Super Bowl Ad Playbook

Check out some classic commercials as we try to crack the code of successful Super Sunday spots.

Football teams, especially at Super Bowl time, live and die by their playbooks – tightly held strategy guides, wrought in X's and O's, designed to confound the opposition. But the contents of even the best of these squad bibles merely represent variations on familiar themes. 

The same could be said for the other big game surrounding Sunday’s big game: the commercial competition. The formula for a successful Super Bowl ad can’t be bottled – unlike the products pitched by bitter rivals Coke and Pepsi. But the years have yielded some commonalities among the most memorable spots.

With a new batch of commercials set for Sunday, we’ve scoured some classics to compile what we'll call the Seven Characteristics of Highly Entertaining Super Bowl Ads. Here's our CliffsNotes version of advertisers and ad makers’ golden-lining playbook:

Child's Play

W.C. Fields famously warned against working with children and animals. But both make for strong Super Bowl ad fodder. Let’s start with the kids: That creepy E-Trade baby aside, perhaps the greatest Super Sunday commercial of them all starred a child: Volkswagen’s Darth Vader kid, who wowed tens of millions online and on TV.

Critical Critters
Budweiser has cornered the market on Fields’ other scourge, animals. The King of Beers is well known, of course, for its Clydesdales. But the suds maker made perhaps its biggest Super Bowl splash with a somewhat less majestic creature: the frog. 
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Stars Shine
Sex sells, but perhaps not as much as celebrity (or celebrity sex, but that’s another kind of video product). The stakes are high for star-driven commercials, given the expense and expectations. Here are a couple that beat the odds:
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Tech Touchdown
Special effects play an increasing role in ads. But heralding technological advances also can make for compelling commercials. Here's a classic in the genre:
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Word of Mouth
Super Bowl ads try to get us talking. The words, though, live on in some spots more than in others. Commercial-delivered catchphrases, clever and annoying, alike, can become part of the popular argot – and even the political debate. Here’s a double dose of catchphrases that stuck long after the game ended:
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Quarterback Sneaks 
Super Bowl surprises are tougher than ever to pull off, given the leak friendly Internet. But some memorable spots brought unexpected appearances from old friends – and even old enemies.
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Athletic Supporters 

Ads featuring athletes – football players or otherwise – are another Super Bowl staple. Some of the strongest play off defying expectations, as best exemplified in the most enduring Super Sunday spot of them all, in which a certain Steelers tackle failed to live up to his nickname.

Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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