There is good reason why a thirty-second commercial in the Super Bowl costs millions of dollars*
more specifically, an average of $3.5 million for a 30-second spot in 2012
: The Super Bowl is always, without question, the most watched program of the entire calendar year in America. If you're blowing half your annual advertising budget on just getting the spot, the commercial better be pretty damned good. And many are. This is so well known that many people watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials, creating the advertiser's dream: a three hour block of time where over ninety million people tune in to watch advertisements.
Many ad campaigns are debuted at the Super Bowl. The commercials are generally given a much bigger budget, and quite a few include celebrity cameos. Most will utilize a funny twist ending intended, as many commercials do, to help you remember the product or service being sold (although sometimes this doesn't always work out). Many also go sexy (which can cause Distracted by the Sexy to occur on occasion), each year being more titillating than the last... or so they did until the infamous "Wardrobe Malfunction" at Super Bowl XXXVIII. For even more meta-flavor, some commercials will recall commercials from years past.
Almost invariably, each year's crop of commercials will be called worse than last year's crop.
These days, organizations will sometimes deliberately create commercials that will be rejected, usually for being too sexy, for the publicity 'that' generates. The commercial is then of course put online, where it will quickly generate a million hits.
This would also be a good time to note that the NFL has trademarked the name Super Bowl, which is why you almost never hear anyone mention it in commercials. Generally, you'll hear "The Big Game" instead, or a gag name like "That game at the start of February where the professional football championship is contested". The league itself runs an ad during the broadcast, often thanking its fans for their patronage during the season that is ending. And, of course, the network that airs the game itself gets plenty of free air time to promote the crap out of their big shows, the biggest of which will likely be airing a special episode right after the Big Game.
A similar, worldwide version of this is the FIFA World Cup Special: since the FIFA World Cup is the most watched sports event in the entire world, the mid-time ads are where the world's biggest mega-corporations pull out theirBFGs.
Memorable Super Bowl Commercials include:
Apple's 1984 commercial introducing the Mac, aired in... 1984. This is the ad that started the Super Bowl commercial craze. It's also considered to be one of the best commercials of all time, if not the best.
And then Motorola did a Take That to Apple and their 1984 ad with their 2011 ad for the Xoom, a tablet competing with the iPad.
Pick a Budweiser ad campaign, and it's quite likely that it got its start at the Super Bowl. The frogs, the lizards, the Clydesdales, The Bud Bowl, the "Wazzuuuuuuup" guys, the "Here We Go" Phrase Catchers...all Super Bowl commercials.
Pepsi's ads have also been quite memorable. The line of commercials with Hallie Kate Eisenberg started there, as did the Britney Spears line.
Diet Pepsi's may have been even more memorable, including several ads featuring Cindy Crawford, and one ad spoofing that series (with Cindy Crawford herself checking out a Diet Pepsi-drinking guy...and later, so did one of the Queer Eye guys).
One 1997 Super Bowl commercial for Pepsi had a group of grizzly bears...dancing and miming to a version of "YMCA" by the Village People.
Coca-Cola has had many impressive Super Bowl commercials, too, including a 1980 spot, often considered the best Super Bowl commercial of all time, featuring "Mean Joe" Greene*
Although that one technically debuted several months before the Super Bowl, during the 1979 baseball playoffs
— which spawned a trope of its own. The Happiness Factory ads, meanwhile, started out as the 2006 Germany FIFA World Cup Special.
In 2009, Coca-Cola spoofed the Mean Joe Greene ad with Troy Polamalu.
In 2008 they pulled the stunt of posting a Too Hot for TV ad online and hyping that with the actual TV spots. But it's worth noting that most of the steaminess was actually broadcast; the web version is just longer.
One Nissan commercial had a squadron of pigeons chasing it down, trying to poop on it, chasing it through, among other things, a sidewalk cafe and a wedding, all with Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone" from the Top Gun soundtrack blaring.
They also did the ad where G.I. Joe picks up Barbie (to Ken's dismay) to the Van Halen version of "You Really Got Me".
One Doritos commercial consisted of a guy using a Dorito chip as bait in a mousetrap, and sitting in front of it. He takes a bite from a handful of Doritos, and a giant mouse blasts through the wall and tackles the guy sitting, and proceeds to punch him in the face.
in 2008, one of the bulk shipping firms—probably FedEx—ran an ad in which someone at a business firm proposed using carrier pigeons for shipping. For large items, they already had giant carrier pigeons. Mayhem ensued.
