Learning from Losses: 5 Super Bowl Commercials that Missed the Mark

Written by Renegade Productions February 11, 2022

As a video producer, I watch movies, commercials, and general media that culture has forgotten like an athlete studying footage from a defeat. Studying UN-memorable commercials helps me avoid costly mistakes in my own work. In fact, instead of looking at great commercials searching for a way to copy their success, I watch to uncover the pitfalls to avoid by those who produced before us.

Here’s a look at some “incomplete passes” from the not-so-distant past.

1) Tandy: TRS-80 2000 Personal Computer (1984) – $368,000 per :30 Commercial

An estimated 77-million surprised viewers watched as the underdog Raiders trounced Washington through three quarters. The bigger surprise, however, would occur in the third quarter as the game faded to commercial and Apple’s iconic ad for the original Macintosh would take center stage. The one-minute ad would forever shake the foundation of what a television ad could convey. Set in an Orwellian dystopia, a female runner hurls a sledgehammer through the “Big Brother” image on the gigantic screen, and Apple ends the advertisement with a simple, compelling statement, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.” This was a dramatic shift in commercial storytelling and advertising would never again be the same.

Figure 1 Apple’s 1984 Commercial

For millennials, like myself, the absolute deluge of absurdist ads and dramatic branded content thrown on large sports events is as second nature as the game itself. The commercials of the early 80’s, however, were more straightforward and personal; they spoke to consumer needs and fears, instead of capturing the imagination of the audience. Atari’s commercial for the Atari XL Home Computer featured a well-trusted Alan Alda as he set up his computer and reassured the audience that they too could utilize this new technology.

Figure 2 Atari XL Home Computer Commercial

For their Super Bowl commercial, Tandy chose to mix the spectacle of computer technology with a classic sale to audiences at home. We see Bill Bixby walk across the Martian landscape, prophesizing, “the dawn of a new era in personal computing,” as lasers transform the terrain and the computer itself. Tandy cobbled together an ad that aimed to mix personal and sci-fi. Unfortunately, it failed to truly produce the spectacle and mystery of Apple’s 1984 homage, and also did not connect with a home audience like Alan Alda’s simple pitch of the Atari XL Home Computer. Tandy neglected to choose a lane; either blow the audience away with wonder or try to sell to them on a personal level.

Figure 3 Tandy TRS-80 Commercial

As creatives, we must keep our goals concrete without being bogged down by “the abundance of possibilities”. Our producers at Renegade expertly sync core brand messaging to engaging video production.

2) Doritos: Lay Leno (1990) – $700,400 per :30 Commercial

The celebrity endorsement is a staple of Super Bowl commercials dating back to Super Bowl IV when Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus endorsed Prestone antifreeze. The choice of an endorser is heavily dependent on the identification of key-demographics and the selection of celebrities who can influence that market. There are many generally forgotten celebrity endorsements including Joe Namath for Noxzema, Eric Clapton for Michelob, and the aforementioned Alan Alda for Atari.

Super Bowl XXIV saw the San Francisco 49ers absolutely demolish the Denver Broncos with a final score of 55-10. Game results so painfully lopsided show a clear lack of preparation for the adversary. When marketers are unprepared for their big opportunities, it is just as clear. Doritos painfully misunderstood their brand identity and audience with a paid endorsement by Jay Leno. In only fifteen seconds, Leno managed to seamlessly insult football players, brag about his personal wealth, and laugh about the ease of his work. The commercial quickly ended with the phrase: “Crunch all you want, we’ll make more.” This is the perfect example of a commercial that did the bare minimum to attempt to sell its product. “Doritos are for jerks!” was what the audience inferred. It is honestly shocking that a company paid to produce such a catastrophic advertisement.

Figure 4 Doritos – Jay Leno Commercial

Interestingly, another blockbuster endorsement would playout during Super Bowl 24 as Nike unveiled a masterful pairing on the court with Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny in their famed Hare Jordan commercial. Nike seamlessly hooked their key audience as well as outsiders by using iconic celebrities to reflect and expand on the brand’s identity. This perfect execution would leave such an impact that it would greenlight the feature film Space Jam.

Figure 5 Hare Jordan Commercial

As creatives, we must keep our goals concrete without being bogged down by “the abundance of possibilities”. Our producers at Renegade expertly sync core brand messaging to engaging video production.

3) LifeMinders: Worst Commercial You’ll Ever See (2000) – $2.2 million per :30 Commercial

Relieved from the weight of Y2K, Super Bowl XXXIV saw the St. Louis Rams narrowly outplay the Tennessee Titans with a final score of 23-16. (Losing by one touchdown has got to be harder to handle than being totally blown out of the water.) It must be painful for anyone to lose while knowing success was within reach. One such failure was felt by the brand LifeMinders, with their self-proclaimed “…worst commercial on the Super Bowl.” This commercial is brilliantly close to being compelling. The spot utilizes purposefully generic text and off-putting music to lure the audience into focusing on an ad that truly does standout from the rest. Being able to differentiate a spot from the competition is easier said than done, and this ad succeeded initially, then failed to land with any hook.

Figure 6 LifeMinders Commercial

In comparison, a brand took a similar route in the 2021 with much better results was Oatly. This commercial for Oatly distinctly separated itself from the high-budget, hyper-polished ads surrounding it. Oatly’s CEO Toni Peterson gave a sincere performance of a cute jingle in the middle of an open field – that’s it. The commercial, like the product itself, is simple and effective. Experience tells us that as a brand, separating yourself from the crowd is always going to be appealing, but if you fail to honestly reflect your brand then you’ll be worse off than never having been seen at all. This lesson is a key principle at Renegade — we guarantee to stay honest to your core message while differentiating your brand from your competition.

Figure 7 Oatly Commercial

As creatives, we must keep our goals concrete without being bogged down by “the abundance of possibilities”. Our producers at Renegade expertly sync core brand messaging to engaging video production.

4) SalesGenie: Pandas (2008) – $2.9 million per :30 Commercial

As the Giants and Patriots took the field for Super Bowl XLII, no one could have predicted the controversy that would surround the voicing for animated pandas. SalesGenie’s animated Panda ad campaign, though short lived, truly embodied the “Is there such thing as bad press?” debate. In the commercial, two pandas speak in broken English accents about the benefits of SalesGenie’s services. The commercial was quickly pulled from future lineups because of a fervorous debate around whether the broken English spoken by the pandas was racist. However, the conversation around the commercial did not translate into any support for SalesGenie itself. Lessons learned? At the end of the day, if your spot feels questionably offensive, it’s better to air on the side of caution rather than push your luck.

Figure 8 SalesGenie Commercial

4) Volkswagen: Black Beetle (2011) – $3.5 million per :30 Commercial

In 2011, the cost of Super Bowl commercial space was at a record high $3.4 million per :30 commercial. Brands needed to make sure the ads they produced would return the investment and would hook the audience’s attention to make an impact.

In 2011, Volkswagen decided to hedge their bets with a two radically different approaches to their Super Bowl commercial. One aimed at imagination through visuals and other through a relatable expansion of childhood imagination. The “Black Beetle” commercial play-on the well-known VW Beetle by showing an insect speeding through forest floors, past dangerous creatures, and around treacherous turns before showing off the iconic Beetle look. It’s a compelling spin on the iconography of their car and I imagine they were very happy with the final piece. There’s only one issue… their other commercial was profoundly more effective.

Figure 9 Volkswagen Beetle Commercial

On the same broadcast, Volkswagen debuted their breakthrough The Force commercial, which was discussed relentlessly following the game. This commercial so impressively dominated the conversation that it totally distracted from any focus on the Beetle spot. Going through the work of producing and paying for both spots cost radically more than if they had just stuck to either of their fantastic ideas and saved the other for down the road. Just because as a company can afford to excessively market doesn’t mean that the rewards will be excessive. Most clients cannot afford to invest in two different approaches and at Renegade, we work diligently to produce video that is effective and NOT excessive.

Figure 10 Volkswagen The Force Commercial

Super Bowl commercials are grandiose, strange, desperate, and beautiful – and, in 2022, they’ll cost $6.5 million per :30 spot. As you watch this weekend, keep in mind that Renegade is here and ready to produce your next viral video campaign.