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The Multimillion-Dollar Super Bowl Gamble

Ultra-expensive Super Bowl ads can be a huge gamble. But for these businesses, the gamble paid off with breakthrough ads that changed their companies' future.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's competitive. It's risky. And it's tough. The stakes will be high this Sunday from the moment the anthem is sung at Super Bowl 41--and I'm not talking about the game being played between the Colts and the Bears. I'm referring to the game of advertising being played by the 20-plus companies vying for the title of "Super Bowl's Big Breakthrough Ad."

These companies are all willing to spend top dollar for the chance to wow an international audience. This year, CBS is reportedly charging at least $2.6 million for a 30-second spot, up from $2.5 million last year. And let's not forget what it costs to actually make the ad, which in some cases means putting out another $1 million in production costs. But with an expected audience of about 90 million viewers tuning in for the big game, advertisers know this could be their best chance to get noticed on a global scale, even if it means spending a shocking $87,000 per second.

Sounds like a risky venture, doesn't it? It is. Of all the ads televised each year, how many companies truly come out of the Super Bowl with a financial advantage? Sure, there's always a few memorable spots discussed at the water cooler the next day, but the majority of ads aren't good for much more than a brief laugh and are easily forgotten by Monday morning.

But what about the companies that have succeeded--the company's whose ads are still being talked about more than 20 years after they first aired. What did they have that the others didn't? Professor Bruce Vanden Bergh, former chair of Michigan State University's Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Retailing, says it's really all about creativity: Who will dare to be different and still be lucky enough to strike a chord with viewers?

So which ads have stood the test of time and memory? Let's start with the very ad that raised the bar on creativity. In fact, after 23 years, it's still being called one of the best Super Bowl ads ever. The ad themed around George Orwell's novel, 1984, skyrocketed Apple Computer's new Macintosh to mega-success back in 1984. Professor Vanden Bergh says that Apple's "1984" ad marked the end of traditional Super Bowl commercials and marketing, and introduced a new, creative, challenging element to ad-making that millions of Americans look forward to critiquing every year.

  • Ad Title: "1984" (released in 1984)
  • Company: Apple Computer
  • Ad Rate: $500,000 for a one-minute slot
  • What It Was All About: In this classic commercial, director Ridley Scott helped Apple introduce its Macintosh computer to viewers worldwide by creating a cinematic experience in which Apple's new, easier-to-use Macintosh was being compared to IBM's traditional, somewhat boring and more difficult-to-use machine. The ad begins by flashing back between a large video screen featuring a Big Brother-type character (symbolic of IBM) speaking to a group of drones mesmerized by his words, and a young runner jogging into the room (symbolic of Macintosh). Though authorities are chasing the runner, she quickly swings a sledgehammer at the screen and destroys it. Then these words creep onto the screen and are read by a voice: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984'."
  • Why It Succeeded: Steve McKee, president of ad agency McKee Wallwork Cleveland, which runs the annual ADBOWL rating site, says that even though the idea behind the ad was rather simple, it was well produced and took a significant risk. The ad assumed its audience would understand the literary reference--which it did. And the audience liked the company's assumption that they'd know George Orwell's famous book. McKee says an audience appreciates being given credit for their intelligence, an element he says commercials today are lacking.
  • Watch It Now:

Another ad that still has a lock on the public's "recall factor" is one that was developed by Master Lock in 1974. Though it didn't have quite the same impact as Apple's "1984," its simple visual message was enough to make audience members take notice and help make Master Lock one of the most trusted lock companies for years to come. Today, Master Lock is the U.S. market share leader when it comes to padlock sales (it's the world's largest padlock manufacturer).

  • Ad Title: "Marksman" (released in 1974)
  • Company: Master Lock
  • Ad Rate: $107,000 for a 30-second spot
  • What It Was All About: Master Lock aimed to demonstrate the durability of its product by having a sharpshooter shoot at one of their locks. A close-up of the padlock showed that despite being fired at by a high-powered rifle, the lock could withstand the force.
  • Why It Succeeded: Ads don't get much simpler than this. Just like Apple's spot, Master Lock's commercial had a basic premise mixed with powerful, memorable imagery. Just how memorable? The ad ran, with only slight variations, during the next 21 Super Bowls.and the lock never did break.
  • Watch It Now:

Though both the Apple and Master Lock spots are recognized as breakthrough ads of their time, the competition has only gotten fiercer as technology continues progressing. In order to stand out, the commercials of today have to kick it up a notch and think outside the box in order to get noticed. Some recent Super Bowl ads used technology to push their messages into the limelight. Both Dove and Emerald Nuts referred viewers to their websites to continue their marketing campaigns and encourage viewer involvement. Emerald Nuts chose to go about their ad with humor, while Dove chose to send out a poignant message that spoke to women of all shapes and sizes.

