After 50 years, the Era of Objectification in Super Bowl Advertising is (hopefully) over
The Super Bowl of two years ago may be remembered as the most-watched television broadcast in US history – at least prior to Super Bowl LI – or for the Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl win, or for the questionable call with just seconds remaining that blew Seattle’s last chance to score and resulted in said victory. On the other hand, it might also be remembered for being the last year where we saw a commercial like Carl’s Jr.’s spot for its All-Natural Burger featuring Charlotte McKinney.
In it, the self-described “[curvy] bombshell with big boobs” appears to be shopping naked at a farmer’s market, allowing the brand to make puns galore about going all natural, as well as to liken her posterior to a pert tomato – which even gets pinched by a lucky vendor. It also drew a parallel between her ample bosom and a pair of melons before the big reveal, which was that, of course, she was wearing short shorts and a bikini top all along.
GoDaddy was another longtime offender, but, to be fair, has recently changed its tune. But it’s not hard to find plenty more examples of outright sexist Super Bowl ads from brands like Teleflora, which enlisted model Adriana Lima to remind guys that girls who receive flowers on Valentine’s Day are more likely to put out; Chrysler, which laid out in excruciating detail the nearly infinite ways in which women are nagging harpies; and Miller Lite. It once showcased two beer-drinking women who forgot to button their shirts up all the way and got into a physical altercation because they couldn’t agree on the beer’s best feature and – spoiler alert – ripped each other’s clothes off in both water and wet cement because the writers weren’t clever enough to come up with a valid excuse for them to tumble into a mud pit. In the end, it turned out to be the fantasy of two barflies as their horrified female companions looked on, but, really, that latter detail was Miller throwing female viewers a bone as it high-fived the red-blooded American males in its target demo.
It is as if for all of these years, Super Bowl advertisers have only been talking to men. And, over and over, appealing to their baser instincts, no less.
According to Nielsen, from 2011 to 2015, women made up nearly half the Super Bowl audience – between 45% and 47% each year. And when it came to Americans who planned to watch Super Bowl 50, that estimate was as high as eight in ten women. What’s more, women are estimated to control as much as 85% of household spending decisions.
But then in 2016, something remarkable happened…
Last year, not a single Super Bowl advertiser aired a commercial that objectified women. Instead, we saw Helen Mirren advocate responsible drinking on behalf of Budweiser, Amy Schumer stand alongside Seth Rogen as his running mate and presumed equal for Bud Light and Serena Williams encourage the audience to #DefyLabels for Mini.
For his part, Patrick Hopf, president of marketing platform SourceKnowledge, argued Super Bowl advertising has evolved over the last 20 years to become oriented to a wider viewership because in part of this diverse audience.
“It’s no longer geared exclusively towards male sports fans, but funnier and willing to pull on the heartstrings,” he claims.
Indeed, Matthew Quint, director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School, said he thinks overtly sexualized advertising is on