Anheuser-Busch still king of ads as marketers play it safe

By Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY Even in a year when Anheuser-Busch (BUD) consciously avoided airing crude Super Bowl commercials, the beer giant bested the field, again, with one of its most potent advertising weapons: a silly sight gag.

A skydiver balks, even when urged to jump in pursuit of a six-pack of Bud Light. But the pilot finds the loss too much to bear and leaps after the brew.

For a record seventh year in a row, Anheuser-Busch has won USA TODAY’s exclusive Ad Meter consumer ranking of the top Super Bowl ads. In this year’s winner, by DDB Chicago, when a skydiver refuses to jump, his buddy tosses out a six-pack of Bud Light. The guy still doesn’t jump, but the pilot does.

Once again, Anheuser-Busch made winning look easier than popping the top off a Bud. Besides the top-rated ad for the evening, it also logged three of the top seven and five of the top 12. The beermaker was the game’s single-largest advertiser, airing nine spots during the game.

“Budweiser always has the perfect commercials,” says Elizabeth Prester, 53, a nurse from Ellicott City, Md.

Anheuser-Busch’s global brand marketing chief, Bob Lachky, agrees: “It’s an awesome feeling and a validation of the Bud Light (ad) strategy.”

Runner-up: Super Bowl rookie Ameriquest took the No. 2 spot with an ad featuring a cell phone chat being mistaken for a store robbery.

Even then, Anheuser-Busch faced some surprising competition from two Super Bowl rookies:, whose three chimp-as-office-worker ads all ranked among the top 10. And Ameriquest, whose ad about a store customer’s cell phone chat being misunderstood as a robbery, ranked No. 2.

But the beermaker’s big win came during one of the more uptight ad evenings in years. Hanging heavily on the minds of advertisers was the uproar from last year’s Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction,” which spilled over on the commercials.

Just one year ago, both the halftime show and the commercials pushed the edges of taste. This year, both the halftime show, with senior citizen Paul McCartney, and the ads, with boomer-era celebrities, were unusually tame.

“A lot of good taste in these commercials,” says Arman Robii, 41, a project manager for an Austin sign company. “They’re not putting too much sex into this year, which of course there used to be (a lot of).”

That may be a key reason two rookies scored so well. For, an online job-hunting site owned partially by Gannett, owner of USA TODAY and, it was a huge night: All three of its ads landed in the top 10 with an often-successful Super Bowl ad formula: chimps.

For Ameriquest, a first-time Super Bowl advertiser and sponsor of the halftime show, it was a big night, too. Both of its ads finished in the top 10 — real estate typically occupied by Anheuser-Busch.

Most advertisers were unusually conservative in both subject and presentation. The only outwardly provocative ad was from, a little-known domain registry site.

The ad showed a buxom woman have a wardrobe malfunction while testifying before a congressional panel. It upset some viewers.

“I don’t get the one with the girl whose top was coming down,” says Robin Dodson, 26, a student from Austin. “It was degrading, almost.” Adds Ron Sarro, 66, an actor from North Bethesda, Md.: “Do TV and the NFL really call that reform?”

Even before the game, several controversial ads bit the dust. Anheuser-Busch opted not to air an ad that poked fun at the Jackson incident. And Ford Motor withdrew an ad for a Lincoln after an advocacy group charged that it made light of sex abuse.

To some, the game might have seemed like an homage to boomers, who watch the game in great numbers — and may have credit card limits to match.

Some ads seemed like minisalutes to their distant youth: There was Gladys Knight for MBNA and Burt Reynolds for FedEx. There was the Pillsbury Doughboy and Mr. Clean shilling for MasterCard. A bevy of superheroes hyped Visa.

It was a case of ad money chasing boomer money. Marketing giants from General Motors to Anheuser-Busch paid an average $2.4 million per 30 seconds of ad time to sell more stuff to a U.S. audience at more than 145 million viewers.

No. 3: Anheuser-Busch’s tribute to American troops was a hit with viewers.

The one exception to the celebration of commerce: a touching tribute to U.S. troops by A-B that was No. 3.

“I really appreciate these (soldiers) being honored,” says Joe Castillo, 62, of Austin, who says that’s not how it was for Vietnam vets like himself.

When it came to selling stuff, however, subtlety failed to score for Super Bowl marketers in Ad Meter. In a Subway spot, viewers mostly failed to figure out that toasted buns will steam up windows like lovers in a parked car.

In an ad for Tabasco, few caught the visual reverse sunburn that eating Tabasco sauce gave a bathing beauty.

And the McDonald’s french fry shaped like Abe Lincoln’s head just didn’t register with viewers.

Contributing: Michael McCarthy

Contributors to Ad Meter: Steve Anderson, Kelly Barry, Bob Bemis, Jenny Brown, Anne Carey, Denyse Clarke, Barbara Hansen, Annette and Tim Hartman, Christopher Hartman, Heidi Henderson, Lisa Hitt, Henry and Allie Hsiao, Lisa Kiplinger, Joyce Lamb, Michael McCarthy, Fred Meier, Kristina Mickey, Chris Norman, Dennis Peters, George Petras, Dan Reed, Kathryn Robison, Jim Sergent, Vicky Spigai, Joy Thompson and Pat Walkup.