What You Can Learn From The Best Super Bowl Ads

On 1 February in Glendale, Arizona, the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks will battle it out to decide which team is crowned NFL champion for the 2014/15 season. That’s right – Super Bowl Sunday is nearly upon us. But if you’re not interested in the finer points of American football, fear not. Most of the 111 million Americans who tune into the game don’t care that much about it either. Unlike any other time of the year, on Super Bowl Sunday, people actually huddle around their TVs specifically to watch the ad breaks.

I experienced the phenomenon firsthand a few years ago. I was in New York to see one of our ads aired for the first time and met up with the team responsible for producing our work at a bustling, noisy sports bar. The patrons barely bothered looking up at the screens, until suddenly there was a hushed moment of silence: it was ad break time. Good ads were applauded, bad ones booed and mediocre ones ignored. As an advertiser, you couldn’t dream of a better stage to get your message out into the world.

But it doesn’t come cheap. Each 30-second ad slot runs at $4.5m (£3m). Perhaps surprisingly, some of the best Super Bowl ads nearly didn’t air, that’s because truly original ideas often divide opinion. And risking $4.5m on an idea that might be heckled off the stage is even scarier than a 280-pound quarterback heading for you at full tilt. Here are five of my favourites that were undoubtedly worth every penny.

1. Apple – 1984
Nobody cared about Super Bowl commercials before Apple released this epic, inspired by George Orwell and directed by Ridley Scott. However, it nearly didn’t see the light of day. Steve Jobs believed it embodied the revolutionary ethos of Apple, but the board of directors hated it, especially the oblique allusion to rival IBM as a totalitarian Big Brother and demanded that it be scrapped. But Jobs persuaded them to change their minds and the rest is history. The ad received unprecedented media coverage and became a turning point for both the Super Bowl and Apple, setting a benchmark for future commercials and product launches.

2. Snickers – Betty White (2010)
This spot’s attention-grabbing combination of humour and hyperbole was no doubt aided by the universal appeal of its star, Betty White, who was enjoying quite the career renaissance at the time. The celebrity appeal made it highly shareable and it has spawned brilliant sequels starring Joan Collins and Mr Bean among others.

3. Volkswagen – The Force (2011)
It is possible to make the argument that the cute factor in advertising has grown in direct proportion to the popularity of kitten videos on YouTube, and it certainly paid off for Volkswagen. Their diminutive Darth Vader became one of the most talked-about aspects of the 2011 Super Bowl. Set to John Williams’ original Star Wars soundtrack, it’s beautifully directed and hilariously funny even without a word of dialogue.

4. Budweiser – “Bud-weis-er” (1995)
In 1994 Budweiser, the king of beers among over-30s, was struggling to reach 21- to 30-year-olds, losing out on this lucrative younger market to their main competitor, Miller. When the agency pitched the Frogs concept to the newly-appointed brand director, he immediately loved it, but it was another tough sell to the board. The now-famous ad, consisting entirely of three frogs croaking “bud” “wei” “ser” in a swamp, tripled awareness among the 21 to 30 crowd, and ultimately led to Bud Light overtaking Miller Light in sales. It even got its own Simpsons parody, a surefire sign you’ve made it into the pop culture canon.

5. Chrysler – Born of Fire (2011)
Chrysler’s two-minute Born of Fire video won an Emmy Award, in no small part due to its pitch-perfect casting. Eminem’s well-documented personal struggles made him the ideal voice for Detroit, a city that has been to hell and back. That journey is made crystal clear through the narrative of the video and the vocals of the Selected of God Choir, which is made up entirely of people who have faced the unemployment and debt synonymous with Detroit. The choir members have since become ambassadors for Chrysler’s Imported from Detroit campaign, which acknowledges the huge setbacks experienced by the motor city while simultaneously celebrating the resilience and determination that have made it possible to overcome impossible odds and revive a once-thriving industry.

First appeared on The Guardian.

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