The Bud Bowl: The Campaign That Kicked Off the Transformation of Big Game Advertising

Randy Phipps, Executive Creative Director

The Super Bowl – a cultural phenomenon and unofficial national holiday when families and friends gather around screens eagerly awaiting not just the clash on the field, but the unveiling of the most anticipated commercials of the year. But when did Super Bowl commercials become as important, if not more so, as the game itself? I would point to one campaign: the Bud Bowl. 

What can today's marketers learn from the Bud Bowl?

By the 1980s, Super Bowl commercials had become incredibly significant for advertisers but not necessarily for fans. The stakes were high – companies invested heavily, but at the end of the day, they were still just commercials. When the game was a blowout, and people tuned out, advertisers simply weren’t getting the ROI they hoped for.  

This was exactly the case in 1988, when the Washington Redskins defeated the Denver Broncos 42-10. August Busch III, then CEO of the brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, was furious – they had spent a fortune on commercials only for potential customers to skip out early. The next year, though, he had a plan. The company was not only going to take over the Super Bowl, but transform the way commercials would be viewed forever. 

It took a year of planning and negotiation, including an unprecedentedly hefty payment to NBC to secure exclusive placements and ensure they were the only alcohol being advertised, but the stage was set for a groundbreaking campaign. 

The Bud Bowl wasn't just a commercial; it was a game within the game, featuring animated football between Budweiser and Bud Light bottles. This played out across a number of commercial spots throughout the broadcast, so viewers had to stay tuned in to see who “won” (spoiler alert, it was the Anheuser-Busch brand).  

The impact of the Bud Bowl was immediate. Consumers eagerly anticipated each year's installment, wondering what creative twists would be introduced next. Similar to how the Super Bowl is not just a football game, this was not just an advertisement; it was a cultural phenomenon that transcended the game itself. Prior to then, commercials were viewed as a single moment in time. Now, it was appointment viewing. 

Anheuser-Busch owned the before, during and after. They owned the conversation leading up to the game, with audiences waiting and talking in anticipation. They owned the game itself, with the actual commercial going above and beyond what anyone had done previously. And they owned the conversation afterward, dominating water-cooler discussions and articles discussing the spots. 

We see these effects now, with advertisers trying to replicate this success by “owning” the before, during and after. And these days when you hear someone ask who won the Super Bowl, they could just as easily be referring to who had the best ad campaign. 

So, what can today's marketers learn from the Bud Bowl? Be bold!

The success of the Bud Bowl wasn't just about clever marketing or a big budget; it was about taking risks and pushing the boundaries. In an age when consumers are bombarded with advertisements at every turn, standing out requires a willingness to take chances and to trust in the power of creativity to captivate an audience. 

As we look ahead to future Super Bowls and the advertising spectacles they will undoubtedly bring, let’s remember that in a world where conformity is the norm, it's the bold who truly leave their mark. And let’s never forget that sometimes, the greatest victories are won not on the field, but in the hearts and minds of the people who watch from their couches. 

Want to know how to transform bold ideas into lasting impact? Let's chat!