How USA Today’s Ad Meter came to help determine Super Bowl success

The meter has rated every ad in the game for more than 30 years.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photo: USA Today

5 min read

There’s never just one winner in the Super Bowl. Sure, there’s the team that holds the Lombardi Trophy, but there’s also the place that the winning team represents, the fans, and the halftime performers embracing the limelight—who could forget Left Shark?

And then there are the advertisers that pay ungodly sums for America’s eyeballs. Though it’s not always clear whether that investment is worth it, at least there will be a champion come Monday morning, thanks to USA Today. Since 1989, the publisher has released an annual list of the most-liked Super Bowl spots, voted by a team of thousands of panelists.

Rick Suter, digital revenue strategy and custom content project manager for USA Today Sports Media Group, has overseen the Ad Meter since joining the company in 2019. (FWIW, his favorite spots are Jeep’s “Groundhog Day” ad and Snickers’s Betty White commercial.)

According to Suter, the publisher noticed audience interest in the ads—and how much advertisers were spending—in the late ’80s, so it wanted to capitalize on the moment. “It was really just to gauge consumer opinion…more people were talking about the commercials in the game,” he said. Back then, they’d bring people to USA Today’s office in McLean, Virginia, to observe them and gauge their reactions.

Ratings game

Today, the Ad Meter is a digital-only affair. Leading up to the game, brands and ad agencies can submit commercials to USA Today. Only national spots are considered, and they must run between the coin toss and the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.

On the Wednesday before the Super Bowl, USA Today opens up voting to anyone who registers to become a panelist. Those who do can then view and rank the ads on a scale of one to 10, up until 1am ET the night of the game. Panelists must rate every ad in order for their votes to count; usually, more than 50 run each Super Bowl. Results are published the Monday after the game online and will be broadcast during NBC’s Today show this year.

The Meter is also a revenue opportunity for the publisher, with Kia and Doritos aboard as sponsors this year. Verizon has also been a sponsor in the last few years. The publisher declined to share how much it charges for such a sponsorship.

According to USA Today, nearly 150,000 panelists contributed to last year’s Ad Meter, with the top spot going to Rocket Homes and Rocket Mortgage’s spot featuring Anna Kendrick, which received a 6.82 out of 10. Coinbase’s QR Code received the lowest score, a 3.81, though it did receive top honors at Cannes. 🤷

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Pepsi holds the title for the highest-rated ad in Ad Meter history, 1995’s “Inner Tube” spot, which earned a 9.66. An ad for the mobile game Heroes Charge that ran in 2015 received a 3.12, an all-time low. Suter recalled presidential campaign ads from Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg that ran during the 2020 Super Bowl and performed poorly, earning a 3.33 and a 4.23, respectively.

Do marketers care?

Though it’s not exactly a scientific survey, Suter believes USA Today’s editorial reputation  and survey format give the ratings more heft than, say, an informal vibe check on Twitter. “The systems are in place…the reputation is there,” he said.

When asked whether advertisers care about the rankings, he pointed out that as many as 10 agencies  started asking him about the Ad Meter as early as December. “They’re treating [the ads] like mini-movies at this point…and all of it is to finish top ten and win Ad Meter. It’s still something that’s very important.”

Of course, the Ad Meter doesn’t officially include all the extra stuff we’ve grown accustomed to regarding Super Bowl ad campaigns, like teasers and social campaigns that often begin running well before the game. It’s just a snapshot of a moment, Gerard Caputo, a group creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, said, when asked what he thinks of the Ad Meter.

“If the Ad Meter only reflects the entertainment value in that one moment during the game, it’s only considering a piece of the overall equation that makes for a modern, successful Super Bowl campaign,” Caputo said.

The Ad Meter’s official FAQ page contains an editor’s note that states that “the USA Today Ad Meter team has not seen any correlation between top-rated ads and the brand’s use of social media (paid or not).”

Jerry Hoak, an executive creative director and managing director at the Martin Agency, which is working on a Busch Light commercial for this year’s game, said that “when it comes to the Super Bowl, the USA Today Ad Meter is the only list that really matters.”

“The Ad Meter gives the perspective of real people,” he said. “Not through a moderator or someone interpreting their feelings. Sometimes that perspective is harsh. Sometimes it is frustrating. But for the most part, it exposes the truth of how people feel.”

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