For NFL players, competing in the Super Bowl offers the chance of a lifetime—an opportunity to shine under the bright lights of this spectacular sporting event. And for many companies that yearn to reach the millions of TV viewers watching the big game, a 30-second TV commercial during the telecast is also a rare opportunity to strut their stuff on an international stage.
Yet like many of those football players who wilt under the Super Bowl’s intense spotlight, so too can a company’s future if its commercial fails to grab viewers’ attention or generate buzz, and ends up as a colossal waste of money. (Thirty-second spots are running around $2.6 million this year.) With IT-related companies, the ability to get their message out to the masses can be that much harder. Translating what, say, EDS does into a 30-second spot that entertains and enlightens is infinitely harder than the marketing rigors that Budweiser faces.
That’s not to say IT companies and e-commerce players haven’t given it the old college try over the years: Witness the year 2000, the apex of the dotcom boom, when the Super Bowl featured 17 dotcom commercials. We all know what happened to many of those companies shortly thereafter.
So for your enjoyment and a bit of nostalgia, CIO.com rated the 10 best and 10 worst IT Super Bowl commercials, starting way back with Xerox’s "It’s a Miracle" spot in 1977, all the way up to Careerbuilder.com’s “Working with Monkeys” spot in 2006. We used three means of analysis to differentiate the best from the worst. First, we borrowed a rule of thumb from legendary ad pundit Bob Garfield. He said, in his Super Bowl roundup last year, that an organization’s purpose for running a Super Bowl spot “is about selling messages and strategy and reaching the consumer.” Second, over-the-top attempts at humor just as often fall flat; there’s something to be said for subtlety and clever visuals. Third, we must admit to a soft spot for monkeys.
A special thanks to two websites, where you can view the commercials listed below: SuperbowlAds.com and iFilm. Here they are, in chronological order, the 10 best and 10 worst IT-related Super Bowl commercials of all time.
THE 10 BEST
The Company: Xerox
What It Does: Document management technology and services enterprise
The Super Bowl Ad: It’s a Mircacle
The Gist: Brother Dominic toils painstakingly over a manuscript with a quill pen, while monkish chants intone in the background at the apparently medieval monastery. Brother Dominic presents his finished work to his superior who praises him highly and then says, “Now, I just need 500 more sets.” Near despair, Brother Dominic has a sudden idea and, racing from the cloister, enters a bright white room dominated by the Xerox 9200 Duplicating System. There, experts explain the mammoth copier and get him his stack of copied manuscripts. He delivers them to his superior, whose heavenward reply is: “It’s a miracle.” Not only did this ad win awards all over the place, it was one of the earliest examples of information technology advertising at the big game. 1984The Company: Apple (formerly Apple Computer)What It Does: Computer hardware and software makerThe Super Bowl Ad: 1984The Gist: One of the most famous TV commercials—never mind Super Bowl commercials—ever. The climax of the commercial shows a woman, who’s running from “security” forces, hurl a sledge hammer at the “Big Brother” screen, which is being silently watched by legions of uninspired and subservient drones. Playing off the Orwellian themes, Apple announced with this commercial the arrival of its Macintosh computer on Jan. 24. And what an announcement it was.
The Company: Apple (formerly Apple Computer)
What It Does: Computer hardware and software maker
The Super Bowl Ad: It Was a Bug, Dave
The Gist: Playing off widespread Y2K fears, Apple promoted that its computers would be the only ones fully compliant come the turn of the millennium. Apple employed the voice of HAL, the seemingly all-powerful computer from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, along with its red-light imagery, to deliver its message. A couple of lines stuck out, as HAL talks to Dave: “Dave, do you remember the year 2000, when computers began to misbehave?” HAL says in his monotone style. “The human programmers never taught us to recognize the year 2000. When the new millennium arrived, we had no choice but to cause a global economic disruption.” Though the commercial was a hit, it turned out Dave didn’t have too much to worry about. 1999
The Company: Monster.com
What It Does: Online job site
The Super Bowl Ad: When I Grow Up...
