joke in some businesses to compare managing employees with herding cats, as both jobs can seem nearly impossible. Cat herding as imagined onscreen in this 2000 ad for digital-management firm EDS was paw-sitively inspired.
Budweiser: Clydesdales’ respect, 2002
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After the terrorist attacks of 2001, America was hurting, and not necessarily in the mood for the kind of light-hearted Super Bowl ads of past years. This touching 2002 Budweiser ad broke hearts with its quiet simplicity. The famous Clydesdales set out from their barn and trot to New York City, and once they see the now-forever-altered skyline and Statue of Liberty, the proud horses lower their mighty heads and drop to their knees. As a post on urban-legend site Snopes.com confirms, Budweiser aired the poignant spot only once, then didn’t show it again until the tenth anniversary of the attacks.
Reebok: Terry Tate, office linebacker, 2003
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Many Super Bowl ads suit up with a football theme, but not all of them end the game as winners. 2003’s Terry Tate, Office Linebacker spot for Reebok scored big with audiences. Tate (played by Lester Speight) works in a regular office, but can’t stop himself from tackling his fellow workers for such sins as playing solitaire at work or making long-distance calls. The (slapsticky) violence of the ads might not make it in today’s era of concussion awareness, but 15 years ago, Tate was the commercial world’s MVP.
Snickers: Betty White plays football, 2010
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Legendary actress Betty White, now 96, was a spring chicken of 88 when she starred in this Snickers Super Bowl ad back in 2010. It gets off to a confusing start: Why is White playing tackle football with a bunch of dudes in a park, and how come they’re calling her “Mike”? But then White eats a Snickers and transforms into a guy who can actually play the game, and the candy company gets to deliver its slogan: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” An ending scene brings on fellow 88-year-old Abe Vigoda (who died in 2016 at 94) for one final twist. Now that’s old school.
Chrysler: Imported from Detroit, 2011
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Detroit’s been battered and bruised, but the message of this 2011 Chrysler ad is that you can’t keep a good city down. The ad defends the much-maligned city, shows off its sights, promotes the then-new Chrysler 200, and then brings in singer Eminem, who spent much of his youth in Detroit. “This is the Motor City,” the singer announces, “And this is what we do.” The spot ends with an all-American tagline for the new car, bragging that it’s “Imported from Detroit.” Few Super Bowl ads have showered as much love on one single city, but this one works.
Volkswagen: The Force, 2011
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The Force was with this “Star Wars”-themed Volkswagen ad. It premiered a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away — well, if “a long time” is 2011, and the “galaxy” is that year’s Super Bowl. In the ad, a kid dressed as Darth Vader is trying out his Sith powers around the house, and failing. Until, that is, he seems to be able to start the family’s new VW, all with his Dark Side powers. Thought he couldn’t do it? We find your lack of faith disturbing.
Ram Trucks: “God Made a Farmer,” 2013
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A farmer’s life is tough, and it’s not getting any easier these days. This 2013 ad for Ram Trucks knows that, and aimed straight for viewers’ hearts, and for their love of the heartland. Bucolic country scenes of farmers and their families working hard are shown as a 1978 speech by commentator Paul Harvey plays, extolling the stellar characteristics God granted the hard-working farmer. It’s just a reminder of how much we should appreciate these men and women who are truly outstanding in their fields.
What’s your favorite ad of all time? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.