5.'The Showdown,' McDonald's (1993)
The greatest Super Bowl commercial featuring pro athletes should, in theory, involve football players, but this Super Bowl XVII ad with MJ and Larry Legend playing a game of horse for a McDonald’s Big Mac and fries takes the cake.
The one and a half-minute spot opens with Jordan, wearing matching T-shirt and shorts combo that will make you yearn for the early '90s, walking into a practice gym with a bag of McDonald’s food. Bird challenges him to a shooting contest for it. Things escalate, and they wind up trying to make a shot from the top of the Hancock Center in Chicago.
The commercial was such a hit that McDonald’s brought it back in several iterations: Jordan repeated it in a shooting contest with Marvin the Martian, a spot that inspired the movie “Space Jam.” During Super Bowl XLIV, current NBA superstars Dwight Howard and LeBron James rehashed the commercial, competing in a dunk contest. It ended with Howard shattering the backboard and Larry Bird walking off with the McDonald’s bag.
There were a lot of stellar ads from years past that didn’t make our list. Honorable mentions included:
- The Budweiser Clydesdales (all of them)
- Joe Namath/Farrah Fawcett Noxcema commercial (1974)
- Xerox monks (1997)
- Tabasco mosquito explosion (1998)
A few words about this year’s Super Bowl ads: 30-second spots during the broadcast on CBS sold for between $3.7 and $3.8 million, meaning the 1:30 MJ/Larry spot would have cost McDonald’s about $11.3 million today. The ads generating some pregame buzz include appearances from Amy Poehler, Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame, and (squeal) a baby Clydesdale.
‘Tough under fire,’ Master Lock (1973)
The most straightforward entry on the list and a quite literal depiction of Master Lock’s “Tough under fire,” slogan, this ad and subsequent Super Bowl spots accounted for nearly all of Master Lock’s annual ad budget. The commercial first aired during Super Bowl VII. The plot: A sharpshooter blows a hole through a Master Lock, and it still doesn’t open. I’m assuming this ad is shown in freshman level advertising classes as a matter of routine.
'Cat Herders,' EDS (2000)
More often than not, the most memorable Super Bowl commercial in a given year is also the funniest. And most hilarious of them all just might be ”Cat Herders,” which made its debut during Super Bowl XXXIV. The detail work in this one is just exquisite, from the cowboy taking a lint roller to his jacket to the aerial special effects shot of hundreds of cats fording a river. In a hyped up Super Bowl ad landscape in which every company is trying to have the loudest, funniest spot, this ad is arguably the most memorable of the past 15 years.
The commercial has even outlasted the company it advertises. EDS, a digital management firm, was absorbed by Hewlett-Packard in 2008.
'Frogs,' Budweiser (1995)
Budweiser is a Super Bowl ad institution, with several memorable series under its belt. You could make the case that one of the Clydesdale ads should be in this slot. But no single Clydesdale spot made as much of a splash (sorry) as the original Budweiser frogs. This commercial spawned (sorry again!) several more, including the envious, less-loved Budweiser lizard.
'1984,' Apple (1984)
Directed by Ridley Scott, this ad put Apple on the map and blew the door for conceptual advertising wide open. In addition to being regarded as one of the best commercials in history, the spot is widely credited as a moment where Apple broke into the mainstream and began its ascent to the top of the corporate world. Unlike most Super Bowl commercials, which air ad nauseam after their debuts, this ad only aired once, during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. It has been marked as the greatest advertisement of all time, Super Bowl or otherwise, by the Clios, AdAge, and TV Guide, among others.