In 2000, eTrade showed two guys and a monkey in a garage, with a boom box playing "La Cucaracha". That's pretty much it. The tag line: "Well, we just wasted two million bucks. What are you doing with your money?"
In 2008, Mexico had a salty crackers ad where a Chinese boy in a Mexican family wonders if he's adopted, only to have his question shrugged off by the family talking about the crackers. The 2008 Beijing Olympics Special was the same commercial, but reversed: a Mexican boy in a Chinese family was wondering if he's adopted. For even more bonus points, the entire commercial was spoken in unsubtitled Chinese, and yet it was perfectly understandable.
For Super Bowl XLIII, PETA wanted to run an ad that would encourage people to go vegan. It has been denied airtime by the Super Bowl ad committee, cited as being too sexy. Look for yourself.
Snickers got in trouble with gay rights groups for the 2007 Superbowl ad where two male mechanics share a Spaghetti Kiss over a Snickers bar, then try to de-gay themselves by "doing something manly". The ad had alternate endings available online; the one that aired showed them ripping out their chest hair, while one online version had them violently attack each other.
In 2009, Cash4Gold.com, previously known for its late-night basic cable ads that look like they were shot on VHS in 1986, ran a Super Bowl ad starring Ed McMahon and MC Hammer. Cue much Black Comedy on the state of the economy...
It was pretty harsh even at the time. Remember, 2009's Super Bowl was months after the worst market crash since The Great Depression and the newly bailed-out auto manufacturers skipped that year.
During the dot-com bubble, Super Bowl advertising was almost totally consumed by random websites selling useless services, who folded shortly afterward (likely, because they blew a year's budget on a Super Bowl ad and people still didn't know what they sold). The most famous of these, by far, was the Pets.com sock puppet, which has been spoofed ruthlessly in years since.
In a weird move, that exact puppet has been selling Bar None insurance for more than half a decade, arguably longer than it actually existed as the spokespuppet for Pets.com.
Referenced in this E*Trade commercial (excuse the quality), where the monkey from the previous year rides on horseback through Desolation Shots of failed fictional dot-com bubble businesses, concluding with a sockpuppet (resembling the afore-mentioned Pets.com puppet) from a demolishing-in-progress "eSocks.com" building thrown at the monkey's feet. Cue crying monkey.
In 2010, the controversy is over an ad bought by Focus On The Family featuring Tim Tebow and his mother, and how grateful she was to have chosen life over an abortion. CBS, the Tebows, and Focus on the Family have all come under fire for this, especially when it is considered that Mrs. Tebow was living in the Philippines, a country that bans abortions, at the time she supposedly considered one.
The controversy was further inflamed when news media picked up on two pro-gay ads (one by a church, one by a dating site) were rejected for inappropriateness. The main question being how Standards and Practices could neutrally pass the Tebow ad but reject the gay ads.
The controversy was doubly further inflamed when Mrs. Tebow revealed that doctors had advised her to have the abortion for medical reasons. All but the most staunch pro-life advocates would keep abortions legal when the mother's life is at risk, undermining the message of the ad.
For 2010, HomeAway.com showed a trailer for a mini-movie followup on the Vacation series called Hotel Hell Vacation, with Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo reprising their respective roles of Clark and Ellen Griswold. The film can be viewed here.
This turns out to be Fridge Brilliance once you know the whole picture. Their ads are designed to be memorable, period. They're not advertising to the public at large, so they could care less if 99% of viewers have no idea what they do. It's actually a form of Conspicuous Consumption: after the Super Bowl, they run print ads in industry publications that reference the Super Bowl spot, basically saying "Remember this ad? Yeah, that was us. We're not some rinky-dink fly-by-night operation; we can afford to advertise on the Super Bowl."
Believe it or not, there was an ad for Clerks: The Animated Series in the Super Bowl of 2000. It was moderately funny. The ad is available on the DVD, or you can watch it here.
This Nuveen Investments' commercial in 2000, set Twenty Minutes into the Future. Mankind has made signifigant progress, having cured AIDS and Cancer, and is currently having an award ceremony for the breakthroughs in fixing spinal cord injuries. One of the guests presenting the award? None other than Christopher Reeve, up and about again. A wonderful case of Doing It for the Art.
