Every year in early February, Americans rally around their televisions by the tens of millions for an unofficial holiday, one that livens up that long, dark stretch between New Year’s and spring: Super Bowl Sunday. Whether or not you’re rooting for either of the teams playing that day, or even care about the National Football League, is practically irrelevant; the Super Bowl is an agnostic Mardi Gras that happens to take place on the weekend, a chance for people to come together and feast, imbibe and be merry.
Of course, with all those people gathered in front of their screens, companies looking to draw attention to themselves and their products have come to go big on Super Bowl Sunday, spending absurd amounts of money on commercials. As a result, the ads have become as big a draw as the football game itself, with companies working like mad to outdo each other and craft miniature films that compress an entire movie’s worth of levity or drama into as little as 30 seconds.
Car companies have been on the leading edge of this for years, sparing no expense to whip up ads that poke people right in their lizard-brain ids. Car buying, after all, is an emotionally-driven decision at the end of the day, so a company that can whip up a visceral response to its products stands a better chance of convincing buyers to fork over tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on that ride they park in their driveway.
Which means, of course, that many of those ads are still a delight to watch today.
Volkswagen — “The Force” (2011)
One of the best Super Bowl ads ever, period. Also, the best use of a remote starter, period.
Ford — “The One” (2004)
No CGI, no over-the-top stunts, not even a plot. Just one full minute of the Ford GT going HAM on a racetrack. If it gives you goosebumps, you’re a real car person.
Chrysler — “Born of Fire (Imported from Detroit)” (2011)
Chrysler’s two-minute paean to its hometown may be one of the most chilling, emotionally evocative commercials to ever run across America’s TV screens. The fact that it was ostensibly for the disappointing Chrysler 200, well, that’s best forgotten.
Chevrolet — “Soap” (2004)
One of the best payoffs to the use of a story beginning in media res that you’ll ever see.
Audi — “Horsehead” (2008)
Audi returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in 20 years with this sharp-edged parody of one of the most iconic scenes of The Godfather. It’s safe to say they came out swinging.
Mercedes-Benz — “Welcome” (2011)
Generally speaking, there are two ways to make a memorable Super Bowl ad: yank on the heartstrings, or pull a Cosmo Brown and make ’em laugh. This Mercedes ad went for both.
Honda — “New Truck to Love” (2016)
Another ad with an amusing, unexplained opening and a delayed-but-delightful payoff, this one outdoes most by saving its best joke for a throwaway gag at the end.
Acura — “Transactions” (2012)
While many Super Bowl ads throw celebrities with little connection to the product into the mix, Acura made the most of Jerry Seinfeld and his automotive obsession for its ad promoting the new NSX. Sure, said NSX wouldn’t hit the streets for another four years, but we can’t blame Acura for trying to get folks excited.
Audi — “The Chase” (2009)
If you’re gonna throw shade at your rivals, it’s best if you make it funny. Audi did that by showing competitive brands flopping in decades’ worth of car chases, only for the new A6 to prove the best getaway car. The fact that it starred Jason Statham, who’d recently risen to fame driving an Audi in The Transporter series? Icing on the cake.
Nissan — “Dream” (1990)
It may look dated by today’s standards, but this delightfully-’80s, Ridley Scott-directed ad for the Nissan 300ZX still manages to charm us 30 years on.
Jeep — “Jurassic” (2018)
Yes, Jeep’s 2018 ad for the new Wrangler shamelessly played on Gen X and millennial nostalgia for Jurassic Park. To which we respond: who cares? That last shot of a Jeep and a T. rex frolicking down to the ocean together is literally a dream of ours.
Nissan — “Pigeons” (1997)
Not since Top Gun has Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” been used to such good effect as in this Maxima ad, which features a roving squadron of birds with tactical, uh, fecal cannons.
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