Every year, the Super Bowl presents an extremely unique opportunity to advertisers: it’s pretty much the only occasion when television audiences would rather reserve their potty breaks for the broadcast itself so as not to miss the commercials.
Those few seconds of airtime are all but guaranteed to reach the eyes of millions, and, as a result, companies shell out oodles of cash to reserve their spots and then try to come up with a creative concept that can create some buzz long after the play clock runs out.
A lot of times, these commercials are great, making people laugh or cry or some combination of both. When they’re not, though, they tend to be pretty spectacular failures. As we wait for kickoff time with Super Bowl LIII, here’s a look back at the best and worst commercials that have happened over the past two decades.
Monster.com – “When I Grow Up” (1999)
Nothing will motivate you to freshen up that resume more than hearing children bypass the lofty dreams phase and go right to echoing corporate drone-speak like this. So much for livin’ the dream. The company almost backed down from going forward with this black-and-white bit of harsh reality, but considering the uptick in traffic they received as a result of it, it’s a good thing they didn’t.
Levi’s – “Crazy Legs” (2002)
This ad, directed by Spike Jonze, was the product of an ailing company’s efforts to revitalize its branding, with fans voting on which ad option to show during its Super Bowl spot. It might’ve been a little silly, but between the unpredictable half-bodied dance moves and the catchy backdrop of Control Machete’s “Si Señor,” the ad did exactly what it was supposed to do and drew all eyes to the product it was pumping.
Reebok – “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker” (2003)
There was no Terry Tate on the field for Super Bowl XXXVII, but the faux football player was all anyone could talk about after he was introduced as the new productivity manager for Felcher & Sons in this hilarious 60-second ad. The character (played by Lester Speight) had a bone-crushing technique to keeping his co-workers in line alright and became so popular that the company produced a whole series of sequel ads. When it’s game time, it’s pain time baby.
Bud Light – “Slap” (2007)
Violence may not be funny in the regular course, but when Bud Light’s commercial for Super Bowl XLI declared that the “fist-bump” is out (no doubt, a reference to that infamously bad Agency.com ad) and that the slap was in, every single smack was hysterical. Maybe it was the exaggerate thwacking sound effect or the carticaturish cheeriness with which these people were taking their licks, but whatever the reason, this one left a mark — even if it didn’t have much to do with beer.
E-Trade – “Talking Baby” (2008)
Taking candy from a baby might be easy, but relieving ’em of that mouse-clicker? Not so much. This ad had the benefit of being adorable and on-message, as it touted the ease of using the brand’s stock trading service with only the cutest little spokesmodel ever.
Snickers – “Betty White” (2010)
Betty White is nothing short of a national treasure, her inclusion alone might be enough to make this list, but on top of that, this campaign was just plain funny and sparked an entire series of “You’re not you when you’re hungry” ads to follow.
Volkswagon – “The Force” (2011)
Before Star Wars: Episode VII brought the franchise back to the big screen, there was this. A little boy dressed in a Darth Vader costume who desperately wanted to use the Force. And while he couldn’t get his sister’s dolly or the family dog to do his telekinetic bidding, the remote start-up mechanism on his dad’s ride helped keep the magic alive for this little one, and the result was a heart-swelling look at some of the unexpected benefits of this new automotive feature.
Budweiser – “Puppy Love” (2014)
Who doesn’t choke up at the sight of this spritely little pup doing everything it can to spend time with its best bud? Clydesdale horses have long been a tradition of the Budweiser branding, but this furbaby was a fresh and welcome addition to the farm.
Avocados from Mexico – “Secret Society” (2017)
This commercial started out as one thing and ended up being something else entirely. It began with a flimsy secret society meeting to discuss what classified intel items had been leaked to the public — Area 51, Bigfoot and the moon landing to name a few — during which they worked in a mention of the good fat in avocados. Since that was too subtle, though, they then brought in Jon Lovitz in a green hypno-spiral and got right to the point. The lesson: if you’re gonna do something weird, commit and stick the landing, like so.
Doritos – “A Song of Ice and Fire – Dinklage vs. Freeman” (2018)
It might’ve been a little too on the nose that Peter Dinklage starred in something involving an “ice and fire” them (ya know, ’cause Game of Thrones and all), but the way this played out made the meta bits more than okay. The ad featured him lip-syncing the lyrics to Busta Rhymes’ “Look At Me Now” before Morgan Freeman followed that up with an icier rendition of Missy Elliott’s “Get Your Freak On.” It was charming and different and definitely highlighted the various temperatures of the products involved. Well played, all.