This ad also created a bit of a stir, and is often cited as either one of the best Super Bowl ads ever, or one of the worst. The Reveal of a walking Christopher Reeve was rather surprising, and some people (who apparently missed the parts about AIDS and cancer being cured) thought it was real. They were disheartened to realize that Reeve was still in his wheelchair, and felt that Nuveen was giving people false hope.
FIFA example: Possibly the most elaborate commercial ever made, "Write the Future" is a Nike ad which follows several famous players and shows how one errant pass or spectacular save can change the man's whole life. Includes several Crowning Moments of Funny for good measure.
Harsher in Hindsight: Every single player featured in that commercial was either dropped from their national team or eliminated in the Round of 16. "Write the Future" indeed.
Except for the three Spanish players (Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique), who won the World Cup.
Nike would do this ad campaign in the states as well, with one imagine spot being what if Michael Jordan had missed The Shot?
In 2010, Dockers premiered an ad which opened with a bunch of guys marching heroically through a field, clad only in shirts and underwear, proudly singing a song by California folk band The Poxy Boggards, called "I Wear No Pants." The ad cut to a shot of a model wearing Dockers' khakis and a voice intoning, "Calling all men — it's time to wear the pants."
The 2010 Super Bowl commercial for Kia cars was cute (a gang of giant, living toys goes on a fun road trip to Las Vegas), but it almost got the company in serious trouble because of an NFL rule that bans showing gambling and casinos during the broadcast.
The Super Bowl's current proximity to Valentine's Day actually has worked in the favor of online floral clearinghouse Teleflora, who in 2009 and 2010 made commercials with "bad box" flowers berating the recipient with how much of a cheapskate the flower-buyer was. The 2010 commercial featured Don Rickles as the voice of the bad flowers.
Teleflora also got in hot water when one of the ads had the rude flowers telling its recipient, "No one wants to see you naked!"
"Miller High Life!"
Yup, an ad that ran less than 3 seconds, and just had the main character of the ad campaign (a black delivery guy in a khaki uniform, who in other ads of the campaign delivered Miller High Life to stores) state the name of the product. This piggy-backed off an earlier ad during the NFL playoffs in which the character was confused on why companies needed 30 seconds to pitch their products.
This got referenced the next year as a Stinger to another Volkswagen ad, which involves a dog losing weight so he could go through a pet door and run alongside the advertised car. The commercial ends and we see that it was being watched in the Mos Eisley cantina, where one of the patrons says he liked it better than the Vader commercial. Cue the real Vader showing up and force-choking him.
Super Bowl XXIII had an unsuccessful attempt for Diet Coke in which they had heavily publicized an ad airing before that game's halftime show that was to be the first spot produced in 3-D (this being January 1989). The ad and subsequent "Bebop Bamboozled" show flopped miserably (Here is the ad itself; bookended by NBC Sports' icon Bob Costas making snarky comments.)
A more successful commercial was produced for American Express; which teamed Saturday Night Live stars Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey traveling to Miami for the game only for Lovitz (apparently stuck with Visa) having to rely on Carvey to pay his way because his card wasn't accepted, ultimately winning the inaugural USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter.
For Super Bowl XLVI...
Chevrolet ran an ad taking place After the End of 2012, with a Chevrolet truck emerging from the debris, driving through the Scenery Gorn, and regrouping with other survivors, all set to Barry Manilow's "Looks Like We Made It".
XLVI also saw the TV debut of Ms. Brown, M&M's latest mascot.
To expand, the commercial involves the Red M&M seeing Ms. Brown at a party, believing it's ''that'' kind of party, stripping down, and dancing the "Gangnam Style" dance to "Sexy and I Know it". Really.
Keep in mind this was before "Gangnam Style" was even released, giving the commercial a new layer of depth when you go back & watch it again.
Coca-Cola introduced a unique ad featuring its polar bears (one representing each team in the Super Bowl) reacting to the current game action, including a website where visitors could take a peek at the bears' real-time reactions to the game at hand.
Kia premiered a commercial for the Optima, wherein a man gets accidentally buried in dream dust and winds up fantasizing about Mötley Crüe playing a concert while he races his car around a track in front of a crowd of bikini babes. Then it subverts the traditional Sex Sells setup by having the man bust into his wife's dream and take her away from the Mr. Fanservice she was with. Commentators praised it for being one of the only commercials to show a man wanting to spend time with his wife. Then Kia chopped the last part off when they put it into normal rotation, cutting out the Subversion.