Joe Greene drinking a Coke -- Courtesy Coca-Cola

As we get closer to Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday, the anticipation for the game grows. As Americans prep for their viewing parties, we look forward not only to watching the Big Game, but also to the commercials. What makes a great Super Bowl ad? Over the last 57 games, we can look back and see what has made for iconic ads.

In this list, we’ll see that celebrities, animals, and appealing to the heartstrings will work. Also, humor can make or break an ad. You’ll see that theme sprinkled throughout this list. We’ll list 20 of the greatest Super Bowl commercials over the history of the game plus a few honorable mentions.

You will likely disagree, but that’s ok. That’s what lists are for. We will go in backward order.

20. E-Trade: Baby (2008)

E-Trade has been using the Baby theme for years and it’ll be back again in 2024. It began in 2008 with Super Bowl XLII and continued through Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. The campaign returned in 2022 bringing the baby out of retirement. In the original ad, you have a very cute baby sitting in a high chair buying stock and then spitting up. It’s a baby. It’s E-Trade. It’s cute.

19. Doritos: Time Machine (2014)

This ad was made for $300 as part of Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl contest and it was one of the more popular commercials according to the 2014 USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter. This spot had a kid wanting a man’s bag of Doritos convincing him to enter a homemade “Time Machine” made out of a cardboard box. The kid takes the Doritos and is seemingly happy. The payoff is quite funny.

18. Hyundai — First Date (2016)

The winner of Super Bowl 50’s USA Today Ad Meter, this had comedian Kevin Hart tracking his daughter on a date. Kevin Hart following his daughter through “Car Finder” on his watch and saying, “You messin’ with the wrong daddy!” is just hilarious.

17. Pepsi — Cindy Crawford (1992)/This is the Pepsi (2018)

One of the more iconic Super Bowl ads in history, this had supermodel Cindy Crawford and the song, “Just One Look.” She gets out of a Lamborghini with two kids looking on ogling the can of Pepsi. At the time, Pepsi wanted to market the new look of its soda can.

And then Pepsi updated the ad using Jimmy Fallon’s narration and several celebrities including Crawford and her son, Presley Gerber.

16. Old Spice — The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (2010)

An example of a very successful ad campaign, Old Spice used a topless Isaiah Mustafa for its body wash. The “Hello, ladies. Look at your man, now back to me, now back to your man, now back to me. Sadly, he isn’t me….” still makes me laugh out loud some 14 years later. This increased Old Spice’s sales by over 100% according to industry analysts. That’s a very successful ad campaign.

15. Budweiser — Whassup!! (2000)

Originally unveiled during Monday Night Football, the use of “Whassup??!!” became part of pop culture used in movies, songs, TV shows and was even brought back for an updated version in Canada. Nothing else needs to be said about this.

14. Reebok — Terry Tate, Office Linebacker (2003)

Starring Lester Speight as the iconic Terry Tate, this started what became a web series. Hired by the fictional “Felcher & Sons,” Terry Tate was asked to increase productivity at the office. “That’s a long distance call, Doug!” and “You wanna play games, Gene? Well, when it’s game time, it’s pain time, baby! Woooooo!” are the lines of this ad. Something tells me that we could use ten Terry Tates in this day and age.

13. Budweiser — Frogs (1995)

This ad with three frogs sounding out the syllables to “Bud-Wei-Ser” was so minimalist, it was effective. It led to yearly Super Bowl appearances with lizards eventually taking their place. But this ad started it all in Super Bowl XXIX.

12. Diet Pepsi — New Neighbors (1987)

During the height of his popularity as a teen idol, Michael J. Fox was in this ad trying to get a Diet Pepsi for a new neighbor, played by Gail O’Grady who would later star in  “NYPD Blue.” Fox goes all out trying to get a Diet Pepsi after finding a bottle of the drink in his refrigerator is empty. He’s successful only to find … well, check it out.

11. Toyota — Upstream (2021)

This ad really tugged at the heartstrings. Using Paralympic athlete Jessica Long and showing her journey from being adopted from Russia, having her adoptive mother learn that Jessica would have her legs amputated to her swimming in the present day, the carmaker wanted to show an “uplifting message of hope and strength.” It certainly did with this ad.

10. Nike — Hare Jordan (1993)

What isn’t there to like in this ad? You have Bugs Bunny, voiced by the late Mel Blanc, and Michael Jordan in his prime. And yes, this was the inspiration for the original Space Jam. Bugs is woken up by a pickup basketball game and then is bullied by the players. Bugs teams up with MJ and the rest his pure comedic joy. Bugs uses the classic Casablanca line, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” while Jordan does the classic WB Looney Tunes ending, “That’s all folks!” It’s great.

