For advertising executives, the Super Bowl represents an annual exercise in massive risk and even bigger opportunity. The average price of a 30-second spot (all sold out, by the way) for Super Bowl XLIX’s Patriots/Seahawks clash was a record $4.5 million, which seems outrageous until you consider that television audience growth for the NFL title game has increased by almost 50 million viewers since 1990.
It’s a unique challenge – having a short window of time to get your message out and your product noticed by over a hundred million viewers. Advertisers have tried to meet that challenge with celebrities, sex appeal and puppy/horse love matches.
The result is largely a successful one, with catchy, memorable ads staying in the minds of viewers long after their airings. Many still remember the image of a young kid melting the heart of fearsome Pittsburgh Steelers star “Mean” Joe Greene in a 1979 Coca-Cola commercial. The ads must have tangible economic benefit for the companies they promote, given that big money corporations keep forking over major dollars to get their 30-second spot shown. Plus, these ads have turned into a cottage industry of their own, eliciting excitement and anticipation among viewers (some companies have gone so far as to introduce viral ‘sneak peaks’ of their commercials) and becoming must-see viewing the next day online.
Of course, just like the Super Bowl teams, themselves, not all ads are winners. The challenge of producing something snappy and memorable can also lead to bewildering, perplexing messes. While not earning the same level of iconic status as some of their fondly remembered brethren, these ads carry the lasting impact of notoriety, remaining readily available to those who can’t resist a good train wreck.
10. Bud Light (2007)
By bringing a clown into a bar in this 2007 spot, Bud Light has already introduced a perfectly sufficient level of weird and creepiness. By making it an upside-down clown, where the gag is that the poor guy inside has to drink the beer from the costume’s, well, back side, they’ve just upped the “ick” factor that much higher. Budweiser may have been looking for laughs here, but we can better relate to the bar’s other cringing, uncomfortable on-lookers. And that was even before the guy asks for a hot dog!
9. Go Daddy (2013)
Go Daddy, an internet domain registration company, has made a name for themselves off of a recent string of risqué, envelope-pushing Super Bowl commercials. One of the most memorable came in 2013, when they represented the company’s “sexy” side with supermodel Bar Refaeli alongside its “smart” side in the form of Walter (played by actor Jesse Heiman). The intense kiss that the mismatched pair share is made unsettling by the viewers’ voyeuristic closeness to it and confusing by the uncertainty over how to react to it – is it supposed to be funny, endearing, or something else entirely?
8. Groupon (2011)
Oh man, you should have seen your face when you thought this was a compassionate, meaningful ad about saving Tibet and protecting Tibetan culture!!! That’s essentially the message in this Groupon ad, as Timothy Hutton narrates a plea for the scenic region of Asia amidst images of a stunning Tibetan landscape. Lest you think this is actually a noble commercial, however, Hutton quickly pulls the rug out from under you when its revealed that he’s actually taking about a great meal he got at a Tibetan restaurant for cheap thanks to Groupon. You got us, Tim Hutton, you got us.
7. Holiday Inn (1997)
Wouldn’t you have loved to be in the pitch meeting for Holiday Inn’s 1999 Super Bowl commercial when some genius brainstormed the idea of using a joke about a transgendered woman to sell a hotel chain – and the idea got green-lit? The twist when Seinfeld‘s Kenny Banya realizes that the tall blonde he is ogling is actually a former male classmate is, admittedly, a surprising and memorable one, but it was also pretty offensive. LGBT activists were quick to take exception to the tasteless ad. Eighteen years later, there’s no way that this spot would make its way to air.
6. Dirt Devil (1997)
There was nothing outwardly offensive about this Dirt Devil commercial which also aired in 1997 and saw Fred Astaire bust a move with the company’s product in hand. There was, however, an undeniable creepiness to watching the song-and-dance man plug Dirt Devil – nearly a decade after his death. The ad used old film footage of Astaire, editing out the coat rack he had actually been dancing with and inserting a Dirt Devil broom. While the company had gained the proper rights to Astaire’s image through his estate, that didn’t diminish the uneasy vibe in watching a commercial meant to be wholesome.
5. SalesGenie.com (2008)
Note to the folks at SalesGenie.com: an offensive commercial featuring cartoon characters is still an offensive commercial. While having pandas with Chinese accents may hold some (rather minimal) level of ethnic authenticity, the comically over-the-top Asian voices of the struggling, bamboo business-owning pandas are pretty tough to listen to. Remarkably, Ting Ting and Ling Ling weren’t the only insensitive ethnic stereotypes depicted by Sales Genie in 2008 Super Bowl commercials. While the pandas were shelved amidst widespread public uproar, Indian salesman Ramesh, beleaguered father of seven children, was left to live on.
4. Snickers (2007)
Before they transitioned into their catchy current “you’re not you when you’re hungry” ad campaign, Snickers went the tone deaf route by seeking laughs via homophobia. Here, two male mechanics end up locking lips while trying to enjoy the same Snickers bar. Upon realizing their mistake, they feel the urge to quickly “do something manly,” at which point they opt to tear out clumps of their own chest hair. Because, you know, there’s nothing more horrifying than kissing another man. Needless to say, the ad wasn’t particularly well-received by the LGBT community.
3. Apple (1985)
Apple’s infamous “Lemmings” ad didn’t offend so much as it bewildered and confounded when it debuted during the 1985 Super Bowl broadcast. Looking like a dystopian sci-fi movie, the ad depicts an endless stream of blindfolded businessmen whistling “It’s Off to Work We Go” as they march one-by-one amidst a dark, hazy fog until ultimately falling off a cliff. Not only did the commercial carry a strange, creepy tone, but it also insulted prior and potential customers. How that was ever intended to sell the newly introduced “Macintosh Office”, I’m not sure we’ll ever know.
2. Just For Feet (1999)
The racial overtones in this 1999 Super Bowl ad by now-defunct (shocking!) shoe company Just For Feet aren’t exactly subtle. You have a hunting expedition zeroing in on their target, which is quickly revealed to be a barefoot Kenyan runner. Soon, the runner is knocked out with what appears to be drugged water and lassoed into a pair of running shoes. You can pretty well pick your interpretation here – animalistic imagery, blatant allusions to slavery or simply the uncomfortable sight of a group of white men hunting a black guy. One way or another, you’ve got a pretty racist commercial.
1. GM (2007)
In 2007, advertising executives at General Motors decided that the best way to promote their vehicles was through … a suicidal robot? The commercial tells the story of a robot who fails to do his part in a GM production line and proceeds to descend into a state of depression (and other failed career efforts) that ultimately sees it plunge off a bridge and into the waters below. That the whole saga is revealed at the end to be a dream (by the robot) does little to dampen the depressing tone set by the ad.