TV & Streaming

Super Bowl: The game’s defining (ad) moments throughout history

How much did an ad in the game cost in 1984? Why did Oscar Mayer drop its halftime show sponsorship? When did teasers become a thing? All these questions and more, answered.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images, Snickers, Goodyear, Apple, Nationwide

· 5 min read

It’s only fitting that advertising’s biggest night coincides with America’s largest intake of heartburn medication. Probably.

Of course, we’re talking about the Super Bowl.

While every other marketing trade pub is putting together ad trackers and breathlessly investigating every teaser, we figured we’d have a little fun and put together a compilation of notable moments, trivia, and facts about the game.

Impress your boss, impress your colleagues, impress your friends, and remember that if Nick Foles can be a Super Bowl MVP, so can you.

When did advertising in the Super Bowl become a thing? There wasn’t really one specific turning point, but in 1973, Joe Namath and Farrah Fawcett’s titillating “Cream Your Face” spot for Noxzema helped establish the game “as an event for advertisers,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. A few other ads that ran during the game throughout the ’70s, like Xerox’s “Monks,” also played a part.

Some of the Super Bowl’s most memorable ads didn’t originally air on the Super Bowl, like the “Hey Kid, Catch” Coca-Cola ad starring ‘Mean’ Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It ran for the first time in October of 1979, then re-aired when the Steelers played in the Super Bowl a few months later, beating the Los Angeles Rams. All these years later, we’re still thinking about how bad that jersey probably smelled.

Another iconic Super Bowl ad? Apple’s “1984,” which ran during the third quarter of the (duh) 1984 Super Bowl. Directed by Ridley Scott, the spot also didn’t make its true debut in the Super Bowl—it first aired on KMTV in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1983, so it could qualify for that year’s advertising awards. 😑

How much did it cost? Apple paid more than $800,000 to run a 60-second version of “1984,” according to the New York Times. That’s about $2.3 million today, accounting for inflation. Compare that to this year’s game on Fox, where some 30-second commercials have sold for more than $7 million. 😲

The first halftime show sponsor? This one was tougher to track down. In 1996, Oscar Mayer became the official sponsor of the halftime show, making it one of the earliest official sponsors, if not the first. Even though it contributed to a “big lift in sales” that year, per Ad Age, the brand pulled out two years later because the company didn’t feel as though that year’s halftime entertainment—which featured performances from Mr. Sex Machine himself, James Brown, and ZZ Top—was “family-oriented,” the Washington Post reported at the time.

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But…In 1989, Diet Coke aired what Bob Costas introduced as “the first commercial ever in 3D,” a warm-up for a halftime performance that featured a *checks notes* card trick performed by Elvis Presto, a “magician dressed as Elvis Presley.” Rihanna should be so lucky. Seriously, you’ve got to watch this.

Streaming Bowl: NBC livestreamed the Super Bowl for the first time in 2012, eight years before Peacock debuted. Oddly enough, “the commercials were not shown during the breaks in the online broadcast, when they were actually supposed to air,” meaning streaming viewers who really wanted to see the linear ads could “watch all the ads after they aired” by clicking on a tab, per TechCrunch.

When did teasers become a thing? In 2007, according to Ad Age, when Doritos ran a contest called “Crash the Super Bowl,” a strategy that involved crowdsourcing ideas for a Super Bowl spot and also gained the brand some buzz before the game. From there, other brands started thinking of ways to drum up excitement for their campaigns.

Most-viewed game? 2015’s game between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks was seen by 114.4 million viewers on NBC. Six years later, viewership was just 96.4 million, its lowest audience in more than a decade.

Scandals: Setting aside #Nipplegate, there’s a thin line between making a splash with a big, expensive media buy and horrifying viewers (or at least their parents).

  • In 2015, Nationwide ran a spot featuring a child listing all the things they couldn’t do because they “died from an accident.” It…did not go over well. The “Nationwide Dead Kid” has a page on Know Your Meme.
  • A decade earlier, GoDaddy chose sex appeal over tragedy, featuring a woman whose tank-top strap breaks while she testifies at “broadcast censorship hearings.” Its 2015 Super Bowl ad also stirred up controversy after a preview aired on the Today show; it was ultimately pulled from the game.

Cringe is almost as essential as the game itself—the first Super Bowl (originally the AFL-NFL World Championship Game) in 1967 featured an ad for Goodyear with the tagline, “When there’s no man around, Goodyear should be.”

Who tracks this stuff? Since 1989, USA Today’s Ad Meter has polled the occupants of America’s couches, trying to scientifically determine if Betty White’s Snickers commercial was more popular than that one where the kid slaps a guy over Doritos.

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.