Feb 10, 2024

10 Super Bowl Marketing Moments That Made History

By Michelle Hawley

The Gist

  • Ads beyond marketing. Super Bowl ads transcend traditional marketing, viewed as entertainment by most U.S. adults.
  • Cultural impact counts. Iconic ads like Budweiser’s “Whassup?” create lasting cultural moments and drive significant sales.
  • Storytelling wins. Effective Super Bowl ads weave creativity, emotional connection, and humor into memorable stories.

The Super Bowl is more than a showdown on the field. It’s the apex of creative marketing, where brands duke it out in the arena of public opinion with campaigns and commercials that many talk about long after they’ve forgotten the game’s final score. 

What makes ads during the Super Bowl so special (beyond their $7 million price tag)? It might be that the majority of adults surveyed in the US say they see the ads as entertainment — not a marketing ploy. In fact, back in 2019, consumers spent 641,000 hours watching Super Bowl ads on YouTube during game day — a 58% increase from the previous year.

Let’s dissect some of the most iconic marketing campaigns the Super Bowl has to offer to see what made them resonate — and how you can include a little bit of that magic in your own marketing efforts. 

1. Budweiser — Whassup? 

Let’s go back to the year 2000, when Budweiser first aired its “Whassup?” commercial during Super Bowl XXXIV. 

This ad stayed on top, said Jason Hanson, national and local sales director at Wrapify, because of the cultural impact it made — not just during the big game, but throughout the years to follow. 

“Not only did it have us all saying ‘wassssssup’ for the next few years — it grew their sales by 2.4 million barrels and generated an estimated $20 million in free publicity,” he explained. “Basically, every time you said ‘wasssssup,’ Anheuser-Busch would sell a beer.”

Aaron Goldman, chief marketing officer at Mediaocean, also named this spot as one of the most iconic Super Bowl ads of all time. “It’s just so darn catchy. My friends and I repeated that line ad nauseam for years after the spots first aired.”

Even though the “Whassup” phrase has nothing to do with beer, said Goldman, it perfectly portrays a bond among friends and associates fuzzy and funny feelings with the brand. And that, he said, is what his company is trying to go for with their first Super Bowl ad for Flashtalking, where its CEO says at the end, “This ad could have been an email!” — something that should ring true for its audience of marketing execs who suffer through endless Zoom calls.  

2. Doritos — Free Doritos  

Ever wanted some free Doritos? One office worker makes that happen with the help of his “crystal ball” — AKA snow globe. 

This ad was made in 2009 by two unemployed brothers from Batesville, Indiana, who created the spot for an online contest for amateurs — and ended up winning $1 million (and the hearts of Super Bowl watchers). 

The ad captures the essence of what makes many Super Bowl ads memorable and impactful: humor, surprise and relatability. By incorporating elements of comedy with a touch of the absurd, the two brothers create a moment that audiences wanted to discuss and share — extending the campaign’s reach far beyond game day. 

3. Snickers — You’re Not You When You’re Hungry

In 2009, Betty White unexpectedly entered the football field — though not as a player for the Super Bowl. Instead, in this Snickers ad, she takes one for the team as we hear this iconic line: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”  

Humor, surprising twists, a catchy tagline — this ad spot has common traits we’ve seen in other noteworthy Super Bowl commercials. And beyond this first ad, Snickers has had more than a decade of success with its spinoff “You’re Not You..” marketing campaigns. To this day, people still associate the phrase with the chocolate brand. 

The Betty White ad was so successful and beloved, it resulted in nearly a million people signing a petition on Facebook for Betty White to become the oldest host of “SNL” at age 88. The result? She got the gig. 

4. Tide — It’s a Tide Ad 

Ever seen an ad that made you wonder, “What’s this for?’ That’s exactly what Tide was going for in the series of Super Bowl ads they ran in 2018. 

According to Alexa McGriff, group strategy director at Chemistry, Tide was the first brand to really “hack” Super Bowl advertising in a way that left people on the edge of their seats. 

“With every ad, it left people wondering if it would be a regular ad for whatever product or if it would be a Tide ad. I think that an element of surprise is what goes into making an effective Super Bowl ad that resonates.”

If an ad is expected, doesn’t have a twist or is boring, she added, people won’t pay attention. “But when you surprise them AND THEN give them something to watch for the rest of the game, they’re hooked. It was SO smart and we’ve seen other brands follow suit in recent years.”

5. Apple — 1984

Have you read “1984” by George Orwell? If so, then you know exactly the type of atmosphere Ridley Scott was going for when he directed this Super Bowl commercial. 

This ad, said Hanson, was one of the greatest ads to ever air and is considered by many to be the most powerful and effective commercial of all time. 

“That ad captured and created an Apple fanbase that has carried the brand to now being one of the most valuable companies on earth. Even from a monetary standpoint, the 1984 commercial sold 72,000 computers in 100 days, soaring past their optimistic sales projections.”