Snicker’s – “Kiss” (2007)
This ad was pulled from the airwaves shortly after its debut at Super Bowl XLVII because it was so brazenly homophobic that all manner of social justice groups had to sound the alarm on what they saw in it. The ad featured two mechanics accidentally engaging in a kiss over a Snickers, Lady and the Tramp noodle-style, and then absolutely losing it. The two then proceeded to rip their own chest hairs out just to do something “manly.” Ugh.
GM – Robot Suicide (2007)
Trivializing self-harm is never a good idea, so why GM thought it’d be copacetic to show an assembly line robot daydreaming about taking its own life after being canned from the car factory is a mystery. The company ultimately decided to retool the ad after receiving a ton of backlash.
Tim Tebow – Pro-Life (2010)
Football star Tim Tebow joined his mom for a Super Bowl commercial with an anti-abortion bent for a Christian organization called Focus in the Family. The ad features his mother making reference to the fact that she was advised to terminate her pregnancy, since she’d had to take medications that were unhealthy for an unborn child, but decided not to. Many chastised the spot as being too preachy and political for the Super Bowl.
Groupon – Brazilian Wax (2011)
For some reason, this company decided that trivializing the very real environmental blight caused by deforestation of the brazilian rainforest to sell discounted waxing sessions was a brilliant idea. They were wrong. Why Elizabeth Hurley signed up for this we’ll never know.
Groupon – Tibet (2011)
Groupon struck out again with this ad, which used the humanitarian crises in Tibet to sell vacation add-ons, with Timothy Hutton proclaiming, “Mountainous Tibet, one of the most beautiful places in the world … The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry.” The ad was roundly condemned and the company didn’t return with another Super Bowl ad for seven years.
HomeAway.com – “Test Baby” (2011)
As we’ve seen above, including babies, kids and puppies in Super Bowl ads is usually a surefire way to get people’s attention, but showing them being harmed, even in doll form, is never a good idea.
Skechers – “Mr. Quiggly” (2012)
Also bound to stoke the immediate ire of the public? Casually propping dog racing (and by extension, animal cruelty) as with this misfire of a Skechers ad.
GoDaddy – “Perfect Match” (2013)
There’s nothing morally or socially reprehensible about this ad, per se, but it was still pretty excessive with the spit-swappage (though it did help boost the site’s numbers, so that part was a win).
Nationwide – “Make Safe Happen” (2015)
The WTF moment of the year happened when this Nationwide commercial decided to encourage home safety techniques by having a dead kid talk about all the things he’s going to miss out on thanks to the implied recklessness of his caregivers. For a day that’s supposed to be pretty fun, this was way too depressing and over the top.
Carl’s Jr. – “All Natural” (2015)
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s weren’t new to objectifying women in their commercials when Super Bowl XLIX came along — just ask Paris Hilton. But this one was a step way too far. The ad featured Charlotte McKinney roaming around naked as the crowd stared her down and random objects popped up to highlight and conceal her nethers like an Austin Powers scene gone ham. Considering this was a burger company trying to sell burgers, the excessive exposition of this woman’s body rubbed people the wrong way.
Pepsi – Kendall Jenner (2017)
Pepsi had to apologize for appropriating and minimizing the Black Lives Matter movement after it aired this ad, which featured Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to a police officer standing guard during a protest. The ad was rebuked for its suggestion that something as simple as a soda could dispel the very real tensions that were mounting, and as a result of the extreme upset it caused, the company decided to pull the commercial from the airwaves.
This year’s Super Bowl, Super Bowl LIII, will air on CBS and stream for free via CBSSports.com or the CBS Sports app (available on most connected devices); the game will also be available on CBS All Access. (To sign up for CBS All Access, go to the CBS All Access landing page and pick the plan you want to purchase. Head here to go straight to the free one-week trial.) If you have any questions about CBS All Access, which NFL games are available in your market, want to submit a question and/or would like to provide feedback, etc., click here. In addition to CBS, the Spanish-language version of the game will air on ESPN Deportes. Fans can also watch on fuboTV.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS.)