For many, the Super Bowl means epic shootouts, defensive shutdowns and last-minute, game-on-the-line Hail Marys. For others, it’s all about another skirmish: The Battle of the Brands.
Every year, companies spend millions of dollars for just a few seconds of airtime in hopes of getting consumers attention—and then, maybe, their money. Whether funny, sad, self-referential or downright weird, Super Bowl ads have become a spectacle and tradition in their own right.
How did the commercial sideshow become as engrossing as the main event? Between the first Super Bowl in 1967 and through the mid-80s, Super Bowl commercials were generally repeats. It was Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial that turned them into a bespoke phenomenon, after which more brands started to create ads specifically for the big game.
Not that the playbook for a successful Super Bowl ad hasn’t changed. While they were once top-secret, many companies today pre-launch their ads online, or post “teasers,” to drum up attention. The average cost to air a 30-second Super Bowl spot is now $5 million, while it costs essentially nothing to upload a video to YouTube. (Of course, that excludes the cost of creating the ad itself which can range from tens of thousands of dollars to many, many millions.)
Is television in danger of pricing itself out? Analysts say not any time soon. “The Super Bowl is still the biggest marketing event of the year in this country, by far,” says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing and creator of the Kellogg Super Bowl Advertising Review at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago. “The Super Bowl is more and more unique, as media is fragmenting, and there are more and more media properties vying for people’s attention.” In other words, there may be more and more places to see ads (of all kinds), but fewer and fewer places where a mass audience can see the same ads all at once.
Roughly 112 million people watched the Super Bowl last year, despite the NFL’s ratings decline overall. A similar number are expected to tune in to this year’s contest, between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. The ads will be there. Ahead of the game, TIME ranked the most influential Super Bowl ads ever. The list—which is ordered by influence—was assembled and deliberated on at (extreme) length by TIME’s entertainment, culture and business staff.