While this year’s Super Bowl LV will certainly be different from years past, there’s still a lot to look forward to. For some, that’s the game itself. For others, it’s the commercials. For decades, the commercials that air during the Super Bowl have been heralded as events in themselves. Halftime shows are great and all, but the commercials are where the real entertainment is at.
Certain brands go for laughs, while others tug on the heartstrings. Quite a few opt for celebrity endorsements. There’s a multitude of decisions that go into just 60 seconds of advertising. When done right, a Super Bowl commercial has the potential to go down in pop culture history.
Here are the 15 most innovative, iconic, and memorable Super Bowl commercials of all time.
Old Spice: “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” (2010)
Old Spice deserves credit for being one of the first brands to figure out how exactly to make a commercial meme-able. It all began in 2010, when the body wash launched its The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign. A lot of it has to do with the comedic delivery of Isaiah Mustafa, who portrays the Man Your Man Could Smell Like with just the right amount of aplomb. Combine that with instantly memorable zingers like “I’m on a horse,” and you’ve got yourself a commercial that people will watch over and over again, just for fun.
Volkswagen: “The Force” (2011)
This Volkswagen commercial is overwhelmingly adorable. The premise is simple: A young boy clad in a Darth Vader costume tries using the Force on various household items, to no avail. When his dad pulls up in a Volkswagen, the boy decides to give it one last attempt. He extends his hands towards the vehicle, and it roars to life, much to the boy’s delight. We then see the boy’s father in the kitchen, controlling the car with his remote key. Well, if that isn’t just the most wholesome thing we’ve ever seen.
Tide: “It’s a Tide Ad” (2018)
With the monstrous popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things, David Harbour has become a face we can both recognize and trust. But we had no idea he had such range. Harbour hops around various types of Super Bowl ad campaigns, leaning into the cliches of each. He delivers his best Matthew McConaughey while driving a sports car, leans into his gruff masculinity standing on a ranch, and becomes the relatable everyman grabbing a beer with his friends. He proves that each commercial he lands in is a Tide ad, because everyone’s clothes are fresh and clean. It’s a creative, subversive way for Tide to sell their product, and it actually works.
Diet Pepsi: You Got The Right One (1991)
Ray Charles and the Uh Huh Girls are front and center in this delightful Diet Pepsi Super Bowl commercial. Unlike most gratuitous commercial jingles, “You Got The Right One Baby, Uh Huh” is a genuinely catchy song, complemented by Charles’ distinctive voice, jazzy piano riffs, and a chorus of backup singers and dancers. It’s an earworm of a tune that also coined one of the 1990s’ essential catchphrases. This ad gave Diet Pepsi an air of cool and swagger that hasn’t been replicated since.
Bud Light: “Joust” (2019)
Nobody was expecting Game of Thrones to crash a Bud Light ad. When the “Bud Knight” confidently rode in on his steed, we thought we knew what was coming. But as soon as the joust starts, The Mountain appears and mutilates the “Bud Knight” before the crowd’s eyes. And then a dragon sets everything on fire. It is only then do we realize that this is actually an ad for the final season of Game of Thrones. The ambitious crossover commercial was a brilliant move for both Bud Light and Game of Thrones, gaining more traction together than if they had done separate spots.
Always: “Like A Girl” (2015)
While many Super Bowl ads employ high production value, Always took a different approach with their 2015 commercial. They went for something smaller, capturing genuine responses during interviews with real people. First, they ask a series of teens to demonstrate what they thought it meant to run, throw, or fight “like a girl.” Then, they ask the same thing to a group of young girls, and get a completely different outcome. Always made an effective point in showing how self-esteem in women is often stifled with age, and why we should address that. They may not have actively been selling us feminine hygiene products, but their brand went up in many people’s books.
Budweiser: “Whassup?” (1999)
Yes, we can thank a Budweiser commercial for creating a major pop culture catchphrase. If any of your friends have ever greeted you with a big ol’ “Whassup?” anytime in the 21st century, you can guarantee they got it from this ad. The Whassup campaign began in 1999 during the Super Bowl, delivering a perfect time capsule of the decade it would soon leave behind. It’s been quoted by everyone from The Simpsons to Friends to The Office, and it’s not going anywhere soon. Budweiser revived the campaign in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, encouraging friends to check up on each other while in quarantine.
