Hot or Not: The Decline of Super Bowl Commercials


In the days after Super Bowl LXIIILVIII, a memorable, close game, people are more likely to be talking about the game than the advertisements. Forty years ago, an ad won all the buzz.

In 1984, IBM was winning the battle for the desktop. Apple was about to launch the Macintosh computer. An advertisement for the Macintosh, which never mentioned the product by name and ran only once, became one of the most talked-about advertisements of all time. It also shaped the future of Super Bowl advertising.

From the start, the Super Bowl attracted advertisers because large audiences watched it. In the context of mass media, it was an “efficient” advertising buy – particularly for products that had broad appeal. The Super Bowl also become a creative showcase for advertising agencies.

For Super Bowl I, an ad cost about $37,000 and reached about 51 million viewers. By contrast, advertisers in 2024 paid about $7 million for a 30-second ad. With an estimated viewership of 112 million, the Super Bowl remains an “efficient” buy for marketers. But purchasing mass media based on the efficiencies of mass audiences no longer drives most advertising purchases. 

On the day after the Super Bowl, an article in the New York Times profiled the rise of a cleaning product from obscurity to the shelves of Walmart because of a social media influencer who promoted it on TikTok. In 2023, spending for online advertising in the United States exceeded $222 billion – more than all other media combined. Online ads are most often driven by algorithms that target individuals based on their behaviors. Effectiveness is measured in click-through and purchase rates, rather than cost-per-thousand viewers.

In 1984, and for many years thereafter, Super Bowl ads were kept under tight wraps to ensure that people would watch the game for the commercial messages as much as for the action on the field. But with the rise of social media, advertisers began releasing their ads early to “build buzz” and increase reach without having to pay for more mass media time.

What are the most “buzz worthy” ads this year? Because we live in an era of fractured media, there is no single answer to that question. I watched the ads (and the game) myself. To me, many of the ads felt stale, assumed knowledge of pop culture that I lack, and raised little interest in the products and companies they promoted. So, I read reviews from the “experts” at the Seattle Times, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and Billboard. The following three ads appeared among the “top ads” on one or more of those sources.

An ad for State Farm prominently featured Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action hero with a German accent. In the end, his old co-star Danny DeVito intervenes to either save the day or stab his back – depending on one’s point of view. The throw-back to the “Twins” duo may have served the dual purpose of early promotion for a movie sequel.

Celebrity endorsers appeared in many of the Super Bowl ads, but perhaps none more self-referentially than Beyoncé for Verizon. She can “break the Internet” but she can’t “break Verizon” even when she introduces her AI double, announces a run for leader of the United States, and launches a rocket into outer space. The actual launch was a “drop” of two new singles during the Super Bowl and a new album at the end of March.

PlutoTV, an advertiser-supported video streaming service provided one of the starkest contrasts to the Apple 1984 ad. Both ads referred to contemporary media systems. In 1984, three networks still dominated airtime in the US. The Apple ad references George Orwell’s novel, “1984,” which portrays a media environment controlled by Big Brother’s propaganda arm. 

In the PlutoTV ad, two farmers are cultivating “couch potatoes” who enjoy watching what they want when they want. Some focus on narrow interests like “cat TV” while others focus on broad categories like romance, murder, and romantic murder. The ad concludes with the declaration: “This country was raised on TV. TV that was easy. TV that was free. Pluto TV is TV the way it is supposed to be.” Pluto is TV that can be streamed anytime anywhere and is supported by advertising targeting viewers based on their own behaviors.

This snapshot of Super Bowl advertising provides some insights into the state of our fractured media environment. First, celebrities still get paid to endorse products even though TikTok influencers are finding new ways to become part of the marketing eco system. Second, nostalgia can still stir emotions whether you are a “couch potato farmer,” a long-time fan of Beyoncé, or someone hoping for a sequel to a movie that was released in 1988.

Meanwhile, this year’s crop of Super Bowl advertisements is not likely to live on in the annals of effective commercials. Nor are these ads likely to inspire creative advertising that spurs thoughtful conversations. It is more likely that we will spend the next year viewing nostalgic and reductive remakes of both entertainment and advertising content on streaming services like Pluto. “Influencers” will fill our social media streams. Advertisers will wait for the next mass media event and the next round of commercials that try to make use of our newly fractured media environment.

Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan, author of "Digital Immigrants and Media Integration," is a writer, academician, and organizational leader. She has been a high school teacher, book editor, non-profit leader, journalist, technology executive, university professor, academic administrator, and higher education consultant.


  1. This year’s Super Bowl was probably the first SB game I’ve watched in its entirety since the Seahawks were last in the game. I turned it on 10 minutes after its scheduled start time, which was perfect. They were lining up for the kick-off. There was no time for the usual litany of commercials prior to the game at this point. I watched it through all five quarters this year, but mostly muted the commercials.

    One I did watch came early. It had Christopher Walken driving an all-electric BMW around Los Angeles on his daily routine. Everyone he encounters tries to imitate his unique manner of speaking to his mild, but mostly contained, annoyance.

    This reminded me of a skit Walken appeared in on Saturday Night Live years ago during the Jimmy Fallon / Will Ferrell period. The skit was titled something like “More Cow Bell” and Walken played a “famed” 1970s Long Island record producer recording a fictional version of the 70s band Blue Oyster Cult in his studio. The skit centers on him insisting the band add more cow bell sound to their song in subsequent recordings to the detriment of the band’s cohesion. Ferrell played the cow bell in the band.

    Years later, Fallon and Ferrell reminisced on the SNL skit on the Tonight Show. Ferrell mentions in a post-skit conversation he had, Walken complained that ever since that skit he had trouble going to restaurants and other social places without some smart aleck asking him if he’d like “more cow bell” with his salad or other dishes. Say when.

    I might be stating the obvious – I’m not that in tune with the larger pop culture these days – but I can’t help but think that Sunday’s SB commercial had its roots in that SNL skit and post-broadcast “fallout”. At least, that’s what came immediately to mind for me.

    Another aspect of this commercial struck me as well. It ended with Walken driving off in peace through a sunny, but tree-shaded, Los Angeles residential suburban neighborhood. The target audience for this commercial were millennials, some of whom are approaching that age and point in their careers where they might be able to afford a luxury car like this. Maybe I’m projecting more than what was intended, but I wonder to if this points towards a demographic that sees less appeal in cities these days and more appeal in suburbs as many of their 1970’s and early 80’s counterparts did.

  2. Minor point, but this was NOT Super Bowl LXIII (63 in Arabic numbers). That game is going to be held in 5 years. This was Super Bowl LVIII (58 in Arabic)!

  3. Why are the ads so baffling? Are they meant to stir conversation among the pop-culture folks, and thus to live on conversationally? And why do advertisers permit such mysterious ads, which usually give no reasons to consume their product?

  4. Nicely done, Sally. I was disappointed by what seemed to be a muddled approach advertisers took to this iteration. BTW, minor nit to pick. Arnold is Austrian. It is a natural mistake to refer to his accent as “German” but that would like refering Justin Tradeau’s accent as “American”. I have an Austrian friend and know first hand that they are very sensitive to being thought of as German.

  5. Does anyone remember the live Schlitz-Michelob blind taste-off from the 1981Super
    Bowl? 100 “loyal” Michelob drinkers. The result? Schlitz 50, Michelob 50. What does this say about ads? About beer? Whatever it meant, Schlitz disappeared shortly thereafter. Not that it was missed.


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