Super Bowl ads are known for being flashy, funny, risky, celebrity-packed, and extremely costly. But, looking back over the last three decades, they also say a lot about the US economy.
When the now-defunct online pet-supply store Pets.com ran a Super Bowl spot in 2000, it highlighted the massive funds flowing into dot-coms before the bubble burst a few months later. Subprime lender Ameriquest Mortgage summed up the danger brewing in the housing market when it ran two game-day spots in 2005. And Cash4Gold’s 2009 Super Bowl commercial was a reminder of how desperate for cash many people were during the recession.
Below are these Super Bowl ads and others that perfectly capture moments in US economic history.
Apple’s epic 1984 Super Bowl ad introducing the Macintosh computer is notable for a few reasons. The spot, directed by Ridley Scott, is largely considered a catalyst for transforming the Super Bowl into the unparalleled stage for fresh creative advertising that it is today. “It was the spot that really started the phrase ‘Super Bowl commercial,'” Robert Horowitz, executive producer of CBS’s Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials, told Quartz.
The Orwellian-inspired ad, which almost never made it out the door, was also the birth of the Apple brand. The messaging in the commercial, which features a women throwing a sledge hammer at a screen and freeing the people from a 1984-like future, was woven into later campaigns like Apple’s iconic 1997 “Think Different” push.
But the commercial also captured the budding Silicon Valley technology scene that helped make computer and data-processing one of the fastest growing industries of the decade. The sector nearly tripled its employment by adding half a million jobs during the 1980s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, the technology industry accounts for nearly 6% of the private-sector workforce.
While Apple was debuting the Macintosh computer in 1984, Exxon was pushing Americans to buy gasoline. It was one of the rare oil and energy companies to ever advertise in the Super Bowl. At the time, not unlike today, demand for oil was plummeting, after the 1970s energy crisis. The surplus of crude oil drove down prices in the years that followed, with prices falling 67% between November 1985 and March 1986 (paywall).
Exxon also ran a Super Bowl ad in 1990 that pushed premium gasoline to new car buyers.
Credit-card debt in America skyrocketed (pdf) in the 1990s, dubbed the “decade of debt,” as low- and moderate-income families leaned on credit cards while their savings shrunk. From 1989 to 1998, average credit-card debt in the US rose 66% from $2,697 to $4,486, according to Federal Reserve data analyzed by public-policy group Demos.
As Americans took on more debt, American Express went all-in on the Super Bowl. The company advertised in the game in 1989, two years after introducing its first credit card, which allowed members to pay off charges in installments instead of all at once each month, and again in 1990. That year, the credit-card company bought two minutes of ad time, which included the 30-second Paul Newman spot featured above, according to Adland TV archives. American Express continued to advertise in the Super Bowl throughout the decade, alongside other credit-card companies like MasterCard, but has not recently advertised in the game.
There are a litany of brands that bet big on the Super Bowl and lost. None are more emblematic of the dot-com bubble than Pets.com. The pet-supply e-tailer, which spent nearly $2 million on a 30-second Super Bowl spot in 2000, just before going public, folded two years later because people just weren’t buying pet supplies online. The e-commerce site, like other others during the era, raised millions very quickly but spent most of it on marketing and had no real revenue or experience under its belt.
“In a perfect demonstration of the dot-com explosion, E-Trade spends $2 million on a spot featuring a dancing monkey in a garage … just because,” Horowitz, of Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials, told Quartz, summing up the ad. Fortunately for E-Trade, it had the money to waste, unlike other dot-coms of the time. The electronic-trading platform is still considered one of the best online brokerages.
E-Trade was a Super Bowl staple in the decade that followed this ad, but pulled out of the game after 2013.
Ameriquest Mortgage’s 2005 Super Bowl commercials succinctly captured the problem with the US housing market in the 2000s: “Don’t judge too quickly,” the tagline in the subprime-mortgage lender’s two 30-second ads said. “We won’t.” One ad features a comically uncoordinated man preparing dinner in his small apartment. After a few mishaps, his significant other comes home to finds him holding a knife in one hand, the family cat in the other, and pasta sauce all over the floor. Then the tagline runs, suggesting that Ameriquest wouldn’t be too quick to discount loan applicants whose qualifications didn’t look good on paper.
As Oscar-contender The Big Short reminds us, the failure of lenders like Ameriquest to ensure that people were qualified for the loans they were given drove the 2007 housing crisis and the subsequent financial collapse. The company, which was the US’s largest subprime-mortgage lender when the Super Bowl ads aired, shut down in September 2007.
As the American economy fought to get out from under one of the worst recessions in US history, Cash4Gold profited. The mail-in refinery that offers cash in exchange for gold jewelry and other trinkets tapped announcer Ed McMahon and recording artist MC Hammer for its first and only national Super Bowl ad to date. The production value left a lot to be desired, but it shows that business was strong enough to spend $2.8 million for airtime during the Super Bowl.
“Things are even worse than we thought,” Ad Age reporter Bob Garfield wrote at the time, mocking what he called the “schlocky direct-response spot.” “The economy is so bad that we’re panicked into trading our jewelry and bridgework for 17¢ on the dollar of gold value.”
AXA Equitable also joined Super Bowl XLIII with a recession-era ad featuring an ”800-pound gorilla in the room” that argued his products could protect your retirement plan in an economic downturn. The retirement, life-insurance, and financial-planning firm ran a similar series of ads in 2007 when it made its Super Bowl debut.
In 2011, as the US’s Big Three car makers—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—were emerging from an automotive crisis spurred by the recession, Chrysler made a huge bet on the Super Bowl by airing a two-minute ad about Detroit, Michigan. The moving tribute to the Motor City, featuring Eminem, became a rallying cry for the US auto industry and got people talking about the struggling Midwestern area again.
While we can’t say for certain where the US economy is headed or what this year will represent in the grand scheme of things, it’s telling that 20-year old Amazon—the world’s largest retailer—is centering its first-ever Super Bowl on artificial intelligence. The technology, like the Amazon Echo featured in the ad, is becoming a greater part of our lives and the industries fueling the US economy.
Amazon has been teasing its Super Bowl 50 spot with a series of online videos starring actor Alec Baldwin, one of which is featured above. The actual ad is still under wraps.