So, the Super Bowl is this weekend. It probably doesn’t come as a shock that I’m one of the “watch it for the commercials” people, though living in New York City is going to change that up a bit. How awesome would a parade be? Anyway, the excitement of the commercials themselves seems to be a bit weak this year. It’s not that there won’t be good ads, but it looks like we’ll be seeing most of them well before the game. Even if you loved that kind of unfortunate Bueller CRV commercial, you’ve got to admit it takes some of the magic away by showing up all over the internet on the Monday before.
Let’s take a few minutes to look back on a few of the commercials that have entertained us over the years, from Super Bowls before the arrival of the web and after. And because it turns out not every excellent TV ad airs for the first time during that one Sunday of the year, I’ve done a bit more digging elsewhere. Here are ten excellent sports commercials, from football to fútbol.
Hey Kid, Catch (Coca-Cola)
Starting with a classic seems compulsory. This commercial even has its own Wikipedia page, with an impressively long list of pop culture references to the original ad. Mean Joe Greene’s jersey toss has been spoofed by everyone from Newhart to House, with plenty of cartoon appearances in between. TV commercials were so earnest back in the ‘70s. Coke began the decade teaching the world to sing and ended it by turning a football star soft on TV. Even a cynical 32 years later, it’s hard not to smile.
Clydesdales Play Football (Budweiser)
The vast majority of sports commercials seem to have one simple formula. Hire a famous athlete and then put them on camera with your product. A whole run of Miller Lite ads from the ‘80s, featuring Steve Mizerack and other stars just kind of hanging around a bar, is one of the more irritating examples. That’s why we should all be thankful we have the Budweiser Clydesdales. This spot from 1996 might be their all time best, and is at least the horses’ most famous TV appearance. Clever, majestic and silly, this is what Super Bowl ads should be like.
The Showdown (McDonald’s)
If you are going to make your famous endorsers the central point of your commercial, at least make it interesting. No one wants to see Larry Bird and Michael Jordan sitting at a table quietly enjoying a Big Mac. The cheery optimism of the Mean Joe Greene ad seems to have survived into the early ‘90s, but McDonald’s made sure to add a slight twist to that simple joy. As these two legends go head to head over a burger, each shot is more ridiculous than the last until we find ourselves on top of the skyscraper across the street. 1993 may not have had our beloved ‘00s irony, but it definitely seems a little more fun.
Terry Tate: Office Linebacker (Reebok)
Another long-standing tradition in sports advertising is the fish-out-of-water motif, putting an athlete into a completely unexpected and unfamiliar situation. ESPN’s recent SportsCenter campaign is a good example, showing Landon Donovan, Georges St. Pierre and Alexander Ovechkin around the office. I think this Reebok series from 2003 is a bit more fun though. Terry Tate flying across the screen to bring the pain to his co-workers for not recycling or leaving the coffee machine empty makes for pretty excellent television. It also uses the single-camera mockumentary style of The Office two years before the show premiered in the US. Should Reebok be giving Ricky Gervais some credit?
Continuing the tradition of unrealistic sporting events, Adidas brings us the most challenging shot in the history of basketball. Tracy McGrady runs down the court, apparently unopposed. Then the military shows up. Helicopters, sharpshooters, paratroopers all descend onto the court trying to take him down. It’s a Lilliputian army reminiscent of the Star Wars battle in the snow, but this time the big guy isn’t so easy to fell. With great effects work, this is the kind of creativity that sports ads have been showing us for the last decade or so. Let’s hope the trend continues.
I Feel Pretty (Nike)
Not all of the best sports ads focus on witty fantasies, however. A number of recent campaigns go right for the core of athletics and the media, the complex way our sports heroes relate to their public image. Take Maria Sharapova. Even though tennis is probably the sport in which women are taken the most seriously, there’s still the inevitable obsession with beauty and femininity as opposed to skill. Nike’s ad is a sharp observational minute, following the tennis star as she leaves her Manhattan hotel and heads for the US Open. The whole world seems to sing her praises, and reasonably so: she’s a beautiful woman with an excellent sense of fashion. But once her racquet hits home, everyone shuts up.
Damn Boots (Nomis)
Then there’s all the money. The stars aren’t just paid really well; they rake in the cash through endorsements. Every athlete so far in this list presumably made a killing just by lending their image to a TV spot. But what happens to their game? Obviously Michael Jordan didn’t suddenly lose all his talent once he took on a McDonald’s contract, but it’s definitely something to think about. This Nomis ad not only markets their soccer shoe but also makes a clever point about athletes and the media in general. It’s kind of trippy and the music certainly gives it a kick.
Write the Future (Nike)
Initially this list was hard to put together simply because there’s a temptation to show 10 Nike commercials and be done with it. The company has an excellent sense of advertising, and always has. Timed with the 2010 World Cup, this longer form video is a meditation on fame and glory with an impressively wide scope. Television shows, YouTube sensations, knighthood and enormous marble statues bloat the egos of these athletes, only tempered by the fact that this kind of extreme off-pitch success can actually happen in the real world. At least theoretically: as it turns out, each of the featured players left the Cup pretty early. A Nike curse?
I Am Not a Role Model – Nike
Striking right at the core of the issue is Charles Barkley. Never a stranger to controversy, the basketball star’s aggressive demeanor has always been a double-edged sword. Barkley’s temper, both on and off the court, put him in an awkward media position for much of his career. When he went to Nike in 1993 with his own script for a commercial, it’s no surprise that it instantly became one of the most significant ads in sports history. Stripped down to a basic, black and white photography, we find ourselves face to face with a man who just wants to play ball and be left alone. Should we let him? It’s a question that still haunts us today, and that Nike also continues to use to great effect: with Tiger Woods and LeBron James having their own media trouble, it seems this is one of those questions that never really gets resolved.
Dennis Hopper (Nike)
Dennis Hopper’s particular brand of crazy is one of the best. At least it’s one of the most unsettling, even when it’s only about the telepathic connection between two football players. Actually, that probably makes it even more unsettling. A great way to end any list, really. Let’s make this clip viral again.