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October 4, 2015

Most Controversial Super Bowl Ads Ever

by Scott Harris, posted Feb 2nd 2010 3:00PM
Standout University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has been grabbing headlines for years with his play on the field, winning the Heisman Trophy, two national championships and numerous other honors. But before he even plays a single down in the NFL, he's already managed to overshadow the upcoming Super Bowl with his actions off the field by filming a controversial pro-life advertisement set to air during the big game.

Welcome to the crazy world of Super Bowl ads, where big business and non-profits alike often push the boundaries in order to make a splash and get some buzz form the biggest television audience of the year.

Sometimes the results become iconic turning points in advertising, such as the 2004 Cialis Super Bowl ad that was shocking at the time for its graphic and precise discussion of possible side effects but which in retrospect has become a defining moment in the annals of outdoor bathtub sales. All too often, though, when companies court controversy they get more than they bargained for, putting the lie to the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Which side of the fence Tebow's Super Bowl endorsement will come down on, of course, remains to be seen (and you check out our list of the Most Memorable Super Bowl ads for a look at some past spots that successfully toed the line). But as we gear up for what may become the most talked about batch of ads in recent memory, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look back at some of the most controversial commercials in Super Bowl history. Because when the time isn't right, the negative side effects can linger for far longer than just four hours.

Take, for instance, shoe store giant Just For Feet. With over 140 branches, Just For Feet was once one of the largest retailers of footwear in the country. But in 1999, they company decided to air a Super Bowl ad depicting a group of white hunters tagging and bagging the rarest prey of all: an African man. Viewers were appalled, the media was outraged and the shoe giant sued their ad agency; by the end of the year, Just For Feet had declared bankruptcy.

Online dating has become a staple of the social scene, but last year Ashley Madison came up with a new twist to set them apart from their matchmaking counterparts: they catered to married people looking to set up extra-martial affairs. Needless to say, the network refused to air their spot, citing morality concerns.

When Holiday Inn planned a billion dollar overhaul of their chain back in 1997, they struggled to come up with right metaphor to get the point across. Their answer? Comparing the renovations to a sex change procedure. While activists within the transgendered community were outraged, millions more Super Bowl viewers were left wondering how exactly that was supposed to make a stay at Holiday Inn more appealing.

Invoking hormone therapy wasn't quite edgy enough for General Motors back in 2007, so they decided to use another staple of feel-good advertising: suicide. This spot, depicting a robot daydreaming about ending it all after a long day on the assembly line, had suicide prevention groups up in arms, eventually leading GM to alter the commercial for future airings.

Disney's 'Lady and the Tramp' has entertained millions of kids over the decades, thanks in part to its famous scene where Lady and Tramp accidentally kiss while sharing a plate of pasta. This 2007 Snickers ad decided to one up the dogs, though, by showing two men accidentally smooching. While some viewers were turned off by the display, most of the outrage came from the gay and lesbian community thanks to the pair's horrified post-kiss antics. The controversy led Snickers to pull the ad just days after it first aired.

In 2008, SalesGenie managed the rare feat of airing not one, but two controversial ads during the same Super Bowl. The first featured an Indian salesman trying to provide for his seven children using SalesGenie; the second depicted two pandas with Chinese accents struggling to keep their business afloat. Members of the Chinese, Indian, panda and genie communities were all equally outraged at what many felt were racist stereotypes.

If you were pressed to name the raciest organization in America, chances are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would be pretty low on your list. But last year PETA got their Super Bowl spot banned by the network thanks to their contention that vegetarians have better sex, a charge illustrated by images of women becoming sexually aroused by their leafy greens. This is one ad that went way beyond your recommended daily allowance.

Go Daddy has made a habit of getting themselves in hot water with their racy ad campaigns, once reportedly having 14 ads rejected for a single Super Bowl. While it's hard to single out just one of their controversial spots, this 2004 sequence of ads mocking Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction during the previous year's Super Bowl gets special props for being pulled by the network during the game itself after the first of the series had already aired.

Bud Light has produced a number of lowbrow commercials over the year, but this 2003 spot really hit below the belt -- or, to be more specific, above it, as a thirsty parade performer in an upside down clown costume drinks beer through the wrong end of his jumpsuit. This final version had to be severely edited by Budweiser in order to make it to the air, with most of the action merely being suggested by the looks of dismay from fellow bar patrons; the original, which showed the entire sordid affair in detail, was deemed unacceptable by the network.

Finally, we end our list with an ad from this year's Super Bowl that you won't be seeing. Sponsored by the online dating site Man Crunch, this ad was axed by the network for promoting same sex coupling. We're guessing that, like Cialis before it, within a few years this sort of thing will be commonplace on the airwaves; for now, though, it's banned from the Super Bowl, a decision that has gay rights activists up in arms. Check it out and decide for yourself whether this spot exceeds deceny standards, as the network claims, or, like Tebow's highly anticipated spot, should be aired despite its controversial subject matter.

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