  • Ad Title: "Self-Esteem/Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty" (released in 2006)
  • Company Name: Dove
  • Ad Rate: $2.5 million for a 30-second spot
  • What It Was All About: This ad featured elementary school-aged girls and the issues they have with their looks and their bodies. For instance, one dark-haired girl "wishes she were blond" and another one "hates her freckles." The background music--Cyndi Lauper's True Colors--was sung by the Girl Scout's Chorus of Nassau County, New York. The voiceover at the end of the commercial urges viewers to get involved by visiting Dove's website for more about the Campaign for Real Beauty.
  • Why It Succeeded: Nowadays, advertisers are realizing that an increasing number of Super Bowl viewers are women. This ad took the risk of alienating the primarily male audience by reaching out to the game's female audience, and it succeeded. Women were pleased that an ad finally focused on them and their issues; it gave them a chance to get involved, too. Though Dove as a brand was already a well-recognized name, this ad paved the way for the Campaign for Real Beauty, an ongoing global ad effort by Dove to fight society's conventional beauty stereotypes.
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Emerald Nuts aired its first Super Bowl ad in 2005, but really made their mark after the airing of their second Super Bowl ad in 2006. The key to their success: The company started with the simple idea of using acronyms to help people remember their name. But they didn't stop there--they built on that concept by encouraging people to visit their engaging website, which featured entertainment and contests, and quickly established their brand name.

  • Ad Title: "Druid" (released in 2006)
  • Company: Emerald Nuts
  • Ad Rate: $2.5 million for a 30-second spot
  • What It Was All About: The premise behind these zany ads was to use words that started with the 11 letters that spell out Emerald Nuts to create humorous sentences. The ad from 2006 showed men with machetes who spot a short, robed man talking on the phone under their staircase. What on earth could this mean? "Eagle-eyed Machete Enthusiasts Recognize A Little Druid Networking Under The Stairs."
  • Why It Succeeded: Yes, it's definitely different, but that's what spelled success for this spot. After only being around for two years, Emerald Nuts had positioned itself as a leading contender in the snack nut brands. After their second ad aired, the company's sales were up 102 percent compared with the same period a year before and they were bringing in $44 million in sales. As McKee points out, after the ads aired, people weren't just talking about "that nut brand" but were instead chatting about Emerald Nuts. Thanks to their marketing strategy, their name was synonymous with their product, something difficult to establish so early on in a company's existence. "That's why it's brilliant--the company went from zero to sixty just like that," says McKee.
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The Dotcom Difference

In 1999 and 2000, a new genre of ads began infiltrating Super Bowl ad Top 10 lists, helping make their companies breakthrough success stories. The new ads on the scene were of a very different breed from traditional ads of the time. Well-established products like Coke, Pepsi and Doritos didn't need to be introduced to the viewing audience, but newer dotcoms found they couldn't rely solely on their names to get recognition. Instead, they needed to rely on clever campaigns to establish their brands. had just the right mix of ingredients when it aired its Super Bowl ad in 1999. While it's hard to imagine job-hunting these days without this next breakthrough ad contender, was virtually unknown when it aired a commercial during the 1999 Super Bowl, but after this attention-grabbing ad, the company was well on its way to becoming one of the hottest job sites on the internet.

