Stop. Pause. Playback. The best ads have you watching again and again, each time catching more nuances and sparking new emotions—disbelief, joy, melancholy, triumph, you name it. And Super Bowl ads serve as a unique microcosm of (American) society. In one night, the best players gather to show off their skills to the world—and we’re not talking about the athletes on the field. We’re talking about the people behind the best Super Bowl ads in the world. Today, we’re exploring why they worked and remained favorites. 

Breaking Down the Best Super Bowl Ads 

The chicken and the egg debate has nothing on the “Does advertising shape or mirror society” question. “But, Savy, can’t both be true?” Of course. In fact, we think most brilliant things walk a fine line—usually between insanity and genius—and play in the grey areas. Now that we’ve gotten a few analogies underway, let’s explore what the best ads have in common. 

  • Emotional: A tug on the heartstrings. The swipe of an eye. Yeah, that’s the good stuff. Humans are emotional creatures, and good advertisers understand how to get to the heart of things. The emotion itself doesn’t matter as much as the visceral feeling it elicits. 
  • Relatable: Timeliness and timelessness are not mutually exclusive. A relatable ad features just enough of the familiar (maybe a famous actress or popular show) mixed with the new or unique to surprise, delight, and make viewers feel like they’re part of the know.
  • Memorable: It’s one thing for an ad to be different—even bizarre. But is it memorable? Is it something that you keep thinking about? Maybe that you quote on random occasions (“Wasssssssup?”)? Sticking in your viewer’s memories takes some creative gumption. 
  • Useful: Practically speaking, even the best ads of all time are still just that: ads. Ultimately, they’re trying to sell you something. The key here is showing, not telling, usefulness and answering what needs the product or service will fill. 
  • Meaningful: Lastly, the best ads stand for something beyond the bottom line. Do you want to earnestly improve the world? Good. Show it. 

First, a Disclaimer

Just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we know this list is subjective (and might even ruffle a few feathers). Despite that, we’ve chosen the following ads for their memorability, impact, and incredible understanding of what makes customers tick. 

Without further ado, here are (in our opinion) the best Super Bowl ads.  

Savy’s Top Picks for Best Super Bowl Ads and Why 

Ad #1: “Big Brother” (1984) 

This classic makes every “best of” list for a reason. Apple’s iconic “Big Brother” ad premiered during Super Bowl XVIII in 1984—the only time the spot aired on national TV. Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, The Martian), the ad draws on George Orwell’s dystopian world to unveil a groundbreaking, word-changing product: the Macintosh computer. 

Why it works: Not only did the ad air the year that Orwell set his infamous book, it pokes fun at society and makes the audience question: Am I simply going with the crowd? Using athlete Anya Major as the protagonist, it’s an underdog story of triumph over monotony. With very few on-screen words, the ad’s creators leave viewers with this evocative message: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984”—effectively enticing its audiences and breaking the “normal” rules of Super Bowl ads. 

Ad #2: “Where’s the Beef?” (1984) 

Another iconic ad emerged from the 1984 Super Bowl: Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” Now a question fully ensconced in American pop culture, the phrase was instantly iconic. In the ad, three older ladies 

Why it works: In a brilliant turn of play, the three older ladies approach a massive hamburger bun remarking on its size and fluffiness. But, when the middle woman lifts the top of the bun, now-famous Clara Peller exclaims, “Where’s the beef?” The drabness of this first scene with “House of the Big Bun” brings to mind office cubicles—likely the mundane elements most of its viewers are used to. When it cuts from the disappointing patty to a close-up of a Wendy’s burger with “more beef than the Whopper or the Big Mac,” the vibrant color of the scene further undermines its competitors. The last line brings it home: “You want something better, you’re Wendy’s kind of people.” 

Ad #3: “The Showdown” (1993) 

What’s more iconic than two of basketball’s GOATs playing a schoolyard game for a hamburger? 1993’s “The Showdown” is widely regarded as one of the best Super Bowl ads of all time for its casting of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson showing down on the court. 

Why it works: This ad plays fully into the relevant and relatable categories with its all-star cast. As two of the greats meet on the court, Bird notices Johnson eating a Big Mac and challenges: “Play you for it.” The game of HORSE that ensues becomes wilder and more daring as the two players sink hoop after hoop from incredible positions. The ad ends—somewhat abruptly and before a winner is announced—with both men on top of a skyscraper. With a simple premise, McDonald’s makes its product not only good enough to treat yourself but good enough to fight for. 

Ad #4: “When I Grow Up” (1999)  

At the time of airing, Monsster.com was a relatively unknown job search site. After its now-legendary 1999 Super Bowl ad, “When I Grow Up,” unique job searches went from 600 a minute to 2,900. 

Why it works: In 30 seconds, Monster.com emotionally appeals to its audience members: blue-collar American workers. The black-and-white ad keeps things simple, focusing on young children making shocking (and very unchildlike) statements, completing “when I grow up I want…:” “To be replaced on a whim,” “Want to be a yes man,” “Underappreciated,” and “Be paid less for doing the same job.” The cringe-worthy statements make users think about what they wanted to do when they were young and where they ended up. The final CTA? “There’s a better job out there.” 

