The ads that Bowled us over
Ali Landry’s 1999 Doritos spot had just the right crunch.
The 1973 Super Bowl has become a frequent point of reference this year because Super Bowl VII, played Jan. 14 at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, was the game in which the Miami Dolphins became the first team in modern pro football history to finish a season undefeated.
Their 14-7 win over the Washington Redskins, despite placekicker Garo Yepremian throwing the worst pass in Super Bowl History, gave them a 17-0 record – the record being challenged Sunday by the New England Patriots, who would with a victory over the Giants finish 19-0.
But the 1973 Super Bowl also marked another historic milestone: the commercial that many feel planted the seed for what Super Bowl ads have become today.
Today, with ad time tagged at $2.7 million for 30 seconds, the Super Bowl telecast has become the world’s premiere showcase for new television advertisements.
But that mystique didn’t come from nowhere. It came, at least in large part, from the 1973 Noxzema commercial in which Joe Namath, then still an NFL star, had his face lathered with shaving cream by Farrah Fawcett, then still a TV star.
Sounds simple enough. But then, simple is good in advertisements, when you have 30 seconds to establish your characters and your storyline and sell your product.
So over those ensuing XXXV years, what have been the best ads? That’s not quite as hard a call as it might sound because while many among those hundreds of ads have been good, only a handful have been great. (See some of the classics below.)
Before we get to our list, though, it’s worth explaining why a few well-remembered ads didn’t make our list.
The 1979 Mean Joe Greene spot, in which he throws a kid his jersey in return for a Coke, isn’t here only because it didn’t debut on the Super Bowl. By the time it was shown there, it was in reruns.
The multi-year series of “Bud Bowl” spots aren’t here because in the end, the idea was better than the execution.
And the 2002 Clydesdale “Tribute” spot, in which the famous team of Budweiser horses stops across from Lower Manhattan to genuflect, isn’t here because putting it on a list with spots that are built on jokes feels like trivializing it.
So here’s our list, in no particular order – and at the end, we’d love to hear yours.
1. “1984” (Apple, 1984). It’s not only the ad biz that still talks about this ad, wherein a lone runner with a sledgehammer declared the era of the IBM computer monolith over and a new era of personal computer freedom about to begin. Perhaps ironically, Apple’s own Mac computer is still a niche product. But the rest of the message was prophetic.
2. Ali Landry, Doritos (1998). Every filmmaker should study this ad for a lesson in how to make maximum use of 30 seconds. Landry and her Doritos walk through a crowded room and radiate such heat the sprinkler system is set off. So, by the way, was Landry’s career.
3. “Monks” (Xerox, 1977). Brother Dominic, faced with a lifetime of painstaking hand transcription, slips over to a Xerox machine and gets his copies in minutes. His superior declares it a “miracle.” Note to the easily offended: This is how you made a religion joke without joking about religion.
4. The Bud Lizards. (Budweiser, 1997) The Bud Lizards grew out of the Bud Frogs, who first croaked “Bud . . . wei … ser” in 1995. Personally, I always thought the frogs were a little flat and that the storyline didn’t take off until Frankie and Louie the lizards joined the game a couple of years later.
5. “Hitchhiker” (Bud Light, 2007). Bud’s done a lot of clever spots, and others that try too hard. This one gets funnier every time – the guy who picks up a hitchhiker with an ax and a demented gleam in his eye because the guy has Bud Light. A little way down the road, he stops for another guy with a chain saw because he also has Bud Light. What clinches the ad’s greatness is that when he stops for chain saw guy, even ax guy is worried.
6. “The Showdown” (McDonald’s, 1993). This is the one where Larry Bird and Michael Jordan play a game of H-O-R-S-E, trading increasingly preposterous shots that all end with “nothing but net.” No ad, and not a lot of other stories in any medium, have captured so vividly the joy, beauty and subtext of sports. I’d personally argue this is the best ad ever.
7. “Clydesdales Play Ball” (Budweiser, 1996). The horses break into two football teams and one kicks an extra point. A guy standing at the fence watching asks the guy next to him if he’s surprised. Sure, says the second guy. “They usually go for two.”
8. “When I Grow Up” (Monster.com, 1999). A bunch of kids saying that when they grow up, they want to be, like, a mindless corporate tool. Sarcasm is risky in ads, but in this one it makes the point. It makes a lot of points.
9. “Bad Cheetah” (Mountain Dew, 2000). Guy on a bicycle runs down a cheetah that has swallowed his Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew has a whole strong series with this theme, and this one may be the best.
10. “Security Camera” (Pepsi, 1996). A lot of people remember other Pepsi spots, like the 1987 “Apartment 10G” spot where Michael J. Fox goes into battle to get a cute girl her Pepsi. But I like this one, where the Coke deliveryman tries to surreptitiously grab himself a Pepsi from the Pepsi case and a hundred cans spill out on the floor. I like it because, among other things, no other ad has ever used music better, or more reverently. The only audio here is 30 seconds of Hank Williams‘ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
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