  • Ad Title: "When I Grow Up" (released in 1999)
  • Company:
  • Ad Rate: $1.6 million for a 30-second spot; Monster bought three spots
  • What It Was All About: This commercial features young children looking directly into the camera and sharing their dreams of what they want to be when they grow up. Instead of the typical responses like "fireman" or "doctor" or "teacher," however, these kids said things like, "When I grow up, I want to file all day."
  • Why It Succeeded: This spot quickly garnered the attention of Super Bowl viewers because it inspired them to want to be more, and to think back to what they'd always dreamed of doing for a career and possibly giving it a second chance. "Monster wasn't really on the map before this ad, which was very captivating and really drove a lot of attention to Monster and made them a leading job search site," says McKee.'s former CEO, Jeff Taylor, said the ads were one of the best decisions his company has made: That Sunday night, after the game was over, was processing almost 2,900 job searches per minute. And although the number of searches per minute leveled off to 1,500 later that week, that was still 400 more searches per minute than before the Super Bowl ads ran.
  • Watch It Now:

One important lesson from the dotcom ad era is that a Super Bowl ad campaign can't rely on the ad alone. This next spot clearly illustrates why, if a dotcom wants to survive the past the glory of Super Bowl ad time, they have to follow up their ad with consistent branding messages. E*Trade did that by launching an integrated marketing campaign that included sponsorships, direct marketing and advertising. And although E*Trade faced some tough times after the internet bubble burst in 2002 and the mania over online stock trading subsided, the company has managed to stay afloat and is profitable once again.

  • Ad Title: "Monkey" (released in 2000)
  • Company: E*Trade
  • Ad Rate: $2.1 million for a 30-second spot
  • What It Was All About: Two older men are sitting in a garage when a monkey shows up wearing an E*Trade shirt. The monkey turns on a boom box that blasts "La Cucaracha" from the speakers, and the two men begin goofily clapping along while the monkey dances around. The punch line of the spot? "Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you doing with your money?"
  • Why It Succeeded: Humor and strategy were the keys to this ad's success. "The punch line was a strategic statement that not only drew your attention to them but actually gave people a sense of their business model and their economic value--it was a smart ad," says McKee. As for humor, it's difficult to watch this ad and keep a straight face. Though E*Trade lost money in 2001 and 2002, the company has since bounced back to profitability. This year, their annual revenue is expected to top $3 billion for the first time ever.
  • Watch It Now:

While humor is certainly a key ingredient to most Super Bowl ads, so is controversy. And there is one company that does controversial ads the best: Whether people love it or hate it, their Janet Jackson spoof sure got critics talking. Though their ad pushed the censors just about as far as they could, you have to give them credit for establishing their brand in one simple Super Bowl ad. In just 30-seconds, let the world know who they were and created instant buzz heard 'round the world.

  • Ad Title: "Broadcast Hearing" (released in 2005)
  • Company:
  • Ad Rate: $2.4 million for a 30-second spot. The ad was supposed to run twice, but Fox was forced to pull the second spot, set to air in the fourth quarter, after NFL officials complained. (The ad hadn't been pre-screened by league officials, and they deemed it "inappropriate.")
  • What It Was All About: GoDaddy's "Broadcast Hearing" was a spoof of the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" from the previous year's Super Bowl half-time show. In the skit, a buxom "GoDaddy Girl" stands before a congressional committee on broadcast censorship in a skimpy tank top, only to have one of her straps come loose and make the members of the committee a bit uncomfortable.
  • Why It Succeeded: Controversy paid off for this dotcom. After the ad aired, the number of visitors to increased by nearly 400 percent. On Super Bowl Sunday, the site welcomed 140,000 visitors, compared to its regular Sunday traffic of just about 30,000 visitors. The controversy surrounding the ad in the weeks following the big game increase traffic even more. When news of the second ad being pulled broke on Monday, the site got 590,000 visitors in one day. Today, is the world's largest domain name registrar. And the controversy continues: The site has submitted three different Super Bowl ads so far for this year's game; the first two were already rejected by CBS, the station airing the game this year, and the company hopes their third and supposedly tamest ad will be accepted.
  • Watch It Now:

The countdown to Super Bowl Sunday is on. So far, there aren't any new dotcoms on the lineup, but there should still be plenty of controversy: From the third attempt by GoDaddy to make it on air to a spoof for Nationwide Insurance with Britney Spear's estranged husband, Kevin Federline, to rumors of a supposed marriage proposal live on the air, you may think twice about taking a bathroom break.

Will a new ad steal the title of "Super Bowl's Biggest Breakthrough Ad" away from Apple? This time, you can play critic by casting your vote for your favorite Super Bowl spot on ADBOWL's rating site, Check out our homepage Monday morning for results and commentary. May the best ad win!
Kristin Edelhauser

Written By

As's staff writer, Kristin Edelhauser writer features, blogs and other pieces for the site. She previously worked as a writer and researcher for the NBC San Diego affiliate.