One-hit wonders, fabulous failures

The hit-and-miss game of Super Sunday advertising

By Jane Weaver


The Super Bowl, with its vast TV audience, is the moment of truth for every advertiser in America. A crowd-pleasing commercial can turn an obscure product into an overnight success or a witty slogan into a national catchphrase. A dud can sink sales and ruin a marketer’s image for years. With all this in mind, takes a look at some of the one-hit wonders, the odd characters and other memorable moments of advertising’s biggest day.

REMEMBER HERB THE nerd? In 1986, when the Chicago Bears stomped the New England Patriots in New Orleans (46-10), Burger King introduced a $40 million campaign all about the balding, white-socked dude, supposedly the only man in America who hadn’t eaten at the fast food chain. The high-profile ad campaign was a whopper of a flop. Sales fizzled, the commercials were quickly yanked and the ad agency J. Walter Thompson was fired.


Not many Super Bowl commercials have bombed so brutally, earning their place in the championship’s marketing Hall of Shame. Of the hundreds of ads that have aired in the last three decades, most have been simply unmemorable. Others strike a nerve, either living on as spectacular failures or fabulous successes. Here’s our highly arbitrary look at past Super Bowl ads.


A handful of commercials have aired during the big game, never to be seen again.

In 1985, Apple Computer was coming off the high of what many experts consider the greatest commercial ever produced, the minute-long ‘1984’ piece that helped turned the Super Bowl into the marketing frenzy it is today. In that Orwellian spot for the new Macintosh personal computer, a blond in red shorts frees the downtrodden masses from the corporate ‘Big Brother,’ IBM.

Apple Computer’s “Lemmings,” has been called one of the worst Super Bowl commercials ever. This still shows blindfolded business people as the march off a cliff.

For an encore, Apple’s agency Chiat/Day introduced ‘Lemmings.’ The agency even tried to build pre-game buzz with ads that warned, ‘If you go to the bathroom during the Super Bowl’s fourth quarter, you’ll be sorry.’ What viewers got was an eerie spot in which blindfolded corporate drones, whistling ‘hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go,’ march single-file off a cliff. The dark ads were deemed too ‘macabre’ and never appeared again. The lingering bad taste kept Apple away from the Super Bowl until 1999 when it returned with a simple, Y2K bit featuring the computer ‘Hal’ from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’

Another spot that aired only once was Dan Quayle’s appearance in Frito Lay‘s introduction of its Wavy Lays potato chips. Quayle mocked his own ‘tater troubles in the spot where a young boy at the Super Bowl works his way from the top row of the stadium to the front by challenging people to eat just one potato chip. Quayle loses his seat. The young actor also made his first and only Super Bowl appearance? ‘The Lord of the Ring’s’ Hobbit hero, Elijah Wood.


No doubt about it, animals, whether real or animated, rule. A few became household names.

In 1997, Anheuser-Busch needed a follow-up to its wildly popular Bud-wei-ser frogs. Enter Louie the Lizard and Frank, the loopiest sidekick in Super Bowl history. Louie was so jealous of the frogs that he hired a ferret to kill them. Louie was back in 1998 with another assassination attempt. The frogs had their revenge in 1999, giving the lizards a vicious tongue-lashing.

There have been other breakthrough spokescritters, such as Budweiser’s Spuds Mackenzie in 1987 surrounded by semi-dressed bimbos. But none flew so high as E-Trade’s popular chimpanzee or crashed so suddenly.

In 2000, the chimp had an auspicious debut dancing on a garbage can.

When the commercial ended with the line, ‘Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks,’ a simian star was born. In 2001, the online trader’s chimp returned in a brilliant parody of the 1960s tearful Indian anti-pollution commercial, with the mourning chimp surveying the ruins of the dot-com crash. The E-Trade chimp’s appearance in a splashy fake musical number last year hit a sour note in the time of Enron and economic uncertainty.


