Best Super Bowl ads (Part One)

Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Joe Greene are a few athletes that have starred in iconic Super Bowl ads.

In an era of on-demand television and downloading shows off BitTorrent sites, the closest thing to appointment viewing might be pro sports. More than 110 million Americans watched last year’s Super Bowl, and this year’s edition—played between two big markets, New England and New York—is expected to surpass those record-setting numbers. That spells serious opportunity for advertisers.

For decades, companies have spent big to reach those viewers, in hopes of being the focal point of next-day water cooler conversation—or these days, trending on Twitter. This year’s broadcaster, NBC, sold out of its time slots just after Thanksgiving, and most units were gone before the NFL season even started. The price? US$3.5 million for a 30-second opening. In some cases, it’s a colossal waste of cash. But for others, it’s money well spent, making household names out of fledgling companies or helping big names stay powerful.

Canadian Business staff writer Jeff Beer and online editor Matt Lundy are here to celebrate the best in Super Bowl advertising. The following is a four-part look at the best commercials to air during the big game, from classics like Apple’s “1984” to recent standouts like Volkswagen’s spot starring a pint-sized Darth Vader. Up first are commercials starring athletes both real and fictional.

COCA-COLA, “Mean Joe Greene”

“Hey kid…catch!” It’s a simple, three-word line from perhaps the most beloved spot in Super Bowl ad history, but former Pittsburgh Steelers’ great Joe Greene says it took multiple takes to get right. “A lot of it was because I kept flubbing my lines, burping in the middle of my takes,” Greene told USA Today, referring to the copious amounts of cola that he consumed on set. Greene also said that his co-star, then nine-year-old child actor Tommy Okon, was quick to point out his theatrical screw-ups. But in spite of Greene’s acting miscues, the final product was strong enough to land him a 1980 Clio Award for best male performance, though he wasn’t able to attend the ceremony and accept it. However, 30 years later, and on the Steelers’ Heinz Field, Greene was finally presented with the award. Since the commercial’s debut, Coca-Cola has reused the concept with a variety of different athletes, in countries from Argentina to Thailand. (Matt Lundy)

REEBOK, “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker”

This is a Reebok commercial but there’s not a single shoe in sight. Consumers’ ability to recall what this ad is for has always been its weak spot, but why would I want to see a sneaker when I can watch Terry Tate clothesline office drones for playing solitaire or forgetting to put a cover sheet on a report? Exactly. The campaign, created by New York-based agency Arnell Group, was also one the best early efforts to push viewers online for additional, extended editions of the TV spot. It was downloaded, along with the five other episodes, millions of times from the Reebok website. WOO! (Jeff Beer)

McDONALD’S, “The Showdown”

The concept of “The Showdown” is simple and effective: Larry Bird challenges Michael Jordan to a shooting competition for Jordan’s Big Mac and fries. The game starts with some easy trick shots and then progresses to ridiculous (read: fake) shots off the scoreboard, from the rafters and from outside the arena, all of which Bird and Jordan knock down with ease.

Some details about the iconic commercial were revealed on CNBC two years ago. Jim Ferguson, who was part of the creative team at Leo Burnett that came up with the ad, said it was Bird that issued the shooting challenge because Jordan had well-publicized gambling problems at the time. And in the shot showing both players in the rafters, they’re actually on a rig about 10 feet above the ground. According to Ferguson, Jordan said, “If we fall, I’m going to own McDonald’s.” That’s why five or six production assistants stood beneath the players, ready to thwart any crash landings. (ML)