Touchback: Five Super Bowl Ads That Brought Back Iconic Characters

Nostalgia isn’t a bad way to forge an instant connection with potential consumers, so it should come as no surprise that it’s happening more and more in advertising, particularly when companies see fit to spend on Super Bowl Sunday. Armed with the money necessary to corral actors to step once more into their most legendary roles, if only for 30 seconds give or take, advertisers create the unusual situation of putting their products in a context for audiences to instantly understand while taking the characters completely out of the context they were created in — usually away from the creative teams that first birthed them.

Such is the case with this week’s arrival of the controversial yet popular Honda ad featuring Matthew Broderick. The two-minute clip directed by “The Hangover” helmer Todd Phillips isn’t quite a reboot of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” since the actor is referred to by his real name, but retains Yello’s symbiotic theme song “Oh Yeah” and clearly transfers and adapts most of Ferris’ exploits from his hometown of Chicago to Los Angeles. While perhaps not exactly where “Ferris” writer/director John Hughes would’ve envisioned him, the sight of Ferris in his forties (and/or Broderick in his fifties) answers the question to some degree of where he’s been and, quite literally in this case, where he’s going in his CR-V.

Since the event of Super Bowl commercials are so ingrained in our culture that they’ve recycled and updating themselves (see Troy Polamalu’s remake of the 1979 Mean Joe Greene Coca-Cola ad or Cindy Crawford’s now-and-then spots for Pepsi), there’s little doubt that many more classics characters from films and television will be updated in small doses on the small screen in the years ahead. Here are a few that already have been over the past decade.


The Terminator – Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003

Unlike the other actors on this list, Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the midst of staging a full-fledged return to the big screen for his most famous character for “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” that would come out the summer after this aired for the 2003 Super Bowl. Of course, given the exorbitant amount of money advertisers spend on Super Bowl Sunday, it’s not unusual for that day’s commercials to double up on promotions – Will Ferrell tried to make Jackie Moon, his character in “Semi-Pro,” into a thing before the film came out by pitching Bud Light in 2008. However, this was the first glimpse audiences had of the T-800 since 1991 unless you went to Universal Studios Orlando to see the “T2 3D” attraction that opened in 1996, so it was still a pretty big deal. Schwarzenegger looks a little rusty in this pre-game promo, but then again, so does the legendary Jerry Rice in a Raiders uniform and one must admit that “Are you ready for some football?” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “I’ll be back.”

McGyver – Super Bowl XL in 2006

Although Richard Dean Anderson credits Mastercard with approaching him with a funny yet respectful treatment of his signature role, they likely weren’t as thrifty in their resources as MacGyver was in luring him back to play the role 14 years after the show went off the air. Anderson admits in this making-of video that he wasn’t able to quite as many stunts as he did in the old days because of the ones he did in the old days and the ‘80s action series’ most fervent fans might be miffed that, as the actor notes, “We’re missing the mullet.” But for the company’s “Priceless” campaign was a perfect fit for the crafty character, though we can’t imagine most stores would allow McGyver to pay for a small purchase of air freshener, tube socks and an individual paper clip and rubber band with a credit card. Appropriately enough, however, the ad aired in the fourth quarter of the 2006 Super Bowl when things went down to the wire between the Steelers and the Seahawks.

Hellboy – Super Bowl XLIII in 2009

A year after Ron Perlman donned the elaborate red makeup for the sequel “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” he followed it up by starring in a DirecTV commercial that debuted during the Steelers’ win against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The commercial wasn’t part of the satellite company’s line that reinserted actors into their most iconic roles mid-scene such as Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens” and Kathy Bates in “Misery” to pitch the clarity of HD or the bounty of channels in the mid ‘00s, but certainly took inspiration from them by taking Hellboy out of his movies and sitting him down at a board meeting. Though Perlman has never made a secret of wanting to make another feature, director Guillermo Del Toro’s exceptionally busy schedule including the upcoming monster movie “Pacific Rim” could keep him away from the franchise for some time, meaning that Hellboy’s final onscreen adventure may indeed be learning how to set up a DVR at home from a laptop.

Clark and Ellen Griswold – Super Bowl XLIV in 2010

If nothing else, the 2010 spot for the Austin-based vacation rental business HomeAway meant that the ill-fated 1997 comedy “Vegas Vacation” wasn’t the last we saw of the Griswold clan. As heads of the family whose calamitous vacations spawned a four-film series, Clark and Ellen Griswold were natural pitchpeople for the business and it came at a natural time for all involved to revisit – the ad helped garner some good will for Chevy Chase’s return to the mainstream with the TV series “Community” and now that one could reasonably assume the kids have moved out of the house, it was no longer necessary to continue the revolving door of actors to play them. Yet the son Rusty Griswold was the linchpin for the redo, played by Travis Greer in a portlier incarnation who leads Clark and Ellen on a cross-country voyage to see his brood.

The Super Bowl ad was merely a tease, having Clark and Ellen show up at Rusty’s door, but it led viewers to seek out a 14-minute film online called “Hotel Hell Vacation,” which is embedded below, that oddly has the aesthetic more of a mumblecore production than one emanating from the National Lampoon. There are nods to the original with various travel mishaps and Clark’s glasses getting fogged up by a busty brunette who is no Christie Brinkley, but John Hughes wouldn’t recognize the characters from the short story he wrote that inspired the series. (Then again, that seems to happen on Super Bowl Sunday.) Still, the ad may have been successful, not only because it put HomeAway into the public consciousness, but because the buzz around the ad may have led to a revival of the feature films at New Line where a reboot centered on Rusty’s family is in the works.

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