It wasn't just the Arizona Cardinals who met their match in the Super Bowl — so did Madison Avenue.
And it could be a game-changer. For the first time, it wasn't an ad agency that created the best-liked Super Bowl commercial. It was two unemployed brothers from Batesville, Ind., whose ad for Doritos — created for an online contest for amateurs — won them $1 million from Doritos maker Frito-Lay, and leaves ad pros with a lot of 'splaining to do.
What the duo did was beat 51 big-budget advertisers and won USA TODAY'S 21st annual exclusive Super Bowl Ad Meter real-time consumer testing of how much they liked the ads as they aired. (USA TODAY had no connection with Doritos and no connection to the online contest.)
The off-the-wall commercial, "Free Doritos," features a guy who shatters a vending machine with his crystal ball after predicting free Doritos for everyone in the office.
Just as impressive, the two and backer Doritos displaced Anheuser-Busch and broke its Ad Meter streak. The brewing giant had won 10 in a row.
Although A-B did well, with two ads ranking among Ad Meter's top five, it couldn't match Doritos, which also aired a second ad from the contest — and it finished No. 5 out of the 52 ads in the games.
"Two nobodies from nowhere," just walked off with one of the ad world's top honors, says 32-year-old Dave Herbert, who made the winning ad with his 33-year-old brother, Joe.
We "beat the king of commercials," says Herbert.
The two brothers now have fame, fortune and a decent shot at changing the way Super Bowl commercials — and maybe lots of others — are made in the future.
As if the $280 billion U.S. advertising industry doesn't have enough problems in the struggling economy, now it's got an even bigger problem: Amateurs are beating it at its own game.
"Regular people have great ideas. They took something simple and made it funny," says Charles Boast, a 59-year old engineer from Alexandria, Va., an Ad Meter participant.
"Given the type of times we're in, funny is in," he says.
Anheuser-Busch executives were good sports, even though A-B was out A-B-ed this Super Bowl by two guys who stole from its playbook of low-brow slapstick ads. (Yes, the crystal ball in the Doritos ad also is heaved at a man's crotch, albeit accidentally.)
"Tell them to do a recount," said a jesting Bob Lachky, chief creative officer at Anheuser-Busch, upon learning A-B had been bested. But Lachky conceded that the winning Doritos ad was pretty funny.
"Congratulations to Doritos," he said.
Folks who sat down to watch Sunday's Super Bowl had an entirely different emotional frame of mind than just one year ago.
Since 2008's Big Game, the economy has fallen near all-time lows, and a historic election and inauguration has taken place.
Even in a downtrodden economy, what delights Super Bowl viewers hasn't changed at all. Folks simply want to laugh.
"People should laugh in times like these," says George Banks, a Portland, Ore., resident.
Consumers participating in Ad Meter also laughed loud at the Bridgestone ad, which featured Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.
But they laughed hardest at the Doritos ad. And Doritos is thrilled.
"We were hoping for this. This is going to be the best million dollars we've spent at Frito-Lay," says Ann Mukherjee, group vice president at Frito-Lay.
It will have an "ongoing relationship" with the brothers, she says. "They're now part of the family."
She says Frito-Lay hasn't decided how it will present the check.
The contest had 1,900 entries, and five finalists were posted online — with the two top vote-getters airing during the game.
The budget-conscious brothers behind the winning ad had just five takes to get the ad right — since they had invested in only five panes of glass for the used vending machine they had bought.
They got the shot they wanted on the first take.
The brothers worked hard for Sunday night's surprise win.
They met once a week for the last four to five years to talk about filmmaking and how they could make a break "in this tough business," says Joe Herbert.
Two years ago, an ad they created made it to the top five finalists but didn't air. "But we wanted to come back again," says Dave Herbert.
They now plan to focus on filmmaking and on a board game, Triviathon, they invented that is coming out in July.
Even in a hobbled economy, about 28 advertisers bought a record $206 million dollars' worth of commercial time. Even more astounding, they paid a record $3 million per 30-second slot — or $100,000 a second — for their moment of Super Bowl glory.
Nearly 100 million viewers nationally watched at least some part of the game and its 52 commercials.
The much-promoted pair of 3-D ads for SoBe and DreamWorks did not air during the game. They aired at halftime and, thus, were not counted in Ad Meter, which only rates ads between the opening and closing whistles of each half.
TELL US WHAT YOU THINK
Did you like the 3-D ads — or were they too much of a gimmick? How about the 'amateur' Doritos ads and Budweiser's Clydesdale commercials — what's your opinion of those ads? USA Today's Ad Team wants to get your take on those TV spots, as well as other commercials that aired during Sunday's Super Bowl. Post your comments below.