Anheuser-Busch (BUD) returns to the Super Bowl this year with nine commercials, featuring humor, horses and Jay-Z, in what the company's top ad executive called an essential part of its business strategy.

Even as critics say the price of Super Bowl advertisements has risen too far -- they can cost up to $85,000 a second -- Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. is maintaining its spot as the top advertiser in the biggest TV event of the year.

"It is absolutely essential for us to kick off our selling season with Super Bowl," said Bob Lachky, Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc.'s executive vice president of global industry development, who oversees advertising.

"It's always the guys who can't get their work on the Super Bowl who say it's not worth it," he added.

Anheuser-Busch, the largest U.S. brewer, controls about half the U.S. beer market, but has been fighting for market share against imports, wine and spirits.

Because the Super Bowl is a live event with an audience of about 90 million, many of whom watch at parties where beer is served, the game is a centerpiece of the company's marketing.

This year, Anheuser-Busch began cobbling together a list of 75 to 100 ideas for Super Bowl commercials in September, then turned about of 30 those pitches into actual commercials. The ads that do not make the cut are run later in the year.

For Super Bowl XLI, which airs on CBS (CBS) on Feb. 4, the company bought 10 30-second spots. It will run nine ads, combining two of its 30-second spots into one 60-second spot.

While marketers have paid up to $2.6 million for a 30-second spot this year, Lachky said Anheuser-Busch bought its ads at a smaller price. He declined to disclose the amount.

But according the Wall Street Journal, citing a source close to the matter, Anheuser-Busch spent roughly $2 million per spot this year.

"We pay for less than what the going rate is," Lachky said. "We get a better rate because we bundle with Super Bowl purchase with other programming."

One gauge of how much it spends comes from a recent study that showed Anheuser-Busch has bought $250 million of ad time in Super Bowl over the last two decades, far more than any other marketer.

'HE HAS AN AX'

Lachky, who is serving as the company's chief creative officer, contends the best ads for the event involve humor.

"But you've got to be careful, because we've have so many ads over the year that have hit the emotion card, that have played so incredibly well for Budweiser," he said.

Lately, the emotional commercials for Budweiser have featured its famous Clydesdale horses, including a spot that commemorated September 11, 2001 and ran only during the Super Bowl of 2002.

This year, the Clydesdales will be back in one Budweiser commercial, while other lighter, less emotional spots will show astronauts toasting in a space station and crabs stealing a cooler of beer from sunbathers.

Yet another Budweiser commercial is an action packed spot called "Apocalypse" that stars Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., seen racing through a desert wasteland trying to outrun a band of futuristic bandits.

Anheuser-Busch, which works chiefly with ad agency DDB Worldwide, is also keeping with tradition by running humorous spots for its Bud Light brand.

In one, a couple seen is driving down a dark road, studying a map, when they come across a hitchhiker.

"Should we pick him up?" the man asks. "He has Bud Light."

"He has an ax," the woman points out.

"But he has Bud Light," he says.

"And an ax," she says.

"Mmmm, I'm sure there's a reason for it," he says.

Lachky said these commercials and others -- including one for Budweiser Select featuring Jay-Z -- will be the backbone of the company's marketing for all of 2007.

While the ads chosen to run during the game will be replayed, those that failed to make the cut can be used in other big events like the Daytona 500 or the Academy Awards.

FOXNews.com's Alexander B. Duncan contributed to this report.