The Big Game: 9 Most Popular Ads and How They've Evolved

February 05, 2024 - by
super bowl football player grabs old tv with burger ad playing

Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published in February 2023 but has been updated.

Every February in the US, the widely anticipated American Football game of the year finishes the football season with a bang. And more importantly, it's one of the few events where people actually look forward to the commercial break.

So many of us are used to seeing video ads that cater to our interests, especially with RSS feeds, contextual and programmatic advertising, and personalized ads. But when you watch an event like the "Big Game," everyone is experiencing the same ad at the same time, no matter what you’re particularly drawn to. 

Advertisements have been a staple of the Big Game since its creation in 1967. But now that we’re in 2023, how have these ads evolved? Let’s look at some of the most popular ads over the years, why they’re popular, and how much they’ve evolved.

Wendy’s: “Where’s the Beef?”



One of the most well-known ads is affectionately called “Where’s the beef?” In 1984, Wendy’s released an ad that called out other fast food chains that fail in areas they succeed. Here, three elderly women examine a burger with an excessively large bun and a shocking lack of beef. Wendy’s compares its single burger to McDonald’s Big Mac and Burger King’s Whopper, claiming that its burger has more beef than the other two.

The “Where’s the beef?” tagline was popularized shortly after the ad’s release, keeping Wendy’s and its burgers on consumers’ minds. Though it’s a fairly simple ad, Wendy’s showed you can do a lot with a little. More recent Wendy’s ads haven’t been as funny or memorable, but their marketing still focuses on rising above the competition.

Pepsi: “We Will Rock You”



It’s common to see your favorite celebrities in commercials, but Pepsi almost exclusively features musicians in its Big Game ads. It’s hard to pick just one Pepsi ad, but one of the most popular is “We Will Rock You.” The commercial stars Beyonce, Britney Spears, P!nk, and Enrique Iglesias. The three talented women clad in gladiator costumes refuse to fight each other. Instead, they begin to sing the famous Queen song. The ad is a bit objectifying depending on how you look at it, as are other prior Pepsi ads, but it’s iconic, nevertheless.

Over the years, Pepsi has experimented with different stories and musical numbers. In 1987, we saw David Bowie and Tina Turner act in a “mad scientist” story, and we watched Michael Jackson in 1984 as he danced with fans in the street. Not much has changed with Pepsi’s ads— save better production quality.

Budweiser: “Puppy Love”



Budweiser has been effectively using animals in its commercials for decades. Because honestly, who doesn’t love a cute puppy or a horse? The Clydesdale horse has been a symbol of Budweiser since 1933. The majestic breed appears in many of Budweiser’s commercials, many of which have premiered during the Big Game.

In 2014 and 2015, the company shifted its focus, though not totally, to a different species. Instead of making comical commercials involving the Clydesdale horses, Budweiser took a route that was more emotional than it was funny. A labrador puppy finds a home among a farmer and his Clydesdales, and in the following year, he temporarily gets lost before finding his way back home. Not only is the ad probably the most adorable to ever take up a time slot, but it also highlights that brands can cater to their audience in different ways, so long as it evokes some kind of emotional response.

Always: “Like a Girl”



Ads aren’t always something witty or cute. Sometimes commercials are used to address real problems in the world. In 2015, Always, a company that produces menstrual hygiene products used its time slot to make a statement against the casual misogyny so many girls experience at a young age. The ad campaign “Like a Girl” interviews several children and teenagers, asking them what they think when they hear phrases like “you run like a girl.” The boys and teenage girls interpret this phrase as an insult, but the little girls see things the opposite way.

In the end, Always reminds us of the damage misogyny can do to the confidence of girls and women. This change in perspective is especially prevalent in comparison to the Good Year: “When There’s No Man Around” ad that debuted in 1967. The ad was almost entirely targeted toward men and assumes that women are incapable of solving problems without a man present.

Hyundai: "Smaht Pahk"



Over the past few years, Hyundai has managed to connect celebrities and humor to promote its innovative products. In 2020, Hyundai focused on the Sonata and its “smart park” mechanic, a feature that parks your car for you. The concept is already captivating, but Hyundai still spiced it up with actors Chris Evans, John Krasinski, and actress and comedienne Rachel Dratch. The trio uses heavy Boston accents, pronouncing “smart park” as “smaht pahk.” They repeatedly say “smaht pahk” to emphasize what the car does while also showing the vehicle in action as it parks and unparks. 

Just like a song, it’s hard to forget an ad when its catchphrase is stuck in your head. This approach contrasts with other car commercials, like Ford’s in 2017. Most of that ad focuses on metaphorical ways to address the benefits of driving a Ford, but the ad takes so long to show the product that you may easily forget you were watching a car commercial.

