Why A-B Is King of 'USA Today's' Puffed-Up Poll

Brewer Cracks Code to Ad Meter Success, Not That It Means Anything

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It's arguably the most powerful focus group in American advertising, ultimately determining how marketing titans such as Anheuser-Busch use Madison Avenue's biggest and -- with a price tag of $2.6 million for 30 seconds -- costliest night.

Photo Illustration: John Kuczala
A-B's Bob Lachky said winning the Ad Meter and other polls is important to the No. 1 brewer because the positive public-relations buzz that ensues motivates A-B's wholesalers, retailers and drinkers.


The eagerly awaited, oft-quoted and rarely investigated USA Today Ad Meter, the day-after-Bowl scorecard based on the opinions of average Joes, has in its 18 years grown into the single most commonly cited gauge of an ad's success or failure. It actually shapes how ads are crafted and tested and how agencies are rewarded -- even which products are promoted. And, most striking for a business that struggles with how to explain its worth, it's the de facto measurement of Super Bowl return on investment -- one utterly out of proportion to its value.

McROI
You've heard the term "McPaper," deriding USA Today for its none-too-challenging combination of short articles, trend puffery and pie charts? If so, its Ad Meter, which says nothing about sales or any other business metric, is McROI. It takes Joe Plummer, chief research officer at the Advertising Research Foundation, about a nanosecond to answer whether it's a good measure of advertising effectiveness. "No," he said. Why? "Where do you want me to start?"

Yet, Anheuser-Busch, in recent years the Super Bowl's biggest advertiser, views post-game polls as an important measure of effectiveness and the Ad Meter -- "the granddaddy" -- as the most important poll. PepsiCo this year is said to have decided to push its Sierra Mist beverage on the Bowl instead of launching its brand-Pepsi work, based on the feeling that it would fare better in the poll, though a company spokesperson denied that. And, in a move that enraged many an agency executive, job site CareerBuilder decided to review its relationship with Cramer-Krasselt thanks to a poor performance in the poll, a move that led the shop to quit the business.

"All we're trying to measure is whether people like an ad or not. ... We're not claiming to measure effectiveness or sales or anything other than whether they like it," said Jim Norman, polling editor for USA Today. He declined to comment further.

Creatives decry poll
But agency chiefs, who, like others interviewed declined to be named because of associations with Super Bowl advertisers, said the Ad Meter has had a number of negative effects on Super Bowl advertising, transforming what was once a chance for agencies to showcase their creativity into a home for predictable spots. You can credit that decline in creativity to a lot of trends, one of which is the ease with which an advertiser can game the Ad Meter, thanks to its methodology.

Here's how it works: A number of volunteers are gathered in two different cities -- this year, 238 folks from McLean, Va., and Houston. When a spot comes on, they use a dial to express how much they like the commercial, on a scale of zero to 10, in real time. The scores are averaged. The winner this year -- and every year since 1999 -- was A-B, which took seven of the top 10 slots, and which also happens to sponsor the part of the USA Today website devoted to the Ad Meter. Its top-scoring spot this year featured crabs worshipping a cooler full of Bud.

The brewer's dominance, according to ad executives familiar with the company, is pretty much assured, given that the Ad Meter process pretty much mirrors how A-B tests its ads prior to the game.

Winning is important to A-B
A-B Exec VP-Global Industry Development Bob Lachky said winning the Ad Meter and other polls is important to the No. 1 brewer because the positive public-relations buzz that ensues motivates A-B's wholesalers, retailers and drinkers. "If you have such a high concentration of beer drinkers sitting there watching the ads, and the next day they read that A-B won, that's a validation," he said. "It's impossible to put a value on that."

Asked if A-B has cracked the code on how to win the Ad Meter, he said: "The code isn't that complicated, because it's fairly obvious what people want on that day. ... We're fortunate that our brand positioning is exactly in line with that."

The second-by-second analysis means calibrating the appearance of the product shot, the logo and the punch lines is key to maintaining a high rating throughout the commercial. It rewards slapstick, a fast start to commercials (especially when they show a product early on), and effectively punishes a slow build. "A dialogue-driven spot that may be sharp and witty may not do as well in the poll," said one ad executive. "It breeds horse farts and people getting hit with rocks."

'Laugh meter'
"The Ad Meter is -- like most forms of measured response -- irrelevant at best and fascist at worst," said Ernest Lupinacci, a former Wieden & Kennedy creative who is head of Ernest Industries. "It is technically not an ad meter; it is a laugh meter."

Imagine for a moment how the Ad Meter would have treated Apple's legendary "1984" spot, a commercial many observers rank as the best Super Bowl spot of all time and a key moment in the computer company's positioning itself as cooler challenger to the likes of IBM and Microsoft.

"It wouldn't win today," said one critic of the Ad Meter. "A woman running through a hallway with a sledgehammer -- that would get it a two or three. 'Oh,' some guys would think, 'She's got nice boobs,' and go up to a four. It's great at the end, and that shoots up to 10 for the last three seconds. But that won't get you what you need in the poll."

Why is it so popular?
So if it's a threat to creativity and not exactly the most reliable forecaster of return on investment, why is it so popular with advertisers?

First, it's easy metric to understand. Second, it's produced by the nation's top-selling newspaper and probably the best reflection of the heartland's tastes that you'll find in a national broadsheet. Because of that, it sounds good to wholesalers, franchisees, bottlers and even chief financial officers, especially if those folks don't know how the Ad Meter sausage is made. Finally, a good finish on the Ad Meter guarantees a fair amount of PR buzz.

For a massive brewer whose target audience may be no more niche than "Americans," it's not the worst of all tools to use. But when you start to get into cases like that of CareerBuilder, a job website that's trying to reach more-upmarket consumers, reliance on the Ad Meter starts to look more and more ludicrous -- especially when you consider some of the business results the partnership with Cramer-Krasselt yielded.

ARF's Mr. Plummer, for one, was skeptical the Ad Meter issue was all there was to the CareerBuilder/C-K split. He also doubted marketers were making important decisions based on Ad Meter performance. "If they are," he said, "the ad industry is in deep, deep shit."
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