9. Pepsi — Dancing Bears (1997)

This starts off like a nature documentary then turns into a pack of bears dancing and spelling out P-E-P-S-I to the music of the Village People’s “YMCA.” Yes, it won the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter contest.

8. Chrysler — Halftime in America (2012)

As the country was recovering from the Great Recession, Chrysler put out this ad with Clint Eastwood. At first, the ad was grim, but then became a pep talk and positive. It wasn’t the normal type of ad you saw in the Super Bowl, but it certainly got people’s attention.

7. Volkswagen — The Force (2011)

This changed how advertisers approached the Super Bowl. This went viral before Super Bowl XLV. Knowing that it might get lost in a sea of ads, Volkswagen released this a week before the game on YouTube, and by the time the game aired, viewers were talking about it. Now, ads are released early in hopes of getting buzz. The use of a kid in a Darth Vader costume hoping that the Force would turn affect items and the surprise he shows when the car turns on is great.

6. Budweiser — Puppy Love (2014)/Lost Dog (2015)

These two ads won first place in the Ad Meter poll.

You know how you get into people’s hearts these days? Put a cute dog or puppy in your ad. These are related. First, you have the bond between a puppy and a horse. A puppy keeps escaping an adoption agency and becomes friends with a Clydesdale. But as the puppy is adopted and it put into a car, the Clydesdales run to stop it. All is well.

And the following year, the puppy mistakenly gets into a truck and is lost miles away from the farm. But when it seems like the dog is about to meet its maker, the Clydesdales come to save the day. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

5. McDonald’s — The Showdown (1993)

Larry Bird and Michael Jordan play H-O-R-S-E over a Big Mac. This was so successful that it ran for a couple of years. And McDonald’s tried a sequel with LeBron James and Dwight Howard.

4. Budweiser — Respect (2002)

Airing during Super Bowl XXXVI five months after 9/11, the ad was shown without words showing the Clydesdales pulling a wagon across the Brooklyn Bridge and then stopping across the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers to pay respect. The ad was very powerful. It was meant to air only once, however, it has aired again on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and updated for the twentieth anniversary.

3. Snickers — Betty White (2010)

This won the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter and in essence, gave Betty White a career renaissance until her death in 2021. You had Betty playing football, running a pass pattern, and getting tackled. Then when “Betty” gets back to the huddle, she complains the quarterback has been riding her all day and then a teammate says, “You’re playing like Betty White out there.”

“Betty” replies, “That’s not what your girlfriend said.”

I was watching this at a friend’s house with twenty people and that got a huge laugh. Everyone loved this ad. And lest we forget that Abe Vigoda was in this as well.

2. Apple — 1984 (1984)

Known as one of the most iconic ads ever, Apple released this twice, once for a local break on ten stations so it could qualify for an award, and again during Super Bowl XVIII on CBS. Directed by Ridley Scott, the ad shows a woman running towards a screen which is being watched by rows of men seemingly controlled by a man on said screen. The woman fleeing from security throws a sledgehammer at the screen, thus hitting it, freeing everyone’s minds readying them for something new. It changed how advertisers produced ads for the Super Bowl.

1. Coca-Cola — Hey Kid, Catch! (1979)

You could interchange this and Apple’s 1984 for 1-2 and you would not be wrong in either case. This had Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame defensive tackle “Mean Joe” Greene limping to the locker room during a game and a kid offers to help him. Greene still playing on his “Mean Joe” character refuses, but then the kid offers him his Coke. Greene refuses again but then relents. Joe drinks it up and then the kid sadly turns around and leaves. But then Joe stops him, smiles, and says, “Hey kid, catch!” and tosses him his jersey. The kid’s mood turns around and says, “Wow! Thanks, Mean Joe!”

This ad did a couple of things. First, it changed the perception of “Mean Joe” Green from a feared defensive end to a beloved personality. Second, NBC actually made a TV movie called “The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid,” based on the commercial. It was not the same kid from the ad, but Henry Thomas who later was in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

It’s a heartwarming ad.

Honorable Mentions

Nuveen — Advancements (2000)

This was a shock to people as it showed a paralyzed Christopher Reeve getting out of his wheelchair and walking. The scene was CGI, of course, but viewers who were not aware of it thought a miracle did happen with Reeve. This was supposed to show what was possible in the 21st Century. We’re not quite there yet.

Pepsi — Flying Geese (1998)

This showed stunt flyer Troy Hartman being accompanied by a goose who mimicked his moves and wanted to drink his Pepsi. Needless to say, this also won the USA Today Ad Meter poll for that year.

So there are the top Super Bowl ads. What are your favorites? How do these compare with yours? Let us know on X or in the comments below.

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013.

He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television.

Fang celebrates the four Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.