The Super Bowl is not only The Big Game for the teams playing, but it’s also the biggest game for advertisers. After all, the cost of a 30-second spot during the game has steadily risen over the years and reached a record $5.6 million in 2020.
Every year, the who’s who of brands appear on the screen of millions of viewers across the U.S., so it’s a bit surprising that 2020 was the first time giants like Facebook and Reese’s released Super Bowl commercials. They joined Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others in the battle for advertising supremacy.
Advertisers always strive to make memorable and impactful ads, and the strong field of contenders in the Super Bowl makes that challenge more difficult. While there is no surefire way of making a successful ad or one factor that makes the difference between glory and insignificance, there are two main elements that are crucial to making a great Super Bowl ad. The first is obvious - having an impactful creative. The second, which is as fickle as it is elusive, is timing. Like a surfer waiting for the right moment to ride a wave, advertisers try to connect to the zeitgeist of the year. Do it right and you will sound fresh; if you don’t, you will be branded as outdated.
So here is our list for the top 10 Super Bowl commercials, the ones that stay with you long after the game ends.
Some Super Bowl commercials had positive elements but didn’t crack our list. Facebook made excellent use of music, the Toyota Highlander ad manages to be exciting and funny, Budweiser had an interesting take on patriotism and GMC’s ad for Hummer featured a killer sound design and LeBron James.
In 2016, SodaStream decided to take on all the other soda giants by addressing the environmental issue with their hilarious “Shame or Glory” campaign which called out the use of plastic bottles. This year marked the Israeli brand’s second Super Bowl commercial since 2014, and it features prominent US scientist Bill Nye and 18-year-old astronaut-in-training Alyssa Carson, who could be one of the first on Mars in the early 2030s. In the ad, you see a team of astronauts making the historical discovery of water on Mars. Just when they’re about to go back to Earth, they are shocked to see one of their team members carbonating and drinking the Mars water, mistaking it for a SodaStream bottle. The environmental message is less prominent in this ad, but it has a nice punchline.
In Amazon’s third straight Super Bowl ad, Ellen DeGeneres asks her real-life partner Portia De Rossi what people did before Alexa, showing us how people got what they wanted in the old days. While the commercial is not evenly funny, the Game of Thrones reference and President Nixon make up for the less amusing bits. And hearing Usher’s ‘Yeah!’ - Ellen’s favorite song - being played on a wind instrument wraps up everything nicely.
Pringles take the prize in the meta ad genre with the help of Adult Swim’s cult heroes ‘Rick and Morty’. In the ad, Rick and Summer watch a Pringles ad, and when Morty comes with a little too much enthusiasm for the Spicy Barbecue Pizza stack, Rick realizes they are trapped in a Pringles commercial as Morty robots start attacking them. It’s a premise that fits the show so perfectly, you can imagine it being a real episode.
Walmart’s second straight Super Bowl commercial won in the over-the-top category. In the ad, characters from almost every beloved sci-fi franchise come from all over the universe to pick up their online orders. You can see the aliens from Tim Burton’s 1996 quirky animated feature ‘Mars Attacks!’, Looney Tunes’ Marvin the Martian, Bill from ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’, the alien ship from ‘Arrival’, 3CPO and R2-D2 from ‘Star Wars’ and many more. While this ad probably cost quite a few bucks to make, the result is pretty fun.
6. Little Caesars
First-time to the Big Game, Little Caesars took a common phrase and created a funny story out of it. Produced by the Mckinney agency, the ad sees a woman saying Little Caesars' delivery service is the best invention since sliced bread, sending the fictional company that invented sliced bread into a frenzied, albeit futile, attempt to come up with another brilliant invention. The perfect casting of The Office’s Rainn Wilson as the CEO who loses his company and his mind gives this ad the extra hilarity it needs.
In their first Super Bowl ad since 2009, Cheetos beat the competition in the quirkiness category. Produced by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the commercial sees a guy who dips his hand in a bag of Cheetos Popcorn. When he takes out his cheese-filled hand, he realizes that eating Cheetos can get him out of a lot of things he doesn’t want to do, like unwanted work assignments, carry a couch, be a spotter for his weightlifting buddy, hold a baby or participate in a trust fall game. In every situation, veteran rapper MC Hammer pops up singing ‘Can’t Touch This’. It’s a goofy, surreal and memorable ad with a great song.
4. Quicken Loans
It’s always great to see celebrities poking fun at themselves. In Quicken Loans’ third Big Game appearance, we see the ripped Jason Momoa coming home, the place where he feels the safest and starting to shed his body parts, revealing he’s actually a skinny guy with a receding hairline and a combover. Watching Momoa’s transformation is as hilarious as it is disturbing. This ad will definitely be talked about around the cooler, which is a win for the brand. If you want to see how the ad was made, here’s a nice behind-the-scenes video.
3. Hyundai Sonata
With all the high-on-celebrity low-on-creative over-the-top Super Bowl commercials, Hyundai’s “Smaht Pahk” commercial stands as a great alternative. Produced by Innocean USA, the ad sees Bostonians Chris Evans and comedian Rachel Dratch watching fellow Bostonian John Krasinski parking his Sonata with the car’s self-parking feature. With a perfectly timed dialog full of local jargon and references and a cameo by Red Sox legend David “Big Papi” Ortiz, this ad proves that you don’t need to be flashy to make an impact.
Most emotional tear-jerking ads are pretty generic. They feature similar violin or piano-heavy music, the same narrating voice, and the same pace, reaching a heart-wrenching climax at the end. Google checks the box for emotional piano and strings, but the touching sincerity of the elderly narrator as he shares his memories of his late wife will tear up the most cynical among us. By the line ‘Loretta always said, don’t miss me too much, and get out of the dang house,” you will have to pick yourself up from the floor.
They say ‘perfect is the enemy of good’, but the Highdive agency’s produced “Groundhog Day” ad shows perfection is achievable. Featuring Bill Murray, who is probably the most lovable actor in the history of the world, the ad shows him waking up at 6 am to find himself stuck again in the Groundhog Day loop. At first, he can’t believe he has to deal with the same characters from the original movie, like Ned Ryerson and the mayor of Punxsutawney (played by older brother Brian Doyle-Murray). When he sees the Rubicon Jeep, he realizes everything doesn’t have to be the same, going off on fun adventures with Punxsutawney Phil. Perfection is everywhere in this ad, from the humor to Sonny & Cher's 'I Got You, Babe', to the extreme cuteness of the groundhog, and it even manages to be moving. Add to that the fact that the Super Bowl was held on Groundhog Day, and you have a winner for the best Big Game ad of 2020.