The Gist: A series of children “come clean” as to what they really want to be when they grow up and get a job. Some of the zingers: “When I grow up...I want to claw my way up to middle management”; “I want to be replaced on a whim”; “I want to be a yes man”; “I want to be paid less for doing the same job.” The winner, for us, was the pudgy kid with glasses who says, with so much confidence, “I want to be forced into early retirement.” And Monster.com’s tagline leaves us with this lingering thought: “What did you want to be?” Brilliant. 2000
The Company: EDS
What It Does: Business process, application services and IT outsourcer
The Super Bowl Ad: Cat Herders
The Gist: We’ve all heard of cattle herders, but what about cat herders? The lines in this commercial are wonderful (“Herding cats...don’t let anybody tell you it’s easy”), but the visuals make the ad sing for EDS—the herder rolling up the ball of yarn; the cowboys (er, catboys) showing off the scratches on their faces; the herder using the lint brush on himself; and the herder who sneezes because of his cat allergies. Classic. Now, what does all that have to do with EDS? At the end, the announcer says: “In a sense, this is what we do. We bring together information, ideas and technologies and make them go where you want.” Call it cliche or analogy; it puts it in a nutshell. 2000
The Company: E-Trade
What It Does: Online investment provider
The Super Bowl Ad: E-Trade Chimp, Part I
The Gist: A chimpanzee, dressed up in an E-Trade T-shirt that covers a suit, dances on a bucket in a suburban home’s garage. He’s surrounded by two dim-looking men who clap to the cha-cha music in the background. Near the end, the viewer sees E-Trade’s message: “Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you doing with your money?” So you can call us a sucker for a company that makes fun of itself or of being an old softie for primate-based humor, but this is great stuff. 2000
The Company: Pets.com (now owned by Petsmart.com)
What It Did: Online purveyor of all things for pets
The Super Bowl Ad: Baby, Please Don’t Go...
The Gist: The Pets.com sock-puppet dog sings a horrible version of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” that shows how sad pets become when their owners have to leave them to buy pet supplies. This ad is funny in its own right, but the commercial (and the sock-puppet dog itself) became the poster child for the excess and stupidity of the dotcom age. Unfortunately for the backers of Pets.com, the company tagline “Everything they need” couldn’t persuade enough consumers to buy dog food and kitty litter online. Pets.com closed its virtual doors in 2000. 2001
The Company: E-Trade
What It Does: Online investment provider
The Super Bowl Ad: E-Trade Chimp, Part II
The Gist: The E-Trade chimp is back, this time atop a horse as he strides through the charred and pitiful office-park remains of the dotcom era. A couple of the visuals are hilarious—the HQ signs for TieClasp.com and Pimentoloaf.com; the sports car with the DOTCOMER license plate that’s in ruins. The E-Trade chimp watches a wrecking ball destroy a building with the name eSocks.com on it, and after the ball hits, a sock-puppet dog (looking a lot like the Pets.com dog) lands at the monkey’s feet. The chimpanzee sheds some tears for all of the busted dotcom dreams. E-Trade’s message: “Invest wisely.” 2001
The Company: Hotjobs.com
What It Does: Online job site
The Super Bowl Ad: Go
The Gist: In an office, one of the silver balls in a “Newton’s Cradle” desk toy comes off, then rolls out of the room, through the office building and across the street to where some kids are playing with marbles and other colorful balls. The silver ball joins in on the fun, now free from the monotony of its previous existence. In the background, the lyrics “Go where you want to go, and do what you want to do” play. Clever and visually gratifying. 2006
The Company: CareerBuilder.com
What It Does: Online job site
The Super Bowl Ad: Working with Monkeys
The Gist: The beleaguered knowledge worker who literally works with monkeys (yes, we know they’re really chimpanzees) is back again in 2006, after making his debut in 2005. In this spot, the monkeys are celebrating the company’s great financial results while listening to glam rock music and dancing around. The one using a flaming $20 bill to light his cigar is priceless. The lone non-monkey in the company walks into the conference room, stops the music and corrects the positioning of the financial results chart, which actually shows that the company is not doing so well. The monkeys prefer it the other way, however, and one of them puts the chart back to the way it was before. The senior monkey in the room orders our cube-dwelling humanoid to start dancing like the others. According to CareerBuilder.com, “A better job awaits,” though we hope Monkey Inc. gets one more year outta this poor fellow.
The Company: GoDaddy.com
What It Does: Internet domain-name registrar and hosting service provider
The Super Bowl Ad: The Broadcast Censorship Hearings
The Gist: GoDaddy.com makes fun of the fallout from the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” that occurred during the previous year’s Super Bowl halftime telecast. In this spot, the GoDaddy.com girl “testifies” before a panel of governmental personnel on broadcast censorship. Though the ad doesn’t appear to be too racy, earlier versions submitted by GoDaddy.com were deemed inappropriate for airing by CBS. (Of course, GoDaddy.com execs milked the publicity for all its worth and put the banned ads up on its website, driving even more traffic.)
