Budwiser's Super Bowl Ad Evolution, Examined

by Mary Grace Garis

For every legitimate sports fan watching the Super Bowl, there are dozens more just in it for the commercials. (A study conducted by Nielsen in 2010 actually showed that 51% of viewers just watch the game for the ads.) Time and time again, companies roll out their very best advertising campaigns with a singular goal in mind: Create a lasting impression on audiences that will stay with consumers for (at the very least) weeks to follow. Budweiser's now-infamous puppy-laden campaign is a prime example of this — particularly last year's Super Bowl ad which depicted the power of friendship between the Bud puppy and a Clydesdale horse, as well as their upcoming Super Bowl ad where the Bud puppy gets separated from its BFF Clydesdale. Last year's commercial may now be famous for being the one that made us all cry into our game day snacks, but look: Nobody can deny that Bud knows how to make a good advertisement.

But, how did the company get to drawing dramatic emotional reactions with adorable puppies from their ads that aired during the Super Bowls of decades past? Interestingly enough, it's not in the way one might think: Though Super Bowl ads from every participating company have changed dramatically over the years, what I've been surprised to find is that, unlike the cliché about beer ads defaulting to using scantily-clad women to sell their products, Budweiser has actually rarely cashed in on this trope. In fact, over the years, the only thing that's really been a constant in their advertising campaigns are adorable animals, whether it be a Clydesdale horse or a cute puppy. This doesn't mean the commercials have always been perfect over the years, but they have been the most respectful, memorable, and dedicated to selling a product: there's a reason why I can recall old Budweiser campaigns from '90s, whereas I may still have to Google what various other companies are every year.

Though the ads surprisingly don't default to clichés, however, that doesn't mean they haven't gone through somewhat of a creative renaissance in the past 40 years. The change may have appeared subtle from decade to decade, but, when Budweiser's four-decade history with Super Bowl commercial is all analyzed at once, it's pretty easy to see what's changed: The company may never have employed the scantily-clad women trope to sell their beer, but the feel of their commercials — as well as their targeted audience — has certainly evolved.

1975 - 1985: Baby Clydesdales, And This Bud's For You

One of the earliest Budweiser commercials featured an icon that you actually still see in the company's commercials today: The Clydesdale foal. Like the lil' foal itself, the ad was a shaky start to Bud's Super Bowl commercial history — and, ultimately, it wasn't what defined this particular era of campaigns.

What did define this decade of commercials, however, was the ad campaign that the company followed it up with: The "This Bud's For You" commercials.

"This Bud's For You" is a campaign that dates back to 1979, and, though there were a few versions of ads for this campaign (it was a huge advertising campaign for Budweiser and it ran for years, so this is to be expected), this particular commercial is still the most iconic and well-remembered to this day:

In short, this particular ad was a take on blue collar working folk, most of whom are men: There are construction workers (checking out an attractive woman, it should be noted), welders boiling metal, gentlemen who are punching raw meat like Rocky — you get the idea. It's as if the ad was basically trying to say: "Oh, you rascally cowboy type, go have a Budweiser, you deserve it!" It's all very indicative of it's time, and it really zeroes in on it's male demographic. It even has a jaunty jingle that became majorly associated with Budweiser in the years to come: "This Bud's for you, for all you do!"

Overall, most of the ads in the campaign were focused on the male demographic, and it spoke volumes about who Bud's target audience was: rugged, All-American boys.

1985 - 1995: The Clydesdales Conquer

It wasn't until 1986 during Super Bowl XX, however, that Budweiser delivered a commercial that managed to set the tone for many, many years to come. This Budweiser commercial pushed the Clydesdales to the forefront, making them a mascot for Budweiser's leading principles: "Strength, pride, tradition."

Aside from the 1989 Bud Bowl — Budweiser's animated, stop-motion Super Bowl ad campaign that basically featured Budweiser beer bottles playing a game of football against Bud Light beer bottles — the Clydesdales owned this era in Budweiser's Super Bowl advertising history, reinforcing Bud's place as an American institution.

To this day, the Clydesdale horses have appeared in most of Budweiser's Super Bowl ads — but not without a break in between.

