'Puppy Love': 2014 Ad Meter winner

11:44 PM, Feb 2, 2014   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) - This puppy just couldn't lose.

Budweiser's precious puppy has pranced off with the best-of-breed ribbon for Super Bowl commercials. Never mind that it aired with just two minutes left in a dog of a game. For the second consecutive year - and the 12th time in the past 14 years - Anheuser-Busch has earned one the most coveted of U.S. advertising honors, winning USA TODAY's consumer-judged Ad Meter for Super Bowl commercials.

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The ad, about a spunky puppy who is adopted but keeps coming back home to the Clydesdale horse it loves, gave more than a passing creative nod to a Budweiser spot that won last year's Ad Meter, about a savvy horse that keeps returning to its trainer.

For the 26th consecutive year, USA TODAY's Ad Meter reached out to consumers to vote for their favorite Super Bowl commercials. This online audience of 6,170 preregistered panelists voted from across the country. The game featured nearly 50 commercials that cost advertisers a record $4 million per 30-second slot for airtime on the Fox telecast, which was expected to be watched by up to 110 million viewers.

The Anheuser-Busch blowout off the field was almost as impressive as the Seattle Seahawks blowout on the field. Yet another A-B spot finished second, this one about a town's real welcome-home parade for a soldier returning from Afghanistan. Finishing third was a chuckle-generating commercial for Doritos in which a guy trades his Doritos for a trip in a "time machine" that the fool thinks is real.

But it was A-B's night, for sure. In recent years, Anheuser-Busch has discovered that the most effective Super Bowl ads are less about creating belly laughs and more about plucking heartstrings. Both this year's and last year's winning ads have no dialogue, only soulful music - this time with the song Let Her Go by Passenger. Each ad also features the same actor, Don Jeanes, whose rich empathy for animals has won over Ad Meter voters.

"The ad touched the depths of my soul," says Char Baringhaus, a middle school language-arts teacher from Livonia, Mich. "Nothing reaches raw emotion like the love of animals."

Almost one week before the game, Budweiser posted the so-called "Puppy Love" Super Bowl spot on YouTube, with well-timed messaging that pushed the ad viral. "Puppy Love" featured 17 Clydesdale horses and eight golden Labrador puppies and was created by the ad agency Anomaly, which also was responsible for last year's winner. Some 60 scenes were shot for the winning ad by director Jake Scott - son of Ridley Scott, the director of the Super Bowl commercial that started it all 30 years ago, Apple's "1984" spot.

"The genesis of the spot was observing a genuinely friendly (exchange) between a Clydesdale and a puppy on one of our Clydesdale breeding ranches," says Budweiser Vice President Brian Perkins.

Super Bowl 2014, in fact, may have marked a serious turning point for those Super Bowl advertisers.

Out: ads created just for cheap laughs or lookie-loos.

In: ads with fewer words, do-good messages and cinematic credibility.

Sure, some of the commercials were overdone, but many told honest-to-goodness stories - with a beginning, middle and end. There seemed to be a rediscovery among advertisers that Super Bowl viewers love nothing more than a story told well.

It also was a night when it seemed as if Hollywood took over Madison Avenue, with ads rich in cinematography rather than words.

Chevrolet's 60-second World Cancer Day commercial had not one word of dialogue, yet it spoke emotional volumes, as a husband and his cancer-survivor wife get to see another sunrise together in their Chevy truck. Ditto for Budweiser's top-ranked ad about the adopted puppy and the horse - no dialogue, just music, great images.

Even Coca-Cola got in on the act, with a diversity twist. Its 60-second commercial had no dialogue whatsoever - just an unusual rendition of the song America the Beautiful, with snippets of it done worldwide in seven different languages: English, Spanish, Keres, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French and Hebrew.

It was the night that advertisers fell in love with America - and American symbolism. A-B did with a soldier's return. So did Coke. And Chrysler, with Bob Dylan for American-made cars. And even a car floor mat maker named WeatherTech, which talked about defying skeptics by manufacturing in America.

It was a night when one celebrity per ad was no longer nearly enough. Jaguar plopped three famous British actors, including Oscar winner Ben Kingsley, into its spot, which also was directed by an Oscar winner, Tom Hooper. Toyota mashed in one celeb, Terry Crews, and about a dozen Muppets. Anheuser-Busch not only put Arnold Schwarzenegger into its spot, but several other celebs, along with the band OneRepublic. Oikos yogurt had a chunk of the cast of sitcom Full House.

It also was a night to celebrate the family. Hyundai celebrated good dads. Cheerios celebrated a diverse family. Coke celebrated families speaking in a dozen different languages.

Yes, some ads were longer. An irony, for sure, in a Vine-obsessed age of six-second messaging. The Chrysler 200 ad with Dylan clocked in at two minutes, Maserati and Ford at 90 seconds. Anheuser-Busch recut one of its 30-second spots into 60 seconds to give it more depth.

Even some of the shorter ads were meatier - with more substance and less fluff. Following a banner year in U.S. cinema, when filmmakers created more five-star movies than Oscar nominators could reward, it's almost as if a smidgen of this excellence rubbed off on Madison Avenue.

It's also the Super Bowl where, in a bid for their ads to go viral, a handful of advertisers placed real consumers in dream-come-true situations. Anheuser-Busch did it with the soldier who returns to a hero's welcome from Afghanistan, as well as one with a clueless guy who finds himself playing table tennis with Schwarzenegger. And GoDaddy let a woman surprise her real boss and quit her job.

Even with the economy apparently improving, it appears that our cultural hearts still are beating for the past, and not so much for the present or future. Nostalgia for what was - or what our faulty memories tell us was - was woven into more than a dozen Super Bowl spots, perhaps none with more characters per second than Radio Shack's ad, which featured 20 real or animated 1980s celebrities, from Hulk Hogan to Mary Lou Retton to Alf.

This also was the Super Bowl where simple was good - sometimes even great. In Anheuser-Busch's puppy ad, the simple message: Dog loves horse. For Hyundai's ad: Dad saves son. For Chrysler and Coke's offerings: America is good.

On Sunday night, for a change, so were some of America's ads.

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