Nike: “Hare Jordan” (1992)
Before there was Space Jam, there was the Nike Air Jordan Super Bowl ad. Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan team up to take down a crew of menacing basketball players through a series of sight gags and slam dunks. They make easy work of their competition, and as they exit the gym together, Bugs remarks: “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship!” In only three years, Space Jam would hit the big screen. Not only did this ad sell a lot of Air Jordans, but it also predicted the future.
McDonalds: “The Showdown” (1993)
A year after his Nike appearance, Michael Jordan appeared in another basketball showdown for McDonalds. This time, he is challenged by Larry Bird for his Big Mac and fries: First one to miss watches the other one eat. The two make a series of unbelievable shots, until Jordan suggests Bird gets his own Big Mac. They’re gonna be there a while. What’s funny about this ad is that we never learn anything about McDonalds’ food, only that two world-class athletes will do anything to get one. As history has proven, sometimes that’s enough.
Snickers: “Buffalo Bills” (1995)
The Buffalo Bills lost the Super Bowl four consecutive times from 1991-1994. While that certainly took a toll on players and fans, they found an opportunity to poke fun at it. In 1995, Snickers ran a commercial starring Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy and actual members of the team. Levy stands in front of a chalkboard, encouraging his team to think of ways to win this year. In fact, no one is allowed to leave the room until they do. Cue the Snickers, the perfect snack for when you’re “not going anywhere for a while.” It’s subtle, but it gets the point across.
Doritos: “The Cool Ranch” (2020)
Doritos has produced a lot of noteworthy Super Bowl ads over the years, but 2020 proved that the company was able to adapt with the times and embrace a cultural moment. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road ft. Billy Ray Cyrus” was the breakout hit of 2019, and the young rapper’s popularity skyrocketed in a short period of time. In this surreal but highly entertaining ad, Lil Nas X goes head to head with acclaimed actor Sam Elliot, known for his portrayals of gruff cowboy characters. But this isn’t a regular showdown — it’s a dance battle. Even Elliot’s mustache gets in on the action. Billy Ray Cyrus steals a little cameo at the end, but he ain’t dancin’.
Pepsi: “A New Can” (1992)
In the world of advertising, it’s widely known that sex sells. As supermodel Cindy Crawford steps out of her red Lamborghini in cutoffs, it’s hard to imagine anything more alluring. She drinks a Pepsi from the gas station vending machine, capturing the attention of two onlooking young boys. But as it turns out, they’re not staring at Crawford. They’re gawking at the design on the new Pepsi can. It’s a classic bait-and-switch, and it’s executed perfectly. It was such a hit that Crawford reenacted the commercial in 2002, this time with her young kids in the back seat of her car. In 2018, she paid a quick homage to the ad with her own son, Presley.
Budweiser: “Brotherhood” (2013)
For just over two decades, Budweiser has won the hearts of viewers with its series of Clydesdale commercials. Whether you’re a horse-lover or not, there’s just something about these noble creatures that draws us in. Out of the whole lot, Budweiser’s 2013 ad stands out the most. It’s a condensed story of a rancher who raises a Clydesdale from birth, and then has to say goodbye ... until a chance encounter in the streets of Chicago brings them back together years later. The use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” alone is almost criminal — it makes it impossible not to get misty-eyed while watching.
Apple’s ingenious Macintosh commercial does the impossible — it sells its product without ever showing what that product is. The dystopian, Orwellian ad plays out like a scene from Blade Runner, which makes total sense, considering it was directed by Ridley Scott. Airing only once, the spot was picked up by news channels and spread across the world in several weeks. In that sense, it’s technically the first viral advertisement. And it led to the sale of about $150 million worth of Macintoshes. Considering the influence Apple technology has on our lives today, it’s hard not to get nostalgic for the time when it was all just beginning.
Coca-Cola: “Hey Kid, Catch!” (1980)
There’s a reason Coca-Cola’s 1980 Super Bowl ad is revered as one of the best commercials of all time. It’s simple, poignant, and puts a smile on your face, every single time. Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene stumbles off the football field after sustaining an injury, only to be stopped by a young fanatic. The boy, awe-struck by Greene, tells him he’s the “best ever” and offers him his bottle of Coke. Greene finally accepts, swigs the whole bottle in one gulp, and as the boy walks away, he tosses him the jersey that was slung on his shoulder. The exchange is pure goodness, and even though soda is bad for you, it really makes you like Coca-Cola. Just one question though. How did Greene manage to get that whole bottle down without burping?