Super Bowl

The 10 Most Controversial Super Bowl Ads of All Time

These Are The Spots That Touched a Nerve -- Not in a Good Way

By Published on .

Super Bowl advertising has always contained a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. These -- in no particular order -- are the ugly.

Groupon: The 2011 Super Bowl featured the first TV ad from then smoking hot internet company Groupon -- which got incinerated following the commecial's airing. Ad Age described the ads like so: "It used celebrities to juxtapose injustice in Tibet to a deal on fish curry, deforestation to a bargain bikini wax, and endangered whales to a cheap tourist jaunt. It was clear after the game ended that some of the 111 million watchers did not get the joke."

But the intrigue for the ad world did not end there. Then Groupon CEO Andrew Mason pulled the ads, telling Ad Age on Feb. 14 of that year that "I personally take responsibility; although we worked with a professional ad agency, in the end, it was my decision." Only a month later, he blamed the agency, CP&B, in an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, saying he "placed too much trust in the agency to be edgy, informative and entertaining, and we turned off the part of our brain where we should have made our own decisions. We learned that you can't rely on anyone else to control and maintain your own brand." Groupon was not seen on TV again for three years.

Advertising Age Player

Focus On the Family: The Christian family values group suprised industry watchers by landing a spot featuring Tim Tebow in the 2010 Super Bowl, which normally steers clear of advocacy ads. A spokesman for the group told Ad Age that CBS, the network carrying the game that year, "understood there are folks who ideologically disagree with Focus on the Family in some areas ... but we don't anticipate any trouble." But, of course, there was, because even though the spot soft-pedaled the group's stance, it sparked heated pro-life vs. pro-choice debate.

Wrote then Ad Age critic Bob Garfield: "Tim Tebow stole the show by simply promoting adoption, which would be noncontroversial if the implicit message from this famously Bible-thumping quarterback were not anti-abortion. The amazing thing isn't that CBS chose to run the thing (it's kind of hard to declare adoption controversial). The amazing thing is that Planned Parenthood and NOW didn't submit uncontroversial awareness spots showing teen mothers with ruined lives."

Advertising Age Player

Levitra: Remember the good old days when erectile dysfunction ads were considered not safe for primetime? Levita and the Quantum Group, Parsippany, N.J., set out to change all that by putting Mike Ditka in the 2004 Super Bowl. Ad Age credited Denise Strauss, Bayer's then director of marketing for men's health, for getting the National Football League to change its policy about accepting pharmaceutical advertising. Her argument ED is about men's health.

That lasted two years. In 2006, the league cut ties with Levitra and its $18 million NFL sponsorship as the advertising tone for ads in the category turned decidely more sexual. The NFL decision was front-page news for Ad Age; our headline read "Erection Rejection."

Advertising Age Player

General Motors: The automaker's Super Bowl 2007 spot from Deutsch L.A. showed a sad little robot who dreams that he was fired for a tiny error of dropping a screw. He kills himself by jumping off a bridge. GM said it's aim was to highlight its obsession with quality, but the American Society for Suicide Prevention made its objections known loudly. As a result, GM re-edited the commercial to remove the scene.

Advertising Age Player

White House Anti-Drug Office: This group spent $3 million on a Super Bowl ad that ran five months after the Sept. 11 attacks, blaming drugs for funding terrorism. "Where do terrorists get their money?" asked the voice-over. "If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you."

The campaign struck a raw nerve with the public, but also caused a dust-up behind the scenes -- the ads were not produced by the Partnership for a Drug Free America, but instead by the drug office's agency, Ogilvy & Mather. The reason? As Ad Age reported at the time: "The Partnership said the ads were off-strategy and refused to do any of the spots. Partnership Vice Chairman Allen Rosenshine, chairman-CEO of Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, ripped the campaign in a congressional hearing."

The campaign was killed.

Advertising Age Player

Go Daddy. It's hard to find a spot for the domain registrar that was not controversial, so this is really a case of finding the one that got the most heat. We're going to go with "Journey Home," which played off A-B InBev's obession with puppies and Clydesdales and -- full disclosure -- did not actually run in the Super Bowl. That's because when the spot previewed before the game, the suprise ending got animal lovers enraged. In the commercial, an owner's lost puppy is returned and she finds relief -- because she intended to sell the pup. The uproar caused GoDaddy to reconsider and Barton F. Graf, the agency who did the spot, to scramble and create a dog-free commerical that actually ran in the big game. Conspiracy theorists believed that was the intent after all.

Advertising Age Player

Snickers. Two mechanics sharing a Snickers bar end up accidentally locking lips and respond by ripping out their chest hair in a display of "manilness." The accompanying website offered alternate endings, such as one guy attacking the other with a wrench. Outrage swept the public over this 2007 spot from TBWA and the Gay and Lesbian Anti Defamation League leveled charges of homophobia against the candy brand. Four years later, it was voted on the Ad Age website as the second worst Super Bowl ad of all time.

Advertising Age Player

Nationwide. The 2015 spot from Ogilvy began rather charmingly, with a young boy talking about not learning how to ride a bike and some other childhood joys he will never experience -- until the plot pivots and the boy explains he is dead of a preventable accident. Then Nationwide Chief Marketing Officer Matt Jauchius told Ad Age the commercial was designed to start a conversation. And that it did: Social media exploded, charging that the spot was inappropriate and traded on tragedy to sell insurance. Three months later, Mr. Jauchius left Nationwide to pursue other interests. Nationwide skipped the Super Bowl the following year.

Advertising Age Player

Holiday Inn. Before there was Caityln Jenner, there was Bob Johnson. Trying to update its tired image, the hotelier in 1997 commerical brought us Bob Johnson, a beautiful transsexual who shocks his former classmates at his high school reunion. The point was that if he looked that good with a few thousand dollars of "improvements," Holiday Inn will look great with $1 billion spent on refurbishments. Bob Garfield called it "a juvenile and self-indulgent debut for Fallon McElligott Minneapolis on this business." Complaints rolled in from the Southern Baptist convention and Holiday Inn ditched the spot. By way of explanation, then Exec VP-Chief Marketing Officer John Sweetwood said only that the commerical had offended some people, adding "That was never our intention."

Advertising Age Player

Just for Feet. Held up as the most egregious big game blunder of all time, this 1999 commercial from a Birmingham, Ala., shoe retailer featured a barefoot Kenyan runner fleeing hunters who capture him, drug him and force a pair of Just for Feet shoes on him. This blatant racism led to such an outcry that -- in a blame game -- the client sued its agency, Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communications, Rochester, N.Y., charging advertising malpractice.

According to the suit, which was eventually dropped, Just For Feet said it "expressed strong misgivings and dissatisfaction" over the spot, but the agency "then reassured Just For Feet that the commercial would be well received based on Saatchi's expertise and experience with national advertising and marketing, and that having committed to advertise in the Super Bowl it was too late to develop and produce another commercial or to reshoot."

In 2000, the company went bankrupt.

Advertising Age Player

Most Popular