Anheuser-Busch climbed back into the saddle with the Super Bowl's top commercial -- a heart-tugging tale of the bond between a trainer and the Budweiser Clydesdale he raised.
But it was horse race.
This was the Super Bowl when ads with heart got all the love in USA TODAY'S Ad Meter, which, for its 25th anniversary, vastly expanded in scope by going online to 7,619 pre-registered panelists.
Procter & Gamble's Tide laundry detergent pulled off a close No. 2, ahead of many Super Bowl regulars, with gentle humor. Its ad had an image of football legend Joe Montana miraculously appearing in a salsa stain on a rabid fan's jersey. The miracle stain causes a media uproar and becomes a relic of worship until the fan's wife -- who happens to be a Baltimore Ravens fan -- washes the stain out with Tide.
The Budweiser winner is about a guy who breeds and raises a Clydesdale horse, only to wistfully watch it leave for the big-time. Then, three years later, at a big-city parade, man and horse re-unite in an emotional embrace.
"That was absolutely heart-warming," says Tyler Stocks, an Ad Meter panelist and journalist from Greenville, N.C. "When I think of Budweiser, I think Clydesdale horses."
For A-B, whose major-brand beer sales have taken a hit in recent years, it's a return to marketing glory after slipping out of Ad Meter's top five last year. Through the years, A-B has won 12 Ad Meters, more than any other advertiser.
Executives were toasting the win at A-B Sunday night. Paul Chibe, vice president of U.S. marketing, says he's incredibly proud of the Clydesdale ad. It "touches a chord," in consumer hearts, he says.
The baby Clydesdale featured in the A-B ad was born on Jan. 16. Prior to the big game, A-B launched a social media campaign asking consumers to suggest names for the young horse. Among the names offered up: Barley, Buddy and Brewster. A-B expects to announce the foal's name on Tuesday.
For P&G, the road to nearing advertising nirvana has been long, slow but focused. Its ads have continued to improve from pure product demonstrations to humorous slices of life with product as hero.
The team behind the Tide ad debated whether to pre-release the commercial to get early buzz, or to keep it as a surprise on Sunday night -- and decided to go for the surprise.
"It looks like our strategy paid off," says Sundar Raman, marking director for Procter & Gamble North American Fabric Care.
Chrysler's two-minute spot for Ram pickups, in third place, focused on a celluloid hug for the American farmer, featuring photographic images of farmers and work.
For the ad's narrative, the carmaker used a commentary by radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, who died in 2009. He extolled the virtues of American farmers, whose hard work, he says, puts them as about as close to God as anyone can get.
A second two-minute Chrysler ad for Jeep was a touching salute to the military serving away from home.
Chrysler proved a couple of things Sunday night that every Super Bowl marketer would do well to consider: Patriotism still sells. And so do longer tales told well, even in an age of instant YouTube clips.
The game featured some 55 commercials that cost 40 advertisers $3.8 million to $4 million per 30-second slot for the airtime on the CBS broadcast, which was expected to be watched by up to 111 million viewers.
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