(USA TODAY) - For Snickers, it was sweet revenge.
Three years after getting hammered by gay activists for what many felt was an anti-gay Super Bowl commercial, the Mars candy walked off with the Super Bowl's best-liked commercial in USA TODAY's Ad Meter.
And there was nothing controversial about it this time - unless you have a problem with old folks getting decked.
"Obviously, we were very, very concerned about portraying a brand like Snickers in the most positive light," says Carole Walker, head of integrated marketing communication at Mars. "It's three years later, we've done our homework. We've done our research. We were absolutely not nervous about the campaign in any way."
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This year's ad featured octogenarian actors Betty White (Sue Ann Nivens in Mary Tyler Moore) and Abe Vigoda (Detective Phil Fish in Barney Miller) in a rough-and-tumble football game that ultimately gets both of them tossed on their fannies. It won USA TODAY'S 22nd annual exclusive Super Bowl Ad Meter real-time consumer testing of how much they liked the commercials as they aired.
For folks with gray hair, deep wrinkles, expanding waist lines and perhaps lucid memories of the very first Super Bowl in 1967, this was a night to remember. Maybe even the Old Fogey Bowl.
Perennial retiree Brett Favre showed up as a white-haired 50-year-old in a Hyundai spot. Boost Mobile featured the 1985 Chicago Bears shuffling. And the halftime show featured rockers The Who, whose popularity dates to 1964.
But the night really belonged to Snickers - a brand whose target market, ironically, is hungry young men.
This marks the first time Snickers' maker, Mars, has won Ad Meter, replacing last year's winner Doritos, which took second this year with an ad about a dog with an electronic bark collar who gets revenge on a nasty dude.
Ten-time Ad Meter winner Anheuser-Busch finished with two ads in the top five. The brewer bought five minutes of ad time, more than any other advertiser.
In the Snickers ad, a cranky Betty White turns into a young guy ready to play ball after eating a Snickers bar. "I have an 86-year-old mother, and I think even she would like that (Snickers ad)," says Ad Meter panelist Carolyn Hansen, 59, a manager at Country Financial in Bloomington, Ill. "It wasn't vicious. It was funny. Betty White is iconic - she does everything."
Which is exactly what Snickers was trying to accomplish - make everyone happy without getting tacky.
The ad was created "in a fun, over-the-top, wholesome way where everyone just sees the joke, as opposed to where an ad goes over some kind of a line where it's mean or nasty," says David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO North America, which created the ad.
It took a lot of work to make the ad happen. Although Mars had purchased the slot for the Super Bowl ad some time ago, "We didn't have a (Super bowl ad) idea at Thanksgiving," Walker says. "A lot of people burned the midnight oil."
Nearly 60 commercials, at $2 million to $3 million per 30 seconds, aired during the game.
One of the night's most-anticipated ads turned out to be somewhat of a dud with panelists. The much-debated but ultimately low-profile anti-abortion ad from the evangelical group Focus on the Family scored in the bottom quarter among Ad Meter panelists.
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"We're not into the competition" for Ad Meter, said Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family. "We're not selling products. Our goal is to get the message out there, and we thought it was a great message." In the ad, the word abortion is never mentioned. It features Tim Tebow, the college football star and his mom, Pam, who mentions that "he almost didn't make it into this world."
"It was not what you would expect of a Super Bowl ad," said Marianne Bates, 42, an office manager from San Diego. She called it "depressing" and said that while she picked up that it was about "family issues," she didn't see an anti-abortion connection if there was one.
It was a big night for undies lovers. Two underwear ads for Dockers and CareerBuilder ran back-to-back - essentially putting all the drawers in one drawer. Coke later followed up with a sleepwalker crossing the African savanna for a Coke in his, you guessed it, underpants.
Most Super Bowl advertisers viewed this year's game as a unique opportunity. With the nation still trying to claw its way out of the recession, some saw this Super Bowl as a chance to strut their stuff before a slightly more receptive nation of would-be buyers than last year.
In any case, without exception it was a night when advertisers prodded viewers to visit their websites and share their ads via Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps for the first time in Super Bowl history, the afterlife of the ads seemed to be more important than the ads themselves.
But the sales job is never an easy one on Super Bowl Sunday. After they've downed a couple of beers, a bowl of popcorn and several slices of pizza, it can be hard to fully attract the attention of typical viewers. Which is why most advertisers turn to classic ad tools: low humor, silly sight gags, violence and sexiness. Or some combo.
Some odd trends surfaced this year, including the recurring theme of men of all kinds as buffoons or as wimps. Dockers had men marching in their underwear singing, "I wear no pants." And FLO TV showed an utterly spineless guy whose girlfriend takes him to the shopping mall on the day of the Big Game.
As usual, there was violence aplenty. VW had folks punching each other. A Motorola ad had several folks slapping each other. And a spot for the KGB answer service features a sumo wrestler apparently annihilating a wimpy guy who can't say "I surrender" in Japanese.
By Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY