If you’re a sports fan (and 60 percent of Americans identify themselves as such), there’s a good chance you can name some famous Super Bowl moments. Even for those of you who were in diapers during the game’s first years, you’ve probably still heard about Mean Joe Greene’s breathtaking footwork in Super Bowl IX or Joe Namath’s Hail Mary passes that handed Super Bowl III to the New York Jets. But there’s another part of Super Bowl history that goes along with plays like these—for example, Greene accepting a Coke from a kid in the stands or Joe Namath grinning like a kid while Farrah Fawcett slathered his stubbly chin with Noxema. What did these scenes have to do with football? Nothing—and everything.
These were, of course, legendary Super Bowl commercials. And, like it or not, they and their ilk are now more famous, more memorable and often more fun to watch on YouTube than anything that shook out on 120 yards of Astroturf. While nobody’s attempted to peg an exact percentage, it’s now accepted fact that a good portion of those who tune in for the Big Game not only stick around for the commercials (TiVo be damned), but a good many of them tune in just to watch the commercials.
It’s no surprise, then, that companies long ago awakened to the fact that if they want to make a big marketing tackle, there’s potentially no better play out there than the Super Bowl spot. That’s assuming they can afford one, of course. Back in 1967, when Kansas City faced off against Green Bay in the first Super Bowl, NBC execs decided to charge advertisers $37,500 for a :30 slot. Jaws hit the floor, but savvier advertisers knew that it was only the beginning. With the exception of a few recession-year discounts, the cost of a Super Bowl ad has soared like a field goal kick to its current average asking price of around $3 million. It stands to reason, then, that if a company’s going to drop that kind of cash, it’s going to give America the best advertising it can possibly produce.
And that was the thinking behind the look-back that unfolds on these pages. While the Big Game might showcase America’s best performances in the athletic sense, it demands the very same kind of performances in a commercial one. Much of the time, it delivers them (E*Trade’s talking babies; Bud’s iconic “Whassup!”)—and sometimes it bombs right into the onion dip (Burger King’s Herb the Nerd; Eli Lilly’s warning that Cialis-induced erections should not last 36 hours). Nonetheless, the Big Game spots—from the brilliant to the forgettable—have been a window on the culture. And, for the 100+ million expected to watch the game on Feb. 6, they will be again. So pop open a beer and kick back while we unspool a little marketing history—the touchdowns and the fumbles alike.
—Robert Klara | Time line by Ellie Parpis