Think Differently: Super Bowl Commercials and Tech History

Everyone knows how Super Bowl commercials go: there’s a girl in a bikini, a talking lizard, a guy getting comically hurt, etc. There’s also the flipside: something that pulls at your heart and makes you really want to fall in love again, thanks to soap or whatever.

The Super Bowl is possibly the last thing that everyone watches in our country, the last great communal event. It’s no wonder advertisers pull out all the stops when it comes to selling their product. The commercials are an event in themselves, and over the years they have become ironized, turned into self-referential jokes, and looped back again to a spot of quasi-sincerity. In short, they are a perfect reflection of our culture.

And since the first Super Bowl, our culture has included technology. Tech used to be a hard sell because it was confusing and remote; now it is a hard sell because it is everywhere and people are suffocated by choices. That’s why some of the most memorable Super Bowl commercials have involved technology in some way. Here are a few of the very best.

 

 

The Xerox “Monks” ad is a perfect piece of advertising. It sets up a problem – in this case, the need to make copies. Many of us who’ve worked in an office sympathize with such a need. But the poor monk has to make 500 copies of a painstaking manuscript by hand, seeing as how there are no copy machines on hand. Jump ahead to 1977 and the same monk is using a Xerox machine, spending only a few seconds instead of a whole lifetime. It is universal and it shows how Xerox fills a need, and, by extension, how all of technology is solving these age-old problems.

2000: Pets.com, “If You Leave Me Now”

 

 

2000 was a great Super Bowl, with the Rams outlasting the Titans by one outstretched arm. Its commercials were also great for tech. A full 19 dotcoms bought advertising for the game. Only one is still around. Of course, that was the height of the dotcom bubble, when slapping a period and abbreviation on something seemed to guarantee millions. The Pets.com commercial was weird, abrasvie, ironic, and fresh – everything that marketing types thought was cool at the time. It failed and, soon after, so did Pets.com.

2008: Hulu Plus, “Alec Baldwin”

 

 

By 2008, the idea of the internet as one of those passing fads had evaporated, as it came roaring back after the dotcom burst and was stronger than ever, thanks to smartphones, high-speed connections, and smarter business models. Hulu took this opportunity to promote its TV-streaming service, both making fun of and celebrating our love of passive entertainment, having Alec Baldwin talk about how watching too much TV will rot your brain…and encouraging it. It was a gleeful celebration of TV and it was very prescient. After all, thanks to Netflix, Hulu, HBOGo, and other services, watching a ton of TV has become an art form, and not a source of shame. Alien Alec Baldwin was on to something.

1984: Apple, “1984”

 

 

Human drones marching in lockstep through a grim, dirty, and dystopian cityscape. A huge screen where a Big Brother figure praises the virtues of homogeneity. A woman with a sledgehammer running toward the screen chased by thuggish stormtroopers. A yelp, a throw, a smashing of that hideous face, and a narrator saying that, thanks to Apple, 1984 won’t be like 1984. This is a perfect commercial and is especially perfect for tech. It draws you in with style and then hooks you with substance. It promises a world it actually delivers. 10 years after 1984 came out it would have been easy to mock Apple, but now, its promise to change the world seems, if anything, to be underselling the case.

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