THE 10 WORST
The Company: Autobytel.com
What It Does: Online car purveyor
The Super Bowl Ad: The Pajama Purchase
The Gist: A woman in her pajamas, sitting next to a cat (who’s evidently extremely interested in car buying—like all cats) purchases a car from her very own home over the Internet. As the announcer reminds us, “Low-cost car buying—fast, easy and painless at Autobytel!” Really? While online car shopping has taken off, the jury is still out on whether people will actually purchase the whole enchilada over the Internet—despite what the woman in her PJs and car-savvy feline think. 1998
The Company: Intel
What It Does: Computer chip maker
The Super Bowl Ad: The Case of the Missing Processor
The Gist: A mystery regarding who stole the missing Intel Pentium 2 processor was to inspire legions of Super Bowl fans to log on to Intel.com and cast their vote for whodunit—Jimmy “The Wire” or Susie “The Mouse”? This bored the heck out of us. Whodunit? Who cares? 1998
The Company: Network Associates (now McAfee)
What It Did: Network reliability and security
The Super Bowl Ad: Nuclear ‘Hack’ocaust
The Gist: Soviet nuclear-missile launchers don’t know if it’s a real nuclear launch sequence or a hacker just having some fun. “Who really cares?” they decide, and shoot the missiles anyway. Uh-oh, shoulda called Network Associates! Lame. (We kept wondering when the self-proclaimed “famous Russian comedian” Yakov Smirnoff was going to show up and save this commercial.) The parting gag, unfortunately, is even worse. “Where’s the missile headed?” asks one of the soldiers, surprisingly named Boris. “Los Angeles,” replies the other. “Bummer,” responds Boris. Ugh. 1999
The Company: Buy.com
What It Does: Internet superstore
The Super Bowl Ad: Why Buy Anywhere Else?
The Gist: We just don’t get it, and are too bored and annoyed to try to figure it all out: Are those supposed to be aliens buying all kinds of stuff from Buy.com? Are those what people who live in cyberspace look like? Why would they want to watch the movie Caddyshack? Frankly, just suggest how you might beat Amazon.com, and we’d be more impressed. 1999
The Company: Victoria’s Secret
What It Does: Purveyor of women’s lingerie and intimate wear
The Super Bowl Ad: Fashion Show
The Gist: OK, so this isn’t a technology company. That’s for sure. However, the IT angle here is quite interesting. The commercial hyped the first-ever World Wide Web “Fashion Show,” which would take place 72 hours after the Super Bowl exclusively at www.victoriassecret.com. So what happened? Like many of its garments, Vicky’s servers were too skimpy, and a deluge of website traffic (1.5 million visitors) overburdened the site’s servers. In turn, many interested viewers were shut out of the show. Such a shame. 2000
The Company: Epidemic.com
What It Did: Dotcom viral marketer
The Super Bowl Ad: Get Paid for Doing Nothing
The Gist: Include a link in your e-mail to a friend about a business or its promotion, and if your friend buys, you get paid. It was as simple as that—just doing what you normally do, and getting some cash for it. Unfortunately for Epidemic.com, it didn’t do a good enough job marketing itself, and just a couple months after its first and only Super Bowl commercial in 2000, it closed shop. (The math was fascinating: Epidemic raised $7.6 million in its first round of funding, spent $1.6 million for the 2000 Super Bowl ad placement and shut down in June 2000.) 2000
The Company: LifeMinders.com
What It Did: E-mail reminder and information service. For free.
The Super Bowl Ad: The Worst Commercial
The Gist: Claiming to have made “the worst commercial on the Super Bowl,” LifeMinders.com tried to go the self-parody route. “But we don’t know diddly about making ads,” the company states in the commercial, while background “music” consists of someone butchering “Chop Sticks” on the piano. And you were going to be sending us reminders? Well, yes, you don’t know diddly. LifeMinders.com’s whereabouts are unknown. 2000
The Company: OurBeginning.com (Ashton Worldwide now owns and uses the site name.)
What It Does: Online stationary site
The Super Bowl Ad: Life’s An Event...
The Gist: Brides-to-be in their wedding gowns fight over invitations and other wedding-related stuff, just moments before their big day. The message: Don’t wait until the day of your wedding to pick up your invitations. Because that would constitute a problem—kind of like the thinking behind OurBeginning.com’s 2000 Super Bowl participation. 2002
The Company: Gateway
What It Does: PC and home electronics maker
The Super Bowl Ad: The Computer-Literate Cow
The Gist: Talking cow talks up the new Gateway 700 XL, “the nation’s most advanced personal computer,” in one yawner of an ad. After seeing the new computer, the talking cow says of the PC, “Daddy like.” We say of the ad: Daddy no like. Surely $2 mil could get you something better? 2004
The Company: AOL
What It Does: Internet connection provider and Web portal
The Super Bowl Ad: Supercharge Your Internet!
The Gist: If you have a couple of mean-looking mechanics, and you attach the glowing “AOL 9.0 With Topspeed Technology” box to anything—say, a car, a motorcycle, even a Rascal scooter—you’ll go really, really fast. OK. But the lingering question remains: Even if I have the “AOL 9.0 With Topspeed Technology” box, what happens if I’m still hooking in to the Internet through a dial-up connection? What happens then, AOL?