Amazon: "Alexa Loses Her Voice"



Similar to the Hyundai ad, Amazon’s Echo ad from 2018 strategically markets the product with humor. In the commercial, Alexa loses her voice, which forces Jeff Bezos to find her a replacement. And filling in for the Echo's Alexa is none other than Gordon Ramsay, Cardi B, Rebel Wilson, and Sir Anthony Hopkins. 

Owners of Echos ask Alexa a wide range of questions to which she’d typically have a helpful response, but as expected, none of these celebrities offer the same great insight that Alexa does. While Amazon strives to make you laugh with the speakers’ funny responses to requests and questions, you still get to see how useful the Echo can be. The ad’s production quality is also top-notch, which shouldn’t be surprising for such a behemoth like Amazon. It already costs millions to secure a 30-second spot during the game, so you can only imagine the budget needed to develop the ad. Back in 2010, a time slot cost less than half of the average price we see today.

Mountain Dew Kickstart: "Puppy Monkey Baby"



Though the brands mentioned above make great use of their time slots by enticing their audience logically, some brands take a different approach. In 2016, Mountain Dew produced one of the most nonsensical ads featured in the history of the Big Game.

A hybrid between a puppy, a monkey, and a human baby serves Mountain Dew Kickstart to three men sitting on a couch. The ad is objectively weird as the creature repeatedly says its own name while dancing on a table. Surprisingly, the bizarre nature of the ad quickly engrained itself in many of the minds that tuned in, so much so that it’s still one of the most well-known ads from the Big Game.

2023 Focuses on Man's Best Friend

 In case you were living under a rock, the overarching theme of last year’s ads was about our furry, four-legged friends. Dogs emerged as superstars and were featured in the most memorable ads that went beyond traditional themes of beer and humor to highlight our profound connections with pets.  Among them, two ads in particular stood out for their creative storytelling and emotional impact, demonstrating the evolving landscape of advertising in connecting with audiences on a more personal and human level.

The Farmer's Dog: "Forever"



This was by no means any ordinary ad but rather a heartwarming journey that captivated viewers nationwide. This ad from the fresh dog food subscription service, The Farmer’s Dog, was a masterclass in emotional storytelling, tracing the lifelong bond between a girl and her dog, from childhood's joys through adulthood's challenges. It encapsulated the enduring love and commitment that pet owners feel, aligning the brand with deeply held values and personal emotions. This ad's power was not in the use of flashy celebrities or high-tech effects but in its authenticity and simplicity, touching viewers deeply and moving many to literal tears. Its acclaim was evident, topping the USA Today Ad Meter and evoking heartfelt reactions across social media. This ad, with its focus on the deep-seated values of love and loyalty, proved that in the world of advertising, sometimes a sincere and poignant story can outshine the most elaborate gimmicks.

Amazon: "Saving Sawyer"



Amazon's ad, set against the backdrop of recent global and personal challenges experienced during the COVID era, offered a fresh perspective on these challenging times through the eyes of Sawyer, a loyal dog, proving once again that dogs are a surefire ingredient for advertising success. The narrative deftly illustrated how Sawyer, like many pets, struggled to adapt to the changing dynamics of his family as they transitioned back to office life after the pandemic.

The ad resonated with viewers by capturing the shared experiences of many, highlighting the struggle of adjusting to post-lockdown life. The solution—a second dog—was both heartwarming and clever, underscoring the ad's central message that even in times of great change, creative solutions and the comfort of companionship can make a difference. 

The ad was relatable, touching, and served as a reminder of the ongoing bond we share with our pets, even as circumstances change. Amazon cleverly intertwined this narrative with a light-hearted solution, showcasing not just the power of storytelling that taps into collective memories and emotions but also the ability of advertising to reflect and respond to societal shifts.

As we look forward to this year’s Big Game set for February 11th, one can't help but wonder which themes will dominate the ads. With 30-second spots selling for up to $7 million, we’ve already had a sneak peek of what we’ll see. One thing is certain: the Big Game remains a unique occasion where ads are as eagerly anticipated as the game itself (and the halftime show), and each year brings its own surprises and memorable moments. Whether it's through laughter, tears, or awe, these ads have a way of leaving a lasting impression, and 2024 is sure to be no exception. 

Let’s also not forget that most of us watching on game night are also simultaneously consuming content on our mobile devices, which means we’re likely to see video ads there too. It’s an especially high-traffic time for sports-related content, and publishers can prepare for the onslaught of eyeballs now. One idea: try EX.CO’s new vertical video player which earns 17% more engagement than traditional horizontal player, on average. 

Ready to take your monetization efforts to the next level with EX.CO’s one-stop-shop online video platform (OVP) built for publishers? Drop your details below.

Speak to an expert