Some commercials were just too weird for the masses. Or ahead of their time. In 1995, Nike’s bizarre 60-second commercial starring wild-eyed Dennis Hopper, unsettled many viewers. In a raging speech evocative of George C. Scott in ‘Patton,’ Hopper’s fanatic NFL referee character stands in front of a dark flag bearing a Nike swoosh. ‘When I was a boy, I dreamed of playing football,’ he says, erupts into a firey ode to ‘the ballet of bulldozers, the moments of grace in a sea of fury.’ It’s a virtuoso performance that was deemed too weird for the masses. But in an era of highly-paid, bland celebrity endorsers chosen for their mainstream appeal, Hopper’s unfiltered conviction is refreshing.

Holiday Inn took a risk with this gender-bending spot in 1997.

In 1998, Holiday Inn pulled a gender-bending fast one in a failed attempt to show off the hotel chain’s $1 billion makeover. At a time when cross-dresser RuPaul was a big celebrity, the Holiday Inn executives thought football fans would chuckle at the 30-second spot in which a beautiful woman in a leopard print mini-dress attends her high-school reunion. She turns heads as camera close-ups focus on her breasts and legs. The twist-ending shocker comes when one of her former classmates realizes that she’s had a sex change operation. A hoot, but reaction to the ad was so negative, that Holiday Inn executives pulled it 2 days later.

In 1990, Nissan showed its 300ZX Turbo outrunning a motorcycle, a race car and a fighter jet in a 30-second fantasy sequence directed by Ridley Scott (‘Gladiator’). ‘So I’m having a dream,’ the narrator says. ‘I’m in a Turbo 300 and these guys are after me – and they can’t catch me.’ The visuals dazzled TV viewers, but highway safety organizations protested the spot, claiming that it encouraged highway speeding. More than 20 years later in a post-‘Fast and the Furious’ world, the ad would hardly cause a stir.


Sometimes it all comes down to the right words. A punchline that lands like ‘Hail Mary’ pass can turn a brand into a marketing champ.

Match the catchphrase to the brand.

1. ‘You’ve Got the Right One Baby, Uh-Huh.’

2. ‘Nice shoes.’

3. ‘Nothin’ but Net.’

4. ‘I Love You, man.’

5. ‘Never hire a ferret to do a weasel’s job.’

6. ‘Wazzzupp?!’

(Answers at the end of the story)


In the last few years, former sourpuss and ex-Republican senator Bob Dole has become a smiling pitchman in Super Bowl ads. This shot is from a 1997 Visa commercial. Apart from Quayle, Bob Dole and former governers Mario Cuomo of New York and Ann Richards of Texas have turned into marketing shills. In the late 1990s, failed Republican presidential candidate Dole played the loveable loser for Visa, saying ‘I just can’t win’ when he can’t cash a check in his own hometown. He’s also made Viagara jokes for Pepsi.

Cuomo and Richards quipped about losing office in a Frito-Lay commercial for Doritos in 1995, a commercial that many found to be a depressing professional end for the ex-politicians.


Most game ads go for laughs, but a few go right for the heart. In 1979, Coca-Cola set the sentimental standard with a simple, 30-second drama featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers’ ‘Mean Joe’ Greene. After a young boy offer his Coke to the limping Greene, the defensive tackle throws him his jersey. The ad’s misty-eyed idealism of heroes, sports and kids so captured the cultural zeitgeist that NBC made a TV-movie, The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid,’ based on it in 1981.

Last year, Anheuser-Busch offered a wrenching, powerful tribute featuring its iconic Clydesdale horses. The animals are seen passing by great American monuments until they reach Ground Zero, where they kneel in tribute to the victims of Sept. 11. The emotional, but risky, ad received mixed reviews from advertising experts, but most viewers applauded.

February 3, 2002 – Super Bowl ad: The Budweiser Clydesdales gallop across America, visiting landmarks, including Ground Zero.Answers to catchphrases: 1. Nike (1990)2. Diet Pepsi (1991)3. McDonald’s (1993)4. Bud Light (1995)5. Budweiser (1998)6. Budweiser (2001)

Budweiser’s ‘Wassup’ commercial spawned a national catchphrase