Special Report: Super Bowl
How USA Today’s Ad Meter Broke Super Bowl Advertising
And How Social Media May Save It
By: Michael Learmonth – January 30, 2012
When Ridley Scott created Apple’s iconic “1984,” the company’s board didn’t want it to air. Newly hired CEO John Sculley, veteran of many a Super Bowl ad as CEO of Pepsi-Cola Co., agreed with the consensus: It’s a waste to run an ad that doesn’t even show the product.
Apple ended up selling off some of its planned Super Bowl ad time and ran “1984” in the 60-second slot it couldn’t unload. The rest, as they say, is history. The Macintosh did change the world as Steve Jobs said it would, and Apple is the most valuable company on the planet.
USA Today is marrying its Super Bowl panel with Facebook feedback.
The commercial also ushered in an era in Super Bowl advertising that we still inhabit: the ad as entertainment. That we expect ads during the Super Bowl to be as entertaining as the game itself can largely be traced back to “1984.” But if that were the end of the story, we’d all still be watching high-concept minimovies directed by auteurs that made us think or feel different.
But that didn’t happen, unless you define “feeling” as what it would be like to get served a beer by a dog or be hazed by chimps in a board meeting. Along the way, the Super Bowl got hijacked by D-list celebrities, talking animals and cheap gags — anything for a chuckle — and that trend can be traced to one thing: USA Today’s Ad Meter.
In 1989, just a few years after “1984,” the national newspaper introduced a revolutionary concept — and a marketing masterstroke. Take a small panel of people, isolate them in a room with a meter and tell them to constantly turn a dial rating what they’re seeing on a scale from one to 10.
The ratings, which came out Monday morning in the paper, became the most immediate and public scorecard for who “won” the Super Bowl, setting the agenda for the media of the day, morning shows and other newspapers.
“That’s the way it was, 100%. I can’t tell you how many times an advertiser has told me, ‘You’ve gotta hit the top 10, you’ve gotta hit the top 10, you’ve gotta hit the top 10,'” said Bryan Buckley, who’s directed 42 Super Bowl ads since 1999.
With so much at stake, to please the clients and bolster their own resumes, directors started creating ads for the panel — the media equivalent of teaching for the test. How do you get people to have an immediate, positive reaction to something they’re seeing? Certainly don’t show them a narrative. Make them laugh.
“It better be something that rings some bells or gets measured on the USA Today Richter Scale,” said TBWA/MediaArts Chairman Lee Clow. But the creator of “1984” also believes it means fewer ads like that one have been made. “It’s a big challenge to spend $3 million on the time and then a million on the spot. It’s kinda difficult to then come in 19th on the USA Today ‘How’d you like our spot?’ scale.”
Not just difficult, but dangerous. In 2007, CareerBuilder famously put its business up for review the day after the Super Bowl when its Big Game ad did not crack the Ad Meter’s top 10. Cramer-Krasselt promptly resigned the account in protest. (It’s worth noting that the spot, for the first time in two years, did not feature the CareerBuilder chimps, but instead was a high- concept spot set in a jungle.)
One reason the USA Today Ad Meter remained the arbiter for so long is that the decision to advertise in the Super Bowl is the most expensive dice-roll of the year.
“Each year we agonize over whether to be in the Super Bowl; it’s $100,000 a second,” said E-Trade CMO Nicholas Utton. “Most CMOs know you don’t want to be in the bottom of the list because some people consider it to be the definitive methodology.”