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 a 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.
The game was marred by a 31-minute delay due to a stadium blackout that may have lost some second half viewership.
In a statement, CBS said no advertiser lost air time due to the power outage and that "all commercial commitments during the broadcast are being honored."
For the first time in years, the Super Bowl took place at a time of relative national calm, unlike the air of uncertainty during last year's game, when America stood at an economic and political crossroads.
So, with a decent chunk of the American public feeling a bit better, many other Super Bowl advertisers figured it was time to let loose.
Many commercials were overflowing with spectacle, scantily-clothed bodies and visual and audio pyrotechnics. This must be what viewers really want, right?
Wrong, according to Ad Meter's panelists. Turns out what they really wanted weren't ads that went whiz, bang and pop. They favored ads that told a simple story with a wisp of wonder. Folks wanted ads that made them feel good.
"It's almost unfathomable to believe corporate sponsors paid millions of dollars to create those overall woeful ads, and then, paid even further millions to show those ads during the Super Bowl," says Kitty Grubb, an attorney from Seminole, Fla.
But viewers loved the ads about heart-felt reunions. For A-B, man and horse. For Chrysler, soldier and family.
Chrysler's high-scoring ad positions it not only as a marketer whose messages must be watched, but as one whose designs and sheet metal for historic brands like Jeep and Ram trucks may suddenly be worth a second look.
"This is the kind of ad that America needs to see . . . hope, love, faith, patriotism . . . all of the things that America is desperately looking for . . . and needs," says Frank Slezak, a fashion photographer from Horsham, Pa.
Doritos, meanwhile, finished fourth with an ad about a father whose daughter talks him into prancing around in a tutu for a bag of Doritos).
For the eighth consecutive year, Doritos turned to consumers to create and select its Super Bowl spots. It has fully embraced social media and crowd sourcing, asking consumers to not only create its Super Bowl commercials but also select, via online voting, the ads that will air.
Other Super Bowl ad trends on Sunday:
Social chit-chat. A common thread for manytop-scoring ads: They'd been viewed on YouTube and talked about on Facebook and Twitter for days. Increasingly, advertisers are embracing a new social media platform that demands advertisers give the goods early - well before the game - so that millions of folks can see them long before the clutter and confusion of The Big Game.
Ads go long. Who'd a thunk, in an age of instant gratification, that two advertisers would choose to air three Super Bowl spots that are each two-minutes long? Chrysler did it twice. And Samsung jumped on the train, with a spot featuring three actors in search of the next big thing - who happens to be LeBron James. (Isn't he already a big thing?)
Presto chango. The magic of magic never fails to allure.Toyota featured Big Bang star Kaley Cuoco as a wish-granting genie. Bud Light featured Stevie Wonder as a voodoo kingpin who rabid football fans seek out in New Orleans.
Sex with a twist. Sexy babes sipping soda or ogling guys just don't have the Super Bowl thrill any longer. Perhaps that's why GoDaddy put super model and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue cover girl Bar Refaeli into a 30-second ad in which she French-kisses a be-spectacled, chubby geek for a full 18-seconds. The close-up smackeroo was an utter turn-off for many viewers.
"If it wasn't a Super Bowl commercial, I would have turned the channel." says Jamie Thomassen, a public relations executive from Des Moines, Iowa.
How Ad Meter was done
For the 25th anniversary of Ad Meter, USA TODAY opened the panel vote to all consumers for the first time. To participate, consumers registered at admeter.usatoday.com. The day of the Super Bowl, panelists were asked to log in to a password-protected site and vote on every ad - from the coin toss until the end of regulation play (including halftime) - giving each ad a score from 1-10. The scores from the 7,619 qualified voters on Sunday were then averaged and ranked.
Budweiser's Clydesdale wins Ad Meter by a nose