Perhaps, nothing is more symbolic of American tradition and entertainment than the Super Bowl. In recent years, viewership of the Big Game has exceeded over 90 million viewers. As much as viewers anticipate the gridiron showdown, many tune in for the commercials. It is the mecca of advertising, where instead of waiting for commercials to be over, viewers eagerly tune in.
The commercials capture recent social trends, product innovations and even political dialogue in some cases. Given the expensive price tag for a Super Bowl commercial spot ($5.6 million for a 30-second spot in 2020), it is typically larger organizations and well-known brands that make the investment to capture viewers on this main stage for advertising.
However, 20 years ago, there were some relatively unknown brands that took center stage.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Backstreet Boys and *Nsync were battling it out for pop chart domination, Titanic was the first movie to earn $1 billion and Frito-Lay launched Doritos 3D. It was a glorious time to be alive.
At the same time, technology was rapidly becoming more integrated into individuals’ lives. The panic of Y2K, an anticipated software meltdown that would come from changing to a two-digit (00) versus four-digit date format in many computer programs, gave some insight on the importance of data and information stored online. One three-letter top-level website domain became synonymous with this era: .com. It was the time now referred to as the dot-com bubble because of the extreme over-valuation of companies that were utilizing the internet for different commercial ventures.
There was rapid growth and investment in these companies. The internet was king, and individuals and organizations scrambled to find different ways to monetize its use. And this was reflected in Super Bowl advertising. In the early 1990s, the brands that dominated Super Bowl ads included car companies, food brands and movie studios. Fast-forward to the year 2000, and brands like Computer.com (which spent all its investment capital on Super Bowl ads), HotJobs.com, Epidemic.com and Pets.com (the two latter of which folded shortly after) were buying up coveted airtime. Many of these companies were spending large portions of precious venture capital funding to convey the ease of their services/products.
Pets.com featured a commercial with the now-infamous dog sock puppet to advertise the utility of ordering pet supplies online. Epidemic.com’s ad was an early attempt to show the value of affiliate marketing through email.
While many of these organizations did not survive, it changed the players in Super Bowl advertising. While still dominated by beer, car and food brands, companies like E-Trade (remember the E-Trade baby?), Microsoft and even b-to-b player Intel were paying the premium ad price to deliver memorable content to the end user.
The growth of the technology sector is reflected in these ads peppered throughout the more standard Super Bowl commercial lineup. In addition, with the nostalgia and media attention surrounding ads featured in Super Bowls, the commercials of 2000 provide a time capsule of sorts to see the evolution of products and services that have elements that harken back to the dot-com darlings of two decades ago. Chewy.com and BarkBox surely capture the now-defunct Pets.com’s tagline “Because pets can’t drive.” And HotJobs.com, acquired by Yahoo and then Monster, captured a significant shift in the employment search and recruitment process.
Technology has found its place in advertising across brand categories, too. Look back at Budweiser’s “Whassup” campaign, which first aired in 1999 and then in the 2000 Super Bowl. It captures friends watching the game and using the catchphrase as they call each other (yes, on landline phones). For the 2020 Super Bowl, Budweiser Canada has modified and updated this commercial so the dialogue is in smart devices to promote an anti-drunk-driving message.
It will be interesting to look back in another 20 years to see how the brands and ads of the 2020 Super Bowl compare to those featured in 2040. It’s possible how we watch and consume content will have changed very much in that time. As we go from dot-com to the Dolly Parton challenge, Super Bowl ads provide a visual and entertaining way to capture this chronology.