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.

In the ad, Go Daddy's buxom spokesmodel wiggles and giggles before a faux censorship committee. When an overstretched strap snaps, one elderly committee member needs oxygen. The Fox network got so many angry calls after it aired the spot that it shelved plans to run it again later in the game.

Even then, the ad was a dud with consumers rating it for Ad Meter: They relegated it to the bottom five of all the game's ads.

But the ad got gazillions to go online to see it again. And again.

4. Tasteless Bowl (2004)

It wasn't just Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" that torpedoed good taste that year. Some ads helped, particularly two for Bud Light.

In one, a romantic sleigh ride goes south after the horse passes explosive gas. In another, a guy surrenders his Bud Light only after a dog bites his crotch.

Not that Ad Meter's consumers took offense. They rated the crotch commercial best of the game.

"We hope the humor didn't offend anybody," Anheuser-Busch CEO August Busch IV said after the game. At an ad conference later, he said good taste would be a criterion for A-B ads, not just for its beer.

5. Clydesdales bow to 9/11 (2002)

Anheuser-Busch is mostly famous for its Super Bowl commercials that make viewers laugh. This one, however, made many cry.

Airing less than five months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it struck a national chord. The Budweiser Clydesdales pull the beer wagon across the country before coming to a stop with a view of the World Trade Center site. The lead horse bows in respect to the 9/11 victims, and the team follows.

"That touched a nerve in this country," says Linda Kaplan Thaler, regarded as one of Madison Avenue's top ad chiefs. "During a contest that pits one team against another, this ad showed that, ultimately, we're all on the same team." But the bow may have been too subtle. Some Ad Meter panelists didn't get it and ranked the ad just outside the top 10. But it still tugs the heart today, and A-B can take a bow for this one.

6 Dot-com Bowl (2000)

At the height of the Internet bubble, a dozen dot-coms spent more than $40 million on Super Bowl ads to get noticed.

The hard part now is remembering many of the ads, except two:

Pets.com's singing Sock Puppet crooned If You Leave Me Now. The ad broke into Ad Meter's top five. And E-Trade's etfc monkey clapped along with two men in an ad that ends with the message: "We just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you doing with your money?"

Not a total waste, however: The ad ranked just outside of Ad Meter's top 10, and the company is one of the few of those dot-coms still in business.

7. Superman walks (2000)

Sometimes special effects make an ad memorable, like it or not. Such was the case with the eerie image of paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve walking in this commercial for Nuveen.

In the spot, Reeve gets an ovation as he leaves his wheelchair to present an award for spinal injury research. The ad took criticism because it was fakery: The late actor never walked after he was paralyzed.

Because the ad got so much pregame PR, the image did not surprise Ad Meter panelists, and it finished in the middle of the pack. After this, many advertisers kept their climax secret until game day.

8. Ego Bowl (2000)

Phil Sokolof is hardly a household name. But the retired steel industry millionaire, who had his first heart attack at age 43, wrote, starred in and bought $2 million in ad time for his cautionary health ad.

In the ad, Sokolof, who died of heart failure in 2004, waxed unpoetically on the use of cholesterol-producing drugs to prevent heart disease.

The ad bombed: next-to-last on Ad Meter. "I can't say I'm proud of that," he later conceded to USA TODAY. "It was a downer."

9. Sexy fashion show (1999)

Victoria's Secret was among the first to use a Super Bowl spot as a glorified promotion to lure viewers to its website.

The ad featured lingerie-clad models pitching an online fashion show. While Ad Meter men loved the ad, women mostly hated it. Perhaps that's why the ad finished in the middle of the pack.

But it worked. The live, 17-minute online fashion show later that week attracted then-record Web traffic, and the site crashed. The retailer is in the game this year for the first time since then, with supermodel Adriana Lima pitching Valentine's Day sales.

10. When I grow up (1999)

A Super Bowl ad full of bright-eyed, optimistic kids would surprise no one.

Which is precisely why job site Monster.com'smnst artsy black-and-white ad showed cute kids looking ahead to career doom. One says: "I want to be forced into early retirement." Another: "I want to claw my way up to middle management."

Goodby, whose agency was named Agency of the Year by Advertising Age and Adweek, calls this the best Super Bowl spot of the past 20 years. But Ad Meter panelists ranked it right in the middle. So much for artful angst.

11. Exploding mosquito (1999)

Why does a sweaty guy, pouring Tabasco sauce onto his pizza, just sit on his porch and watch a mosquito bite his leg?