1995 - 2005: Memorable and Meme-able

And then there were the frogs.

Budweiser reinvented itself in a big way in the mid-90's, when new brand director Mike Brooks decided to make the brand more contemporary for a younger demographic. As Fast Company reports, after Budweiser consulted with a creative team in St. Louis, the idea for the Budweiser frogs was conceived.

Though the Clydesdale horses did remain a constant in Budweiser's advertising during the years between 1995 to 2005, the company received the most recognition for this particular campaign in the '90s: Though animatronic frogs were a risk — and at 2.3 million dollars, an expensive one at that — it worked. In snagging the 21-to-30 demographic, Bud was able to secure it's spot as the number one beer in America, and Bud Lite even usurped Miller Lite to effectively ensure the top two beer brands in America were both Budweiser products. (The commercial was so iconic that it may have been a bit too successful in getting the attention of youths: a 1996 study revealed that children recognized the frogs more than several characters such as Power Rangers or Tony the Tiger.)

A few years later, the Super Bowl advertising game was changed yet again with infamous "Wassup" commercials, which are forever known at THE Super Bowl ad of 2000. In fact, they're still recognizable to this day, mostly because they managed to spawn a catchphrase that remained culturally relevant for years to come.

Unlike the Clydesdale ads of Budweiser's past, these ads are particularly unique for establishing a lasting impression — acting as sort of pre-memes, in a way. Both commercials were referenced and made fun of on The Simpsons , and "Wassup" was extensively parodied in the 2000 film Scary Movie . While Internet culture wasn't in full swing and Tumblr had yet to grace the web with its GIF-heavy presence, media was still produced quickly enough to riff on it — and riffing, in essence, is one way to keep an advertisement alive years after the commercial itself is outdated.

While later commercials noted the importance of being viral, the approach that dominated their next era has not relied on similar tactics — but instead on something a bit more stirring.

2005 - 2015: Foal Reborn, Puppy Love and the Excessively Emotive Ad

It was around this time that the the ads changed from targeting mostly men to targeting a seemingly wider audience: The Clydesdales triumphantly returned in the mid '00s, and, in 2013, Budweiser began experimenting with playing on the audiences' emotions with the commercial "Brotherhood." The company teased the rebirth with a trailer featuring a little baby Clydesdale foal, encouraging viewers to name the foal with a hashtag — very Internet-savvy. The commercial itself is a tear-jerker, and even plays Fleetwood Mac's classic song "Landslide" in the background as a rancher builds a lifelong bond with this sweet little pony. Tell me you didn't shed a year just now watching it, seriously.

And, finally, in 2014, Bud introduced the Clydesdale to the the scrappiest puppy ever — and thus, one of the most memorable ads in Super Bowl history was born. "Puppy Love" is a commercial so gosh-darn adorable that people couldn't help loving it, and talking about it for weeks to come after the game aired.

Overall, Budweiser ads seem to mostly embrace three things: adorable animals, the Budweiser Clydesdales, and the rugged, hardworking dude. That hasn't changed; the concept has just been updated, and reinforced with the hashtag #BestBuds. Its new strategy draws out emotional reactions instead of light-hearted ones, which gives the ads a substantially higher chance of being widely shared amongst all demographics — a genius strategy, really, that appeals to younger and older viewers.

But, why the shift in target audiences? Based off the copious amounts of evidence signifying exactly how the company's ad campaigns have morphed over the decades, it seems most likely that the Bud Puppy tries to capitalize on the fact that the Super Bowl is understood now to be an event that all demographics — and all genders — tune in for, whether the reason be the game or the commercials. And while it’s strange to think that advertisers would want us to associate products with crying, their larger goal is to make us feel something, and write about or share those feels. There's still tradition with the Clydesdale, and strong emphasis on friendship, but those modern techniques (hashtags, ad trailers) bring it into the 21st century. (And, everyone loves puppies. Everyone.)

It's safe to say with all those cute animals in the stable, Bud's shift to sensitivity may snag it even more attention during this year's game as well.

Images: Anheuser-Busch, Giphy