This past Sunday, football fans across North America watched the Super Bowl and celebrated their favourite sport. The rest of us tuned in to see some great advertising.
And it’s not all beer and car ads; technology companies have a long and illustrious history as Super Bowl advertisers.
So we decided to run our own game: What were the best Super Bowl ads from tech companies in years past? Wading through four decades’ worth of Super Bowl ads was entertaining, educational (who knew that Exxon once had an office products division?) and sometimes tedious, but we finally found the 10 tech ads that we think are the most compelling.
Ground rules: To be considered for our list, the ad had to be from a company whose primary business is technology, not just a Web retailer or online service. That meant that standout ads from the likes of Monster.com and E-Trade didn’t qualify. Also, the ad must have aired during the Super Bowl – which ruled out countless clever and entertaining tech ads, including Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign.
With those rules in mind, have a look at our picks (presented in chronological order).
Xerox: “Monks” (1976)
Brother Dominic has a problem: The head of his order has requested 500 copies of a handwritten manuscript. So he does what any smart monk would do – turns to the new Xerox 9200 duplicating system, which feeds and cycles the originals, and duplicates, reduces, collates and more, all at “an incredible 2 pages per second.” It’s a miracle!
Apple: “1984” (1984)
No “top 10” list of Super Bowl commercials would be complete without Apple’s iconic “1984,” which introduced the vibrant new Macintosh computer to a sterile, gray, corporate dystopia inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. And yet it breaks all the rules of Super Bowl advertising: It’s not funny. It’s not cute. It’s not fast-moving. It’s not heartwarming.
But, wow. Just … wow.
(For more Apple advertising highs and lows through the years, see “Mac advertising masterpieces and missteps.”)
Intel: “Play That Funky Music” (1997)
Intel’s 1997 ad for its multimedia-friendly Pentium MMX processor is sheer fun. Who can resist grooving along with the dancers (“Intel engineers”) in spangly clean-room “bunny suits” as they gyrate to Wild Cherry’s funk-rock anthem “Play That Funky Music”?
CompuServe: “Not Busy” (1997)
This commercial is a great reminder of what it was like to dial up to the Internet in 1997 – extremely frustrating if you couldn’t get through to your ISP. We like it because it plays with the medium, telling the whole story with audio only.
Lotus: “Capitalism” (1997)
In 1997, the Internet was on the tip of everybody’s tongue, but few businesses had figured out how to turn a profit from it. This in-your-face ad featuring comedian Denis Leary sneered at the lack of direction of most Web sites and users (“A zillion dollars’ worth of technology and what are we doing with it?” “Browsing.”), urging viewers to use Lotus Domino to get some real work done. Whether or not you agree with its message of “raw, naked, in-your-face capitalism,” there’s no doubt it makes an impact.
Iomega: “Bermuda Triangle” (1998)
This clever ad shows the interior of an airplane flying through the Bermuda Triangle, with multiple objects (and people) rapidly disappearing around the spokesperson. But at least his data won’t disappear – there’s an Iomega Zip drive and Zip disks on board to back it all up.
Ironically, Zip drives were often subject to a phenomenon known as the “click of death” – a sound heralding the drive’s failure and complete data loss. As one editor described it, “You suddenly heard a bunch of clicks from the drive and knew that this was it; your data was dust.”
Network Associates: “Missile Silo” (1998)
OK, it’s a bit juvenile: Two Russian-accented characters in a nuclear missile silo wonder if the launch command they’ve received is the work of a hacker, but launch the missile anyway. But this ad has a great message – “Who’s watching your network?”
EDS: “Cat Herders” (2000)
Riffing on the idea that its business – managing information, ideas and technologies – is like herding cats, Electronic Data Systems takes the simile to its illogical extreme in this masterpiece of deadpan humor. Rugged cowboys on horseback drive recalcitrant kitties across the open plains, squint into the camera and say things like, “Being a cat-herder is probably about the toughest thing I think I’ve ever done.”
Computer Associates: “Amnesia” (2002)
Slapstick humor never goes out of style, as this ad for CA’s BrightStor storage software aptly demonstrates. A series of mishaps takes out the only people who know the important information for a client meeting, leaving their boss staring uncomfortably at the expectant clients as the announcer asks, “Is your data backup as reliable as it should be?”
Garmin: “Napoleon” (2008)
Maybe we’re just suckers for bouncy French pop songs, but this ad, which features a seemingly driverless car using the Garmin nüvi GPS device to zip through Paris to a rendezvous in the countryside, always makes us smile.
And finally, two that made us cringe
We thought GoDaddy made the most cringe-inducing tech Super Bowl ads ever, but now we’re not so sure. Here are two more ads that we just couldn’t resist sharing.
Atari: “Little Boy” (1982)
Forget the sappy song, smarmy announcer and faux naïf husband in this 1982 Atari ad; it’s the wife’s adoring “awww” look that really makes us squirm.
Sharp: “Little Sharps and Big Sharps” (1985)
And this gem from Sharp … well, it’s just pure ’80s cheesiness.