What's amazing, in retrospect, is how it just kept going and going, long after the puns had been exhausted, long after a quorum of otherwise respectable broadcasters had literally shilled themselves for beer money, long after an ad campaign designed to lampoon the very event it was wrapped around had itself become an overindulgent punchline. Before the first one even aired, David Letterman was ribbing Bob Costas about his involvement; four years in, The Simpsons made a mockery of a concept that was meant, in and of itself, to be a mockery. By the end, even Bud Bowl satire had grown tired and dated. But these were the '90s, and the campaign kept selling beer and so it kept going, and now, 25 years after Bud Bowl I aired, that feels like the moment when Super Bowl culture became so immersive that it started refracting back on itself.
What follows is not a celebration of the silver anniversary of the Bud Bowl, because I'm not sure the Bud Bowl deserves a celebration at all. Three years ago, Ad Age listed it as one of the worst Super Bowl ad campaigns ever, and unless you enjoy repetitive jokes about beer bottles lacking appendages, it isn't hard to see why. But I dare you to go back now and watch every Bud Bowl in succession and tell me it doesn't carry the same subtextual American story arc as a Scorsese film. I dare you to watch Bud Bowl I, an earnest little tête-à-tête between Bud and Bud Light, and then ramp up to Bud Bowl VI -- a bloated battle, narrated by a disinterested Marv Albert, between a real-life Mike Ditka and Bum Phillips (!), with an entire B-story about people watching the Bud Bowl at a bar, with what appear to be paid sponsorships within the ad itself ("The Eagle Snacks Instant Replay"; Anheuser Busch owned Eagle Snacks, but still) -- and tell me it doesn't echo the evolution of the Super Bowl itself.
Which is probably why, two years ago, Ad Age also cited the Bud Bowl as one of the most influential Super Bowl advertising campaigns of all-time.
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This was 1989, five years after Apple's "1984" ad had altered the paradigm, and by Super Bowl XXIIII a 30-second commercial cost almost $700,000. Anheuser-Busch wanted to somehow stretch the boundaries. In St. Louis, the company's chairman, August Busch III, declared that he wanted to "own the Super Bowl." And so a room full of creatives at a St. Louis ad agency of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles came up with the idea for a game within the game, an immersive tentpole campaign that played off the notion that the periphery of the Super Bowl had come to mean as much as the actual Super Bowl. Budweiser spent $5 million on the six ads, and utilized the same stop-motion technology it had already utilized to promote its eight-ounce longnecks.
"I don't remember anyone having multiple parts to a single story in a game before that," says Grant Pace, one of those creatives, now with Conover Tuttle Pace in Boston. "The goal for the next day was to have everyone talking about the Bud Bowl. In that way, it was a success."
Pace spent months in New York, working with the same animation company that did Pee-wee's Playhouse. Three seconds of footage -- often fraught with small details like coaches' clipboards, and background jokes like the Bud Light bottle in the rainbow John 3:16 wig -- took eight hours to produce, and a mousy gang of animators would stay up all night and work and then hand over what they'd done in the morning. There were several endings, including the one Pace liked most, that played off the Heidi game 20 years earlier, but even then, the executives in charge at NBC wanted nothing to do with reliving their own ignominy. So they came up with another, a St. Elsewhere-ending where a man opens his fridge at the game's climax, pulls out two of the key players and then ascribes what he saw to a hallucination. But this didn't work, either, because no one knew who won, or whether the game had even happened outside the mind of a genial drunk's refrigerator, and August Busch was so enamored with the idea that he was already thinking of what they could with it next year. And so they devised a conventional and more anti-climactic ending, a kicker named Budsky eking the game-winning field goal over the crossbar. The spots (and their attendant pregame buzz) were so successful that the company's January beer sales jumped 17 percent. (In USA TODAY, Danny Sheridan actually published odds on the Bud Bowl.)
Part of it was that the Bud Bowl came along at the right time. Other than that 49ers-Bengals finish during Bud Bowl I, we had just lived through an era of Super Bowl blowouts, and so noting that the Bud Bowl was more exciting the actual game became a shorthand way of mocking the hype itself. The Super Bowl was couched in excess. By comparison, Bud Bowl I was ironic, and it was purposefully stupid (it had a whole backstory with full-page "media guide" advertisements and silly plays on words -- "When you get to 'candemonium,'" Pace says, "you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel"), and yet it soon became so enamored of itself that it, too, embraced the excess.
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We could talk about Bud Bowl IV, the Metal Machine Music of the Bud Bowl catalogue, in which some hapless doofus misses the entire "game" while chasing a Bud Bowl lotto ticket through the streets of the city. But I like to think the height of Bud Bowl's terribleness actually occurred the following year. For Bud Bowl V, even the A-list hosts had been exhausted, so the Bud Bowl turned to Ahmad Rashad and Karen "Duff" Duffy, from MTV. The coaches were Corbin Bernsen (for Bud Light) and a confused-looking Joe Namath (for Bud), who shows up late to the stadium, riding on a blimp. It kept going, though, even after that nadir, all the way through Bud Bowl VIII, a single plaintive spot (not even available on YouTube) narrated by Howie Long and Ronnie Lott from a tavern in the Louisiana bayou.
By then, Grant Pace -- who worked only on the first Bud Bowl -- was long gone, but he'd already caught a glimpse of the inevitable future of the Bud Bowl while working on those early spots. In one scene, a shot of the Bud Light "owner's box," the camera flashes to Spuds MacKenzie, the insatiable partying canine who had sprung to worldwide fame after appearing in a Bud Light Super Bowl commercial in 1987. By 1989, Spuds had grown so huge that he was on the verge of retirement, but there he (actually a she) was, in the studio, eating filet mignon and drinking Perrier out of a dog bowl. "And they kept her on sedatives," Pace says. "Also, I seem to remember she was getting a manicure."
This, Pace insists, is a true story. It's also a pretty good example of what happens when the joke outgrows itself. Twenty-five years later, there are promotions within promotions within promotions. Everything around the Super Bowl is integrated and cross-branded and teased in advance, a room full of refractive mirrors, from the Puppy Bowl all the way to the Kitten Bowl. The Bud Bowl may still not be an object lesson in high-end advertising, but, in retrospect, it may have been our best indication of just how surreal the game was about to become.