Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny Created the Modern Age of Wacky Super Bowl Commercials
It’s hard to think of anything less funny than a Super Bowl commercial. That’s especially true when you consider just how hard modern Super Bowl commercials try to be hilarious. Occasionally, one does end up being kinda clever — the Larry David spot from last year wasn’t bad — but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Companies spend millions in production values and then spend millions more to secure a slot during the Big Game, all in service of the most strained attempts at comedy that humanity has ever seen. Look, it’s Justin Timberlake and Christopher Walken! Har har, the Breaking Bad guys have reunited to hawk chips! Personally, I find it exceedingly difficult to laugh when all I can see is the money and flop sweat seeping out of every frame.
Super Bowl ads weren’t always the gaudy, cringey duds they are now. On the whole, there have been more misfires than genuinely inspired Super Bowl commercials, but the modern age of the wacky Big Game spot has now been with us for more than 30 years. You could pinpoint the start of this era to Spuds MacKenzie in the late 1980s. But while those Bud Light spots were certainly influential, I’d argue that it was a rabbit, not a dog, who was crucial in the Big Game ad arms race that would soon blossom. Bugs Bunny and his pal Michael Jordan have a lot to answer for.
The ad, called “Hare Jordan” (a play on Jordan’s ubiquitous Air Jordan shoes), aired during the Super Bowl in 1992. The premise was simple: The beloved Looney Tunes character joins forces with the Chicago Bulls star, who had won his first title just a few months earlier, to defeat a bunch of pathetic hoopsters. Jordan dunks a lot, while Bugs mostly quips, the two of them afterward walking off together, the best of buds.
Before “Hare Jordan,” Super Bowl commercials had already started becoming epic affairs. Apple’s 1984 spot, which was shot by Ridley Scott like a dystopian sci-fi drama, is widely considered the greatest, most creatively significant Big Game ad of all time. Not surprisingly, others tried to replicate Apple’s grandeur and sense of spectacle, but in 1987 when Bud Light unveiled Spuds, the beer company went in the opposite direction, aiming to be irreverent. That spirit of playfulness proved infectious: In the early 1990s, Pepsi produced a commercial in which Cindy Crawford seductively drinks a soda while two hormone-stricken boys watch on lustily — the eventual joke being that they’re actually blown away by Pepsi’s redesigned can. Rather than wowing potential consumers with self-importance, advertisers decided that maybe a joke would work better.
The same year as the Crawford spot, “Hare Jordan” debuted. These were the early days of Nike focusing its energies on creating indelible Super Bowl ads: In 1990, the company launched its first, “Announcers,” which niftily cut between several different famous TV sports announcers to create a medley of their impassioned responses to athletes doing incredible things — all wearing Nike shoes, of course. Nike had already been revolutionizing sports advertising with its deal with Michael Jordan, tapping up-and-coming filmmaker Spike Lee to reprise his Mars Blackmon character from She’s Gotta Have It for the commercials. But, as Jim Riswold, creative director of Wieden+Kennedy, the advertising agency with which Nike worked, later explained, Nike was ready for something a little different.
“(T)hey were going to put Michael on the Super Bowl, and they wanted to take a break from the Mars Blackmon stuff and make a big giant Jordan spot,” Riswold told Complex in 2020. “I couldn’t think of a bigger star to team him up with than Bugs Bunny. I grew up a Bugs Bunny nut and I like to say I just did the spot because I wanted to be talking to Bugs Bunny.”
The idea of pairing a cartoon character with a flesh-and-blood actor was hardly new — in fact, just a few years earlier, the Oscar-winning Who Framed Roger Rabbit had been a huge hit. But Warner Bros. wasn’t initially that excited about the prospect of its flagship cartoon character in this huge national spot. “They (said), ‘Bugs can’t be violent, Bugs can’t be this, Porky can’t stutter,’ all this,” Riswold recalled. “What the fuck are you talking about? Bugs is violent and there was some early arguing back and forth. We played chicken with them and said, ‘Well, fine, we’ll go do it with Roger Rabbit,’ and that kind of changed things.”
By today’s standards, “Hare Jordan” seems pretty low-tech. The animation doesn’t look that good, and overall there’s little of the flashy slickness that defines modern Super Bowl commercials. But not unlike the Cindy Crawford spot, which is actually very straightforward, “Hare Jordan” was just a fun idea executed with some ingenuity. No matter how much Warner Bros. balked at the concept at the first, the ad felt like a Looney Tunes short, full of manic energy and zany gags. (The commercial even repeated some classic bits, including Bugs dressing up as a woman to confuse the rival team.) And it was helmed by Joe Pytka, arguably the most successful of all commercial directors, probably best known at that point for the “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” spots. (He also had a reputation for being utterly uncompromising and tenacious, once saying, “All ideas come from God. You have to protect it. If you have a great idea and are not protecting it, I’ll fight for it if you can’t fight for yourself.”)
“Hare Jordan” got great reviews, opening the door for more commercials starring Jordan and Bugs. The spots were so popular that, in a few years, Warner Bros. even decided to make a movie, Space Jam, which was also directed by Pytka, that expanded the concept of animated and human characters on screen together, albeit to less success than the much-shorter “Hare Jordan.” (Speaking for a lot of us, Riswold said, “I cannot figure out why that movie was successful. … I don’t think it’s funny.”)
But “Hare Jordan” was just as important in terms of showing other companies how to fashion their Super Bowl ads. Soon after, McDonald’s had Michael Jordan and Larry Bird square off. Then, Pepsi brought together Wile E. Coyote and Deion Sanders. “Hare Jordan” argued that, if you wanted more bang for your advertising dollar, you needed to do an Avengers-style team-up between different celebrities. Just as blockbuster movies were ramping up their budgets in the 1990s, so too were commercials, with Super Bowl spots starting to feel like major events. (And that’s putting aside, for the moment, legendary trailers that made their first appearance during the Big Game, like Independence Day, which helped spur interest in those movies at a time before the internet was dominant.) Even in the world of ads, bigger and more outlandish was viewed as better.
You can see in “Hare Jordan” the building blocks for what became the contemporary funny Super Bowl spot: star power, familiar brand names, a snazzy concept, an easy-to-follow narrative, the jokes flying fast and furious. There have been other kinds of comedic Big Game ads — like the brilliant “Whassup?” spots — which stick to stripped-down, meme-able premises (back before memes were a thing). But too often, whether it’s Steve Martin and Ben Stiller shilling for Pepsi Zero Sugar or Serena Williams and Brian Cox advertising Michelob Ultra, the attitude seems to be the more the merrier when it comes to celebrities in your Big Game ad.
At the end of “Hare Jordan,” in a nod to the end of Casablanca, Bugs Bunny tells Michael Jordan that this might be the start of a beautiful friendship. That commercial was certainly the beginning of an advertising trend we’re still living through.