The punch line: After biting the Tabasco eater, the mosquito explodes in midair.

This hot, hot, hot ad for McIlhenny Tabasco made Ad Meter's top five, the only outsider that year to challenge a Pepsi/Anheuser-Busch ad juggernaut.

12. Cindy's Bowl (1997)

It's rare that a celebrity appears in two ads in one Super Bowl, but Cindy Crawford did in this one.

In a Pepsi spot, she and fellow supermodel Tyra Banks blow kisses at a newborn who winks and blows back a smooch. Then, in a Cadillac Catera spot, Crawford plays a princess with a plunging neckline. It was later pulled by General Motors after complaints about its portrayal of women.

Crawford did not appear again in a Super Bowl ad until 2005. That Diet Pepsi ad, where she checks out a hot guy, was a huge hit online afterward. Say this three times fast: Cindy certainly sells soda.

13. Clydesdales play ball (1996)

What if horses played football? Budweiser showed just that in this classic spot pitting two teams of Clydesdales. As two cowboys watch, one horse even kicks a field goal.

The ad rated in Ad Meter's top five, and Bud updated it for the 2004 Super Bowl with a parody of the NFL's video review policy — with a real zebra checking the instant replay while the horses wait.

14. Special Effects Bowl (1995)

Great Super Bowl ads require great ideas, and sometimes great special effects. Two had both in this game.

In a Pepsi spot, the Ad Meter winner, a boy at the beach sucks himself into a Pepsi bottle.

And kicking off in this game were the famous Budweiser frogs: "Bud," "Weis" and "Er." In the swamp, the three croak their names to form "Budweiser."

They earned a long series of ads. And that led to lizards. Which led to, well, Cedric the Entertainer.

15. Hopper's Rant (1995)

This may be the Super Bowl's oddest ad. For one, it was 90 seconds. For another, it starred Dennis Hopper, in an odd bow to Gen. George Patton, as an obsessed football fan.

Hopper rants about his love for football, at one point referring to football as the "ballet of bulldozers."

Some critics charged that the ad poked fun at the mentally ill. Years later, Hopper said he regretted the campaign. "It was a career move — backwards."

16. Bud Bowl Finale (1995)

Anheuser-Busch's Bud Bowls were Super Bowl staples from the first one in 1989 that featured animated Bud Light and Budweiser bottles facing off on the gridiron.

Over the years, the formula got more complex. But the laughs kept coming up shorter, ending with this one in which Bud Light "spokescharacters" Iggy, Frank and Biff, watch the game from a desert island.

A running joke during Super Bowl blowouts was that the Bud Bowl was better than the game. For sheer endurance, score one for A-B.

17. Nothing but net (1993)

McDonald's mcd paired Michael Jordan and Larry Bird for a Super Bowl spot that remains an All-Star. With a Big Mac on the line, Jordan and Bird match shots in an extreme version of playing H-O-R-S-E.

What makes the ad sing isn't just the crazy shots each nails, but the stars' comic timing: Jordan's gee-whiz smirks and Bird's aw-shucks shrugs.

The spot was a slam-dunk Ad Meter winner.

18. Subaru's meltdown (1993)

Subaru not only aired Ad Meter's last-place ad this year, it aired five of the bottom seven in the panelists' rating. No advertiser has matched that feat.

The ads were for its all-new Impreza and were just 15 seconds each. In a bid to attract women, they were narrated by an unseen Kirstie Alley.

The problem wasn't Alley or the content — it was the notion you could get a coherent Super Bowl message across in a bunch of 15-second sound bites. Call it Subaru's 15 seconds of shame.

19. McDonald's bold move (1991)

The chain broke new ground by addressing the issue of Down syndrome on the Super stage.

McDonald's introduced the world to Mike Sewell, who has the condition. Mike, in turn, introduces viewers to his family and friends.

The ad finished second in Ad Meter and earned McDonald's a burst of positive PR. Bravo, Ronald!

20. Coke goes 3-D (1989)

The buildup was big. Coca-Cola ko distributed 20 million cardboard 3-D glasses so folks could watch its Diet Coke ad in 3-D. The ad, about a runaway Diet Coke machine, finished a laudable fifth in Ad Meter. It also was beaten by two spots for Pepsi.

Still, Coke garnered spin galore for the 3-D gimmick. Word of a run on 3-D glasses kept Coke in the news for weeks before the game. But most viewers ended up watching the overhyped ad, and related halftime show, without the special specs. After that, 3-D got the Super Bowl boot.