One reason this ad is iconic, Hanson added, is because it didn’t settle for a low-brow joke or being controversial for the sake of being controversial. Instead, it created a movement and “inspired a group of rebels to break away from the norm and join forces with a challenger brand.”

6. Wendy’s — Where’s the Beef 

Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” Super Bowl commercial originally aired in 1984. But 40 years later, it’s still a phrase most of us know and use. 

When the fast food chain first aired its ad, it became an instant cultural phenomenon, encapsulating the essence of memorable advertising with a catchy slogan and funny tune. It was also notable for directly challenging its competition and highlighting its larger burger patties. 

While the commercial’s success lies in its simplicity, humor and direct message, the phrase “Where’s the Beef?” transcended the ad itself, entering mainstream vocabulary to mean something that lacked substance. 

7. Volkswagen — The Force

You can’t go wrong with a cute kid in a commercial. And that’s exactly the avenue Volkswagen took with its 2011 “The Force” Super Bowl ad. 

The ad’s charm lies in its perfect blend of humor and nostalgia. It features a young kid dressed as Darth Vader who attempts to use the Force on various objects around the house — eventually succeeding with the family’s Volkswagen, thanks to Dad with remote assistance. 

Why did the ad resonate with audiences? For one, it used the timeless appeal of “Star Wars,” tapping into the sentimentality of older generations while enchanting younger ones. It also showed a heartfelt family moment, making it relatable to a broad audience. 

Ultimately, the simplicity of the storyline, combined with the use of a well-loved cultural reference, entertained and emotionally connected with viewers and showcased the brand in a positive light. 

8. Always — #LikeAGirl

This spot from Always, which ran at the Super Bowl in 2015, is an example of a brand creating a cultural movement through impactful and thought-provoking storytelling, said Michaella Bloom, founder and head of culture at CLTR LAB

“#likeagirl was ahead of its time and worked to empower young women to feel confident and powerful in their skin,” she explained. “Especially in the midst of many male centric ads this is an iconic stand out!” 

For a Super Bowl ad to resonate, added Bloom, it needs to connect with and transcend generations in a culturally relevant way. And many of the Super Bowl ad teasers on TikTok seem to be missing the inclusion of diverse talent of all ages. 

“Most brands exist in a ‘safe’ zone of wanting to make sure they connect with who their audience has always been but are missing the opportunity to engage with new audiences. People think that Gen Z speaks a different language, but at the end of the day it is absolutely possible for brands to connect with audiences of all ages by evoking an emotion and inspiring human connection through thought provoking story telling.”

9. Ameriquest Mortgage Company — Cat Killer 

Your brand doesn’t have to be a household name to capture viewers’ hearts (or get some laughs) on Super Bowl Sunday. While Ameriquest Mortgage Company is no longer around, it was previously one of the largest sub-prime mortgage lenders in the US. 

This ad featured a man trying to make a romantic pasta dinner for his partner. Unfortunately, the first thing the woman sees when she arrives home is the man holding the cat in one hand, a knife in the other hand and a splatter of red on the ground.

The ad ends with the catchphrase, “Don’t judge too quickly. We won’t.” — something that not only wraps up the commercial on a memorable note, but also effectively communicates the brand’s commitment to give customers the benefit of the doubt. 

The ad’s appeal lies in its ability to use humor to address a common human tendency, creating a lasting impression and encouraging viewers to think differently about their assumptions. 

10. E-Trade — Talking Babies 

Cute babies are always an easy win when it comes to advertising. But what happens when you mix cuteness with humor? You get E-Trade’s talking babies. 

This 30-second spot, which originally aired at the Super Bowl in 2008, caught people’s attention due to the unexpected situation of an infant talking in an adult voice about adult topics. And it ends on a funny (and unexpected) note of a baby doing what a baby does — spitting up. 

E-Trade managed to demystify the intimidating aspects of investing for the average viewer, going on to coin the perfect catchphrase: “So simple, even a baby can do it.” 

The novelty and humor of the concept appealed to a wide range of viewers, showcasing the company’s understanding of the power of levity in breaking down barriers and communicating its brand’s message. 

Key Lessons From Super Bowl Ad Legends 

As we reflect on these 10 iconic Super Bowl marketing campaigns, it’s clear that the most memorable and impactful ads share common threads: creativity, emotional resonance and, often, a touch of humor. 

These ads outpaced the typical boundaries of ads to become cultural touchstones, highlighting that the key to a successful Super Bowl spot lies not just in selling a product or service, but in telling a story that viewers can relate to on a personal level. 

About the Author

Michelle Hawley is an experienced journalist who specializes in reporting on the impact of technology on society. As a senior editor at Simpler Media Group and a reporter for CMSWire and Reworked, she provides in-depth coverage of a range of important topics including employee experience, leadership, customer experience, marketing and more. With an MFA in creative writing and background in inbound marketing, she offers unique insights on the topics of leadership, customer experience, marketing and employee experience. Michelle previously contributed to publications like The Press Enterprise and The Ladders. She currently resides in Pennsylvania with her two dogs.

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