SBJ/January 31 - February 6, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Ad Meter more about bragging rights than gauge of an ad's effectiveness

It’s the morning after the Super Bowl and a senior executive raves about the game and its slim margin of victory: Bud Light 9.04, Pepsi 8.88.

For some, the final score of the game has nothing to do with teams, and everything to do with results from the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter. In its 17th year, the Ad Meter lets Americans know which commercials people like the best, not necessarily which are most effective.

“This project is not about that,” said USA Today’s polling editor, Jim Norman. “Think about what it is in terms of all the hype and publicity it gets. It seems like nowadays there’ll be a multitude of articles before the Super Bowl talking about the anticipation of the Super Bowl commercials. That’s not because they are talking about which one is going to sell the product the best. It’s about which one is going to be the one people remember, which one is going to be the one that people talk about.”

USA Today, through an independent marketing firm, recruits volunteer viewers in designated markets. Norman said this year’s testing will take place at two different sites and likely involve between 200 and 300 volunteers, but he would not divulge specifics.

“We are probably over-paranoid about that,” Norman said. “But there’s so much at stake for some of these advertising companies that they’ve made it known in the past that it makes a big difference to them whether their commercials do well. ”

Viewers, equipped with handheld meters, give their second-by-second reactions to each commercial by turning a dial that ranks likability on an ascending scale. Scores are simultaneously fed into a central computer system that spits out the average ranking for each spot.

For some the Ad Meter’s results are a must-read; for others, it’s barely a blip on the radar.

“We really don’t even track it,” said Mark Truss, director of brand intelligence at JWT New York, which created 2003’s “Squirrel” spot for Trident.

Truss instead relies on clients and in-market metrics to determine the success of ads. “Someone here likened it to the longest drive competition [for] the PGA Tour,” Truss said of the Ad Meter. “It’s really not winning you anything, but there are some bragging rights associated with it.”

Charles Tomkovick, who spearheaded a recent study on Super Bowl advertising at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has spent the past five years researching the effectiveness of these ads. Tomkovick said one example illustrating the difference between likability and effectiveness can be found in Hollywood.

“Most movie trailers run during the Super Bowl do not score well on the Ad Meter, but do contribute to the movies doing well at the box office,” Tomkovick said.

David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO, of New York, has ads for Federal Express and Visa running during the game this year. Lubars, who cited the Ad Meter and AOL’s online poll as effective measures, acknowledged that humor is often an important ingredient for ads that score well.

“The Super Bowl is a party,” he said. “When people are gathered around, having fun and watching the game, funny fits the mood.” Lubars added, “The truth is it seems like the freshest ideas are the ones that kind of win out.”

Kris Johnson writes for sister publication The Sports Business Daily.

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