Sorting through the history of Super Bowl ads

Feb. 2008

If you look at the Super Bowl advertisement hype, which seems to triple each year, it almost makes the 30-second spots seem worth the 40 bajillion dollars that companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi will be paying for them in 2008.

And with so many iconic moments in the past 3 1/2 decades, it’s becoming more socially acceptable to admit you prefer the commercials to the game – especially the 52-10 blowout between the New England Patriots and New York Giants that we’re about to watch on Sunday afternoon. Have we reached the point where popular culture has become part of American history? And if so, should Super Bowl ads be taught in every classroom?

Probably not, but in case that ever does happen, here are some crib notes for your first exam: The 13 most important moments in Super Bowl ad history – plus a few lists of Super Bowl obscurities that you can use to impress your friends between commercials featuring flatulent horses and corpses dancing with household appliances.

The quarterback and the angel (1973): Farrah Fawcett lovingly spreads Noxzema shaving cream across Joe Namath’s face in the first high-profile Super Bowl ad. This being the 1970s, nobody protests the obvious sexual innuendos.

Before “Mythbusters,” we watched Master Lock commercials (1974): Someone shoots a bullet into a Master Lock … and the lock still holds! It sounds lame now, but in the mid-1970s this was the only good thing on TV other than “The Rockford Files.”

“Mean” Joe Greene drinks Coke … and the world cries (1980): After a tough game, the limping Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman tosses his jersey to a kid who gives him a Coke – the only Super Bowl commercial to inspire a feature-length TV movie, “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid.” Seriously. We didn’t make that up.

Apple gets serious (1984): After years of Super Bowl commercials that looked as if they were filmed in a storage locker, Apple hires Ridley Scott for this big-budget play off George Orwell’s “1984,” which upped the ante for Super Bowl ads.

Apple gets a little too serious (1985): The Apple people follow one of the best ads of all time with one of the worst. “Lemmings” features creepy music and the disturbing image of hundreds of people jumping off a cliff.

Find Herb the Nerd (1986): Burger King implores the world to “Find Herb the Nerd” for cash. No one cares. Marketing professors are still talking to their students about how stupid this idea was.

Recyclables play football (1989): Anheuser-Busch unveils the first of eight Bud Bowls, where anthropomorphic bottles and cans compete in their own mini football game. Smart bettors took Bud Light and the spread.

“Over the second rafter, off the floor, nothing but net …” (1993): Larry Bird and Michael Jordan play an increasingly difficult game of Horse for a Big Mac. Each athlete had enough money to buy 10 million Big Macs, but it’s still a great ad.

Frogs and iguanas and weasels – oh my! (1995): The Budweiser frogs (“Bud … Weis … Errrr”) make their first of many Super Bowl appearances, later joined by two iguanas who sound a lot like Billy Crystal and Brad Garrett.

Fred Astaire is alive! (1997): For idiotic reasons that we’ll never know, the grave robbers at Red Devil use special effects to bring Fred Astaire back to life so he can dance with their vacuums.

Spending like there’s no tomorrow (2000): Seventeen dot-coms advertise during this Super Bowl, with entertaining results – including cat-herding cowboys and the ETrade monkey. “We just wasted 2 million bucks” ad.

A nation reflects … and the commercials suffer (2002): The Sept. 11 attacks ensure that almost all of the 2002 ads will be boring. Having the Budweiser Clydesdales kneel in front of the fallen twin towers was a nice idea, though.

Flatulent horses and wardrobe malfunctions (2004): The sleaziest Super Bowl ads arrive, coincidentally, in the exact same year that Janet Jackson exposes herself on national TV. (Mike Ditka’s erectile dysfunction ad, where he throws a ball through a tire, was much dirtier, though.)

To view past Super Bowl commercials, go to, www.adland.comor

On Sunday: Go to the Culture Blog during the game to post your comments on the Super Bowl commercials.