Most likable ads of '03 had a bit of laughter

By Theresa Howard, USA TODAY

America’s taste in advertising got real — and racy — when it came to their favorite ads in 2003. A look back at the results for the year of Ad Track, USA TODAY’S weekly consumer survey, showed humor again at the top of the charts for likability, though with some new themes.

In Miller Lite’s popular ‘Catfight’ ad, two women face off over whether the beer tastes great or is less filling.

Of the 45 ad campaigns polled in 2003, those with humorous ads took three of the top four slots. Anheuser-Busch’s campaign that included a real zebra as a football referee and an amorous beach boy attacked by a conch shell landed at No. 1. ( Related chart: Complete 2003 ratings )

“Humor always works, and unexpected humor works particularly well,” says Anheuser-Busch’s Bob Lachky, vice president, brand management and global creative chief.

Reebok’s Terry Tate, the hard-hitting “office linebacker” who tackled employees who did not practice workplace etiquette, was No. 2 among the best-liked. In this case, however, the rank was driven by huge popularity among younger viewers. The ad, considered violent by some, was hugely unpopular with viewers age 50 and up.

Pepsi used humor to appeal to all age groups to introduce brands Sierra Mist and Pepsi Vanilla. Sierra Mist scored No. 4 for its laugh-out-loud ads illustrating the “shockingly refreshing” taste of the lemon-lime soft drink with baboons in a zoo and a pet dog taking extreme measures to cool off. Pepsi Vanilla was No. 12 with two ads that took funny but direct shots at rival Coke and its Vanilla Coke.

“It’s classic Pepsi tweaking of Coke that people expect and appreciate, especially when it’s in good spirit,” says Dave Burwick, Pepsi’s chief marketing officer.

Other humorous ads that worked were subtler. No. 3 Citibank looked at the serious topic of identity theft by putting the mismatched voices of the thieves into the bodies of their victims.

“We used humor to break through and have consumers pay attention to the advertising, but we haven’t scared them,” says Brad Jakeman, Citibank’s director of global advertising.

Ace tackled the issue of home maintenance with a wink in ads that placed No. 6. The ads showed the foibles of do-it-yourselfers who could have avoided their problems if they’d had better project advice from other home centers.

If consumers didn’t laugh out loud at ads, they identified with them, whether the ads were racy or real. Men appreciated the male fantasy of two women fighting, in their lingerie, of course, in the highly publicized — and criticized — “Catfight” ads that ranked No. 5. Not with women, however, who gave the ads a big thumbs down. Rival Coors Light took No. 8 for its take on scantily clad babes in its “Twins” ads.

But among the raciest were ads for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. They showed the risqué whims of people letting loose in Vegas. The message: “What happens here, stays here.” The ads, No. 7 for the year, stripped away any residue of Vegas’ former promotion as a family fun place.

While the Vegas ads pitched fantasies, Toyota and Coca-Cola got real.

Toyota Sienna ads, No. 10, were popular because moms and dads recognized in them the input that kids have in deciding automotive purchases. The ads, which scored well above average for auto ads, showed the Sienna redesigned with help from child engineers.

Coke’s whole message was simply “Real.” The campaign, the first ad hit for Coke in more than a decade, showed celebrities, but as real folks doing everyday things. In one ad, Courteney Cox loads up husband David Arquette’s glass with extra ice, leaving it with less Coke for him and more for her.

“The whole campaign was about authentic moments in life,” says Esther Lee, chief creative officer, Coca-Cola North America. “The ads could have been done without celebrities. We were just using celebrities to take a peek into their real lives.”

Other 2003 ad highlights:

•Super Bowl stars. The popularity of Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi and Reebok ads demonstrated that ads first shown during the Super Bowl might have staying power throughout the year.

“To amortize the incredible expense of Super Bowl, you really have to run it beyond that day,” Lachky says. “It’s not a very efficient approach if it’s here today and gone tomorrow.”

•McD’s lovin’ it . Targeted ads helped McDonald’s begin to turn around sales.

While the ads for Premium Salads, targeted at women, and “I’m lovin’ it” ads, aimed at youth, were not tops in popularity overall, they were a hit with key audiences. And they helped draw 1 million more customers daily into restaurants.

•Too much information . As real as ads got in 2003, too much realism about medical ailments did not sit well with consumers. Direct-to-consumer ads to promote Viagra for erectile dysfunction and Lamisil, for nail fungus, were the two lowest-scoring ads. But consumers did consider the ads effective for those consumers who might need the medications.

•Not-so-shining stars. Celine Dion for Chrysler, Sharon Stone for AOL, Laurence Fishburne for DirecTV and Jay Leno and Smash Mouth for Tostitos Gold were among celebrities whose star power did not shine in ads. With the exception of Coke’s ads and Madonna and Missy Elliott singing for Gap (No. 15), celebrities were not a hit this year. All but two celebrity ads scored in the bottom half of all ads.

•Unbelievable . The low-carb craze drove KFC to promote the protein in its Original Recipe Chicken as a good diet choice for those watching what they eat. Consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate KFC to determine if the ads, which went off air in November, were misleading.