The tables are set for Sunday’s Super Bowl LVIIII (Super Bowl 58, if you skipped class the day they taught Roman numerals). The Kansas City Chiefs, led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, are aiming to become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2004 Patriots. But the San Francisco 49ers seek to avenge their loss to Kansas City in Super Bowl LIV (54) and are itching to take home the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since the 1994 season.
And as usual, in between the pigskin pageantry, we have the commercials.
Super Bowl commercials have long occupied their own sphere in our pop culture landscape. Many Americans claim they look forward to the commercials more than the game itself, though that mentality has dropped off in recent years. That’s due in part to the game itself becoming generally more competitive than it used to be, but also because of the commercials becoming available for viewing well before kickoff. If you want to see this year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials, chances are you can hop online now and knock them out a week in advance.
For the first 30-40 years of the Super Bowl, auto brands admittedly didn’t leave a significant cultural impact with their ads. From “Mean Joe Greene” (Coke) to “1984” (Apple), the most iconic commercials came courtesy of other industries. But as the century turned and our cars became more tech-integrated, their corresponding commercials became more ambitious. Some modern Super Bowl spots are downright cinematic.
We’ve selected a handful of worthy finalists for the title of best Super Bowl car commercial of the century. Before declaring a winner, here are some of the nominees we considered.
Disqualified: Honda – “Yearbook” (2017), Toyota – “Jessica Long” (2021)
In 2017, Honda maxed out their celebrity Rolodex, enlisting A-listers from Jimmy Kimmel to Missy Elliott to dispense life advice straight from the pages of their old high school yearbooks. It’s a fun concept, even as it sticks to the unfortunate trend of celebrity overreliance that Super Bowl ads have succumbed to recently. The larger issue is that it has little (if anything) to do with Honda – or cars in general. The same goes for Toyota’s 2021’s submission, which showcased swimmer Jessica Long’s inspiring leap from adoption to the Olympic stage.
We’re all for car companies pushing the boundaries with creativity. But to be considered among the industry’s top car ad, there needs to be at least the hint of a car involved.
Audi – “The Chase” (2009) / Kia – “The Truth” (2014)
Hollywood and the auto industry have long maintained a successful working relationship. This dates back to the days of Steve McQueen racing his Ford Mustang through the streets of San Francisco in 1969’s Bullit. For their 2009 Super Bowl commercial, Audi celebrated of the art of the car chase. It placed rising action star Jason Statham – best known for the Transporter and Crank film franchises at the time – behind the wheel of an Audi, unleashing the English enforcer on various locales in a chase sequence medley.
Speaking of action movies, 2014 felt like the sweet spot for Matrix nostalgia. We were just over a decade removed from the generally disappointing, trilogy capper Matrix Revolutions and nearly that far away from the more divisive comeback Matrix Resurrections. Kia correctly wagered that audiences were ready to return to the world of dark glasses and leather jackets. They recruited Laurence Fisburne for their 2014 Super Bowl commercial, in which his Morpheus character reveals the hidden world of luxury cars. Gravity-defying visuals (and opera music) ensue.
Ultimately, Kia and Audi both arrived at the same conclusion: it’s hard to go wrong with the surefire combination of cars and action films.
Hyundai – “First Date” (2016)
Is it that much of a stretch to call this one of Kevin Hart’s most convincing performances? The comedian is endearingly determined as an overprotective father in this 2016 ad. When his daughter is picked up for date night, Hart utilizes Hyundai’s Car Finder technology to essentially stalk the young couple throughout the evening. (Not to worry: its escalating absurdity puts it firmly in the realm of Dad Fantasy). It hasn’t proven memorable enough to be crowned our winner, but it does raise intriguing questions about the state of privacy in a tech-first society. Maybe they could have explored that idea more – if each 30-second block of Super Bowl ad time didn’t cost an average of seven-million dollars.
Hyundai – “Smaht Pahk” (2020)
Is making fun of Boston accents low-hanging fruit? Of course. Is it also an entirely justifiable American tradition? Absolutely. In another inspired Hyundai commercial, native Bostonians Chris Evans and Rachel Dratch break out their best bad regional dialects. Fellow Bay Stater John Krasinski then joins the party to showcase the Sonata’s new Remote Smart Parking Assist feature. Red Sox legend David Ortiz pops up at the end – because of course he does – and even Big Papi finds himself impressed by the Sonata’s self-pahking capability.
Kia – “Robo Dog” (2022)
Kia’s spot for its all-electric EV6, centered around a robot dog, deserves a nomination for being centered around a robot dog. The circuital canine itself hits all the right beats, but did we need another commercial soundtracked to Bonnie Taylor’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”?
Honorable Mention: Walmart – “Famous Cars” (2019)
This 2019 ad brings together famous pop culture cars – from the Batmobile to Jurassic Park‘s tour vehicles – in the world’s most chaotic Walmart parking lot. It’s a colorful piece of nostalgia bait, and it all comes courtesy of… not an auto manufacturer, but Walmart. Given that our IP-driven culture is so oversaturated with these types of multiversal crossovers these days, we’re saving the gold medal for a more creative (though still IP-based) selection.
The Winner: Volkswagen – “The Force” (2011)
For better or worse, Volkswagen’s landmark 2011 commercial changed the way we watch Super Bowl commercials. A week ahead of the big event, Volkswagen opted to launch their Star Wars-themed advertisement on the web. By kickoff, it had already racked up millions of views on YouTube. Since then, nearly every Super Bowl advertiser has followed the same tactic.
Still, Volkswagen’s marketing approach shouldn’t overshadow the charm of the ad, which still captivates 13 years later. The commercial features a mini Darth Vader in action, trying to manipulate everyday objects with The Force, sans any dialogue. The endearing little Sith Lord manages to seemingly influence a 2012 Passat parked in their driveway… albeit with an inconspicuous assist from Dad’s key fob.
Accompanied by John Williams’ legendary score, the ad achieves a classic feel as our little Vader grapples with his unexpected power. In an age where cutting-edge technology began weaving its way deeper into our vehicles, Volkswagen confidently suggested that our cars could truly spark a sense of wonder.
We Are the Champions
Here in Abilene, we’ll have to wait another off-season to see if the Cowboys made the right move in bringing back head coach Mike McCarthy. But regardless of whether you have a rooting interest in this year’s Super Bowl – or are just tuning in to see if Taylor Swift can make it back from Tokyo in time for kickoff – know that Lithia Toyota of Abilene is working tirelessly on a winning game plan. If you’re even entertaining the thought of another dealership, audible instead into an exciting new Toyota, such as the 2024 Camry Hybrid or the new Corolla Hatchback. Let the winning team have Disney World; more lasting rewards await you at Lithia Toyota of Abilene.