20 highlights in 20 years of Ad Meter

Watching Super Bowl advertising has become a pop-culture ritual. But the ads are not just being scrutinized by about 90 million TV viewers.

For 20 years, they've also come under the magnifying glass of USA TODAY'S Super Bowl Ad Meter, an exclusive, real-time consumer rating of all the game's ads. Focus groups in multiple cities use handheld devices to register their second-by-second reactions to the commercials. It's been quite a ride.

Who can forget the beer-pitching Bud Bowl ads of the late 1980s? And celebrity-laden Pepsi pep spots of the 1990s? And the wacky dot-com commercials that filled the 2000 game?

Through the perspective of Ad Meter, USA TODAY is spotlighting on the next page 20 of the high points, low points and turning points in Super Bowl ads over these two decades.

Each year, Super Bowl ads mirror American culture. Most years, they aim no higher than a superficial reflection. But, once in a while, they offer a peek at something deeper.

All in 30 seconds.

This Sunday, 37 advertisers, who paid an average $2.7 million per 30 seconds, will air about 55 ads aimed at winning Super Bowl ad immortality. Odds are none will get there.

"Everyone we work with says, 'Do the next '1984'," says ad guru Jeff Goodby, a reference to Apple's aapl famous Super Bowl spot of the woman who shatters Big Brother's image. "But that's easier said than done."

That won't stop folks such as Goodby, whose agency is a Super Bowl ad veteran, from trying. He knows the impact of Ad Meter intimately. It has forced many advertisers to work overtime trying to win the top prize — and the acclaim that comes with it. But, in the process, he only half-jokes, "It has ruined the Christmas vacations of advertising and production people worldwide."

Alex Bogusky, co-chairman of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, tries to avoid that. Because there is only one Ad Meter winner, it makes "losers" out of most Super Bowl advertisers. "I counsel clients against doing Super Bowl advertising."

In Ad Meter's history, there've been vintage years, full of highs and lows, and others best forgotten. Here are 20 indelible Super Bowl ad moments:

1. "You-per" Bowl (2007)

Madison Avenue's biggest showcase became Main Street's newest stomping ground last year when a few cutting-edge marketers got real people — not ad agencies — to create memorable ads.

Tops among them: Doritos' consumer-generated ad contest winner in which a chip-eating driver crashes his car while ogling a Doritos-munching woman. The ad made the top five in Ad Meter alongside four pro ads from Anheuser-Busch bud.

Many Super Bowl ads cost upwards of $1 million to film. This one cost $12, for four bags of Doritos. That's punch for the crunch.

2. Now you see me (2007)

Last year's Super Bowl will be best-remembered by some as the year that two ads quickly were dispatched to the commercial graveyard by special-interest groups.

A Snickers ad featured two car mechanics who pulled out chest hair to assert their manliness after sharing a Snickers bar led to an accidental smooch. Gay-advocacy groups made the ad disappear the next day.

A General Motors gm ad with a robot fantasizing about suicide while dreaming of losing its assembly-line job got the heave after a suicide-prevention group balked.

3. Too tight for comfort (2005)

How tight can a model's strappy top be before network censors squirm? That's a question for which GoDaddy.com's first Super Bowl ad got free PR galore.

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