Ad #5: “Cast Away” (2003)  

2000s Cast Away was an instant hit. FedEx’s 2003 Super Bowl Ad, “Cast Away,” drew on its audience’s love for the Tom Hanks film with a witty and memorable ad. 

Why It works: FedEx could firmly fit in the boring category if they wanted. However, with this ad, the shipping giant proved its cultural relevance with a blockbuster of its own. The movie of the same name famously follows FedEx employee Chuck Noland (Hanks) as he’s stranded on a desert island following a plane crash. In the final scene, we see Chuck delivering a package that stayed with him the entirety of his marooning. The ad uses hilarity to play on this scene, with Hanks’s lookalike delivering a package and asking what’s inside. The woman says nonchalantly: “Nothing really. Just a satellite phone, GPS locator, fishing rod, water purifier, and some seeds.” The hilarity is as ironic as it is iconic. 

Ad #6: “Cat Herding” (2010) 

Electronic Data Systems (EDS) might not be a household name, but its Super Bowl ad from 2010, “Cat Herding,” is. 

Why it works: In its own right, the ad watches like an award-winning Western film. While not truly emotional in the way that “When I Grow Up” and “Parisian Love” are, the ad brilliantly creates drama out of the ridiculous. The cat herders, acting as ranch hands, speak proudly about their longstanding history—with the scenes becoming more and more ridiculous. Without once showing information technology equipment, EDS finishes the bizarre and memorable ad with, “In a sense, this is what we do. We bring together information, ideas, and technologies and make them go where you want.” 

Ad #7: “Parisian Love” (2010)   

With Google, all things seem possible. At least, that’s the premise of the 2010 “Parisian Love” Super Bowl ad that earned its spot as one of the best Super Bowl ads. 

Why it works: Without actors, script, or voiceover, Google created an ad that told a complete and beautiful love story via Google searches. What begins with “study abroad paris” turns into “impress a french girl,” “long distance relationship advice,” “jobs in paris,” and “churches in paris.” The final search hits home: “how to assemble a crib.” In the span of 52 seconds, Google has you falling in love with unknown characters and dreaming of the possibilities in your own life. 

The heartstring-tugging continued in 2020 with “Loretta,” now showcasing voice search. 

Ad #8: “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” (2010)  

In a meta ‘men playing football during a Super Bowl ad’ moment, Snicker’s “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” was culturally impactful and began a hugely successful ad campaign of the same name. 

Why it works: Snickers knows its target audience has quite a range, with candy cravers of all ages and genders loving the peanut and chocolate bar. To appeal to everyone, their 2010 Super Bowl ad featured American sweetheart Betty White playing a game of touch football with a group of men, the 88-year-old even getting tackled in the mud at one point. The game pauses, and during a huddle, they ask White: “Mike, what is your deal, man…You’re playing like Betty White out there.” Eyebrows raise further when “Mike’s” girlfriend runs over from the stands and says, “Baby, come here! Eat a Snickers.” After doing so, Betty White is replaced by a younger man who smiles, nods, and plays a better game. The “You’re not you when you’re hungry” on-screen copy instantly pays off the hilarious ad—and calls to mind audience members’ own moments of hangriness.  

Ad #9: “Like a Girl” (2015)

What happens when an innocuous phrase becomes tainted? You flip it on its head. Always did just that with its 2015 “Like a Girl” Super Bowl ad and the following campaign. 

Why it works: The emotional ad is split into two parts, with the second designed to make viewers stop and think. It opens with the question: “What does it mean to ‘do something like a girl?’” The adults in the first half play out stereotypes of running, fighting, and throwing like a girl with each new interviewee, making the actions more exaggerated and ridiculous. After the on-screen copy asks when the phrase became an insult, it cuts to the second part, where they ask young girls the same question. Hilarity and exaggeration are replaced by these young girls showing their full strength and confidence. The final screen, “Let’s make #LikeAGirl mean amazing things,” plays to Always’ long history of female empowerment in front of a dominantly male (54%) audience.

Ad #10: “Alexa Loses Her Voice” (2018)  

The last on our list is from none other than industry giant Amazon. Its “Alexa Loses Her Voice” ad from 2018 imagines a day in which the AI-powered device needs a little help. 

What it works: Amazon knows the pervasiveness of its products, particularly its smart home helper, Alexa. With an iconic voice in its own right, Amazon imagines the seemingly impossible when Alexa takes a sick day and needs a little help from its friends. The first scene shows employees approaching Bezos with the issue, saying (somewhat confidently) that they have an alternative plan in place. Their solution? Replacing Alexa’s voice with celebrities. From Gordon Ramsey cussing out a grilled cheese sandwich maker to Cardi B laughing at a young boy’s “How far is Mars?” inquiry, the ad is instantly memorable—all while clearly showing the usefulness of Alexa (“Thanks guys, but I’ll take it from here”). 

Trust an Agency With Industry Savvy 

It’s true that most brands won’t make their way into the best Super Bowl ads hall of fame. But, at Savy, we think every bit of marketing that goes out your door should play to your audience’s emotions, be culturally relatable, aim for memorability and usefulness, and mean something. When you’re ready to put your best players in, Savy can coach you through the game

Don’t forget to watch the Super Bowl this February 11th to see if some of the players will beat out our MVPs.