As Super Bowl LVIII draws near, it’s a good time to embark on a journey through the gridiron and into the annals of pop culture, where commercials became cultural touchstones.
These aren't your average "buy this, buy that" spots.
These are the ads that made us laugh, gasp in awe, and maybe even shed a tear (or two). They defied expectations, pushed boundaries, and left an indelible mark on our collective memory.
Let's kick off and see which ads scored the ultimate touchdown in the hearts and minds of viewers with the 10 most unforgettable Super Bowl ads through the decades.
1. Coca-Cola’s “Hey Kid, Catch,” 1980
The commercial featured a heartwarming showdown between "Mean" Joe Greene and a young boy's soda offering.
Though injured and seemingly down, the Pittsburgh Steelers' notorious defensive tackle breaks into an uncharacteristic smile after drinking the entire bottle.
The kid happily leaves with the Greene’s jersey, proving that even the toughest exteriors can reveal a surprising layer of sweetness. This emotional pull is what made this Coca-Cola commercial a classic and why it always makes it to listicles of best Super Bowl ads.
On top of being parodied by “The Simpsons,” this award-winning ad even inspired a movie, “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid,” which also stars Greene.
2. Apple’s “1984,” 1984
Drawing inspiration from George Orwell's chilling dystopia “1984,” a young Apple battled against “Big Brother” and his corporate followers in what is now an iconic ad directed by "Alien" mastermind Ridley Scott.
How did you sell personal computers (the Macintosh) at a time when they were rare and unknown?
By offering freedom and individual empowerment.
Did it resonate? Heck, yes! Macintosh sales skyrocketed after the ad, solidifying Apple's "think different" image and leaving an indelible mark on advertising history.
3. Pepsi and Cindy Crawford, 1992
Super Bowl for this year saw a different kind of heat wave: Cindy Crawford in a red Lamborghini, sipping icy Pepsi from the new can design as two young boys stare with their mouths open.
The big twist is that the boys were not actually in awe of the famous supermodel, but the new Pepsi in a can. “Is that a new great Pepsi can, or what.”
This commercial was such a hit that it got an encore 26 years later, featuring Crawford and her son Presley Gerber.
And just last year, Crawford remade the iconic scene, with her drinking a Margarita this time, for the music video of the hip-hop song “One Margarita.”
4. Nike’s “Hare Jordan,” 1993
The iconic duo of Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan teamed up for a 60-second ad that transcended the world of commercials and birthed the “Space Jam” movie franchise.
This 60-second ad was a six-month labor of love, blending animation and live-action in a way that had audiences saying, "What's up, Doc?" while cheering for MJ, of course.
While groundbreaking then, today's budgets and timelines might not allow for such audacious creativity, making this iconic commercial a true historical gem.
5. EDS’ “Cat Herding,” 2000
Imagine explaining the "complexities of a digital economy" in a way that even the most casual observer could understand. Sounds like a tall order, right?
Well, this award-winning ad not only tackled it but did it with hilarious absurdity as cowboys in Stetsons go about cat herding.
Why cats, you ask?
Because wrangling them represents the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of the digital world.
Even today, decades after its debut, the ad remains fresh and engaging, proving that sometimes the best way to explain something complex is to embrace the absurd and make it entertaining.
6. Reebok’s “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker,” 2003
In what may just be the funniest Big Game ad of all time, a linebacker becomes the saving grace of Felcher & Sons office, courtesy of Reebok.
Lester Speight, the comedic mastermind behind Terry Tate, embodied the role with the intensity of a true football player. He’s so credible that many thought he was a real NFL linebacker (turns out, SNL was more his stomping ground).
Reebok was barely mentioned in the one-minuter. But who cares about branding when you're doubled over laughing?
Ironically, the shoe company considered it a flop and ended the campaign quickly.
Talk about a major miss! Still, it gets to be on this list just for its sheer hilarity.
7. Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” 2010
The Super Bowl had wrapped up, and an unexpected dose of humor in the form of an Old Spice ad called "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" aired. Except, it wasn't even supposed to air.
Why? Because the client just didn’t like it. So, it got relegated to the post-game slot, a commercial graveyard for unwanted ads.
The ad featured a suave and half-naked Isaiah Mustafa in a variety of fantastical situations, showing off his abs and embodying “the man your man could smell like.”
Well, because you just can’t get him, so you have to settle for a man who smells like him.
This not only revitalized Old Spice as a brand, selling a ton of body wash, but also spawned sequels and launched Mustafa's acting career.
It’s a game-changer that remains relevant today.
8. Volkswagen’s “The Force,” 2011
Any fan of Star Wars is sure to remember this ad, and it is considered by most — whether fans or people in the ad industry — as one of the best Super Bowl ads of all time.
Absent from the Super Bowl stage for over a decade, Volkswagen successfully faced off against Goliath automakers with a charming kid, a red Passat, and an idea as simple as it was brilliant: "The Force."
"The Force" struck a chord. It was funny, relatable, and tugged at the heartstrings, showcasing the Passat as a vehicle that fit seamlessly into family life.
In a daring move, Volkswagen defied tradition by releasing the full ad online days before the game, generating buzz and anticipation and setting the stage for the pre-game hype we see today.
The force is indeed strong with this one!
9. Always’ #LikeaGirl, 2015
For many girls, the phrase "like a girl" wasn't an empowering statement, but a loaded insult signifying weakness and inadequacy.
Always decided to reclaim that narrative with a powerful Super Bowl ad that went viral and sparked a global conversation.
While most of the ads in this list are funny or heartwarming, this ad had something to say, and it was heard. #LikeAGirl became a trending hashtag, the video garnered millions of views, and awards started pouring in.
It became a cornerstone of Always' larger campaign, inspiring a series of follow-up videos and sparking positive change.
10. Tide’s “It’s a Tide Ad,” 2018
Tide didn't just run a single ad in the Super Bowl; it hijacked the entire game with its ingenious "It's a Tide Ad" campaign, leaving advertisers fuming with envy because they didn’t think of doing it first.
David Harbour, everyone's favorite grumpy police chief from “Stranger Things,” popped up in every commercial, from Mr. Clean to Old Spice.
Not as a spokesperson, mind you, but as a bewildered observer pointing out that it’s a Tide ad because the clothes the actors are wearing are all stain-free.
It was a clever, self-aware, and ultimately, effective campaign that piggybacked on other brands’ iconic ads. This ad may just be the inspiration for DoorDash’s “All the Ads” campaign this year.
All things considered; the Super Bowl isn't just American football.
It's a cultural phenomenon.
With millions glued to their screens worldwide, the event becomes a coveted platform for brands to showcase their creativity and humor – often resulting in legendary commercials.
For sure, the future will birth more epic ads, and the Big Game’s advertising landscape will shift yet again.
But before that, it’s good to remember — and maybe draw inspiration from — the iconic ads that truly captivated viewers and made history.