A Brief History of Super Bowl Beer Ads

February 02, 2018

By Aaron Goldfarb, February 02, 2018

For many Americans, the Super Bowl is more about chips, guac, and beer than football. And that extends to the broadcast too, where beer commercials have long been an integral part of the telecast. In fact, looking through the history of them over the past half-century can almost help us understand the tenor of the country at any given moment in time.

You have to remember, though, that for the most part, Super Bowl commercials weren’t a big deal for the game’s first two decades. That all changed with Ridley Scott’s famed “1984” ad for Apple. Suddenly, the need to roll out a special commercial became paramount. The beer industry quickly took to the challenge.

In fact, according to Super Bowl Ad Meter, a post-game survey run by USA Today, a beer commercial has been named the “best” commercial in fourteen of the twenty-seven years it has been tracked. Of course, all those beers commercials were for brands owned by one company, Anheuser-Busch (then ABI), who became the Super Bowl’s exclusive beer sponsor in 1988. Even so, and even if you aren’t a huge Bud fan, you have to admit many of the following spots – which include quite a few other brands pre-1988 (and two sly beer brands post-) – have played an indelible part in American popular culture.

Maybe another beer commercial will capture the imagination this year. It’s more likely than the game actually being a good one.

1967 — none

If there was a beer commercial during Super Bowl I, no one can prove it, as the NFL does not have a full broadcast of the game on tape. Simulcast on both CBS and NBC, we do know that a commercial spot cost a mere $42,000.

1969 — Schlitz’s Moment

If it seems hard to remember a time before Budweiser products dominated Super Bowl Sunday, it seems nearly impossible to believe that Schlitz had perhaps the earliest beer commercial in Super Bowl history. Appearing during Super Bowl III, the fairly by-the-book ad offered the tagline: “When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer.”

1975 — Budweiser Snow Skier and Miller High Life Snow Patrol

The oldest Super Bowl beer commercials that has on file, are both, oddly, centered around skiing. Go figure. Neither are particularly interesting or entertaining.

1979 — Miller Lite Famous Ex-Quarterbacks

The relatively new “lite” beer pioneer employed some former jocks to tout their products during Super Bowl XIII. Back then, current athletes weren’t allowed to be in beer commercials... and, thus, that’s why we’re stuck with ex-Eagles quarterback Norm Snead, ex-Cardinals quarterback Charley Johnson, and ex-Steelers quarterback Terry Hanratty – none of whom any one has heard of today. (Lowenbrau opted for yet another skiing commercial this year. What was it with beer and skiing?!?)

1980 — Orson Welles for Paul Masson

This is not a beer commercial, but the legendary Citizen Kane helmer appeared in an awesome wine spot during Super Bowl XIV, back when the game had wine commercials.

1984 — John Madden’s Miller Lite Train

Miller Lite was able to find someone more famous than those nobody ex-QBs to promote their low-cal product for Super Bowl XVIII. And, why not? It was by then the top-selling light beer in the U.S. While Madden was a much-beloved, former Super Bowl-winning coach who was now famed for his distinctive (“Boom! Where’d that truck come from?!”) announcing style. Most millenials think Madden just designed a video game.

1985 — The Light Beer Battle

The next year, Bud Light tried to steal Miller Lite’s low-cal title, but the king wouldn’t go down without a fight. For Super Bowl XIX, Miller Lite employed Rodney Dangerfield to get “Respect,” while Bud Light urged viewers to not ask, “Give Me a Light,” mocking Miller’s ubiquity.

1987 — Spuds MacKenzie

This is probably hard for some of you to believe, but at one time a fictional beer-drinking, skateboarding bull terrier hawking Bud Light was one of the more famous people in America. First appearing in a spot during Super Bowl XXI, the “original party animal” was such a sensation his mug was soon appearing on countless t-shirts, stuffed animals, and all sorts of other crap (a lot of which you can still find on ebay). Of course, most of it was owned by underage children and, thus, Spuds was not without controversy, mainly from MADD and crusty Senator Strom Thurmond.  

1988 — Bartles & Jaymes

This berry wine cooler isn’t really a beer... but remember those old guys? They were a huge!

1989 — The Bud Bowl Begins

Taking place over a series of clever spots during Super Bowl XXIII, was a game pitting Budweiser against Bud Light. Let me tell you, as a young boy coming of age at the time, there were few things better than watching stop motion-animated beer bottles playing football with each other. Not to mention, Bob Costas was the game’s announcer!

1990 — Bud Bowl II

In an era of mostly NFC Super Bowl romps, the much anticipated Bud Bowl return was quite welcome. Budweiser would beat Bud Light for a second year in a row, though the legalities of the winning play was much disputed at the time. (Seriously.)

1991 — Bud Bowl III

Chris Berman handled studio duties for this one, and Bud Light got its first ever victory on a parody of the famous Stanford/Cal “The Play.” Bud Bowl was losing steam by this point and despite the lack of interest, the company continued with Super Bowl spots over the next four years. After skipping the 1996 game, the Bud Bowl returned for one final grudge match, Bud Bowl 8, during Super Bowl XXXI. No one cared whatsoever by this point. In 2008 Bud Bowl would return once more for pregame festivities hosted by Snoop Dogg. It was also spoofed by The Simpsons as the Duff Bowl.

1995 — Budweiser Frogs

The biggest beer commercial hit since the initial Bud Bowls, like Spuds MacKenzie, a trio of highly-quotable frogs (“Bud! Weis! Er!”) spawned a series of spin-off merchandise and sequalization. The frogs would appear in every Super Bowl but one through the 1999 game. It’s been reported that “all the animatronics, robotics, and hydraulics that would be required to bring the amphibians to life” costs $2.3 million. It too would eventually get spoofed by The Simpsons.

2000 and 2001 — The Whassup Guys

Before Borat and Chappelle’s Show, our nation mostly found its overused and annoying catchphrases from beer commercials. That happened again during the new millennium’s first Super Bowl which unveiled a group of buddies (inexplicably watching the big game apart) who liked to answer the phone like idiots. Whaaaaaasssssssuuuuup. An alien-based sequel to the spot unfortunately returned during the 2001 game.

2002 — Budweiser Respect - 9/11 Tribute

The first Super Bowl since the terrorist attacks was no time for Spuds, frogs, or whassup-ing. Instead, Budweiser opted for a more solemn spot – tricky to pull off without appearing tacky. Utilizing the Clydesdales in a respectful way, and with help and advice from then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Budweiser was one of only two brands to acknowledge 9/11 during the game (the other was The commercial would only air that one time.

2008 — Budweiser Clydesdale Training

When USA Today held an all-time Super Bowl ad tournament in 2014, this XLII spot, which spoofs Rocky in a completely hackneyed fashion, won the entire bracket. Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

2009 — High Life’s One Second Ad

Miller High Life figured out a way to overcome Anheuser-Busch’s grip on Super Bowl ads during the XLIII game. Since AB technically only had rights from kickoff to final whistle, Miller was able to buy a spot during the pregame. Even better, they made it a mere one second commercial—playfully critiquing the fact that their rival was spending a whopping $3 million per 30 seconds during the game. The salvo worked, and High Life sales leaped nearly 9%.

2013 — Will Ferrell for Old Milwaukee

The Pabst-owned Old Milwaukee was another company able to ingeniously overcome Anheuser-Busch’s ironclad hold on Super Bowl Sunday by making a lone local ad buy in North Platte, Nebraska, the second-smallest TV market in the country. Actually, no one knew whether Old Milwaukee actually made the buy, or whether Ferrell’s Funny or Die production company did – but the spot nevertheless went viral once it got online. The next year, Ferrell extended Old Milwaukee’s reach to the booming markets of Sherman, Texas, Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Glendive, Montana. (A few years earlier, Ferrell had appeared in a glitzier spot for Bud Light, in character as Jackie Moon from Semi-Pro.)

2016 — Budweiser Mocks Craft Beer

Beer geeks got their cargo shorts in a tizzy when Bud had the gall to mock them during Super Bowl XLIX. Let me tell ya’, it was remarkable how many beer blogs wrote slapdash think pieces in the ensuing twenty-four hours. Nevertheless, if the commercial mocked craft beer for being “brewed to be fussed over” and lampooned the (theoretical) idea of some pumpkin peach ale, craft beer fans couldn’t help but noting that Anheuser Busch InBev had recently acquired Elysian – who just so happened to actually make a pumpkin peach ale.

2017 — Return of Spuds

At Super Bowl LI, Spuds MacKenzie (as a tough-talking ghost) made his triumphant return in an homage to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The original Spuds was surely spinning in his grave at the lame spot.

2017 — Born the Hard Way

Even seemingly anodyne things began stoking controversy in the Trump era. Such was the case for Budweiser’s Super Bowl LI spot, run just a few months after the election, which purported to show Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch’s hardscrabble emigration to the U.S. from Germany. Unfortunately, this ad was run just in the wake of Trump’s executive order barring peoples from Muslim countries from coming here. Though InBev claimed this was a pure coincidence, pro-Trump supports were angered by the spot, and #boycottbudwiser (note the spelling error), was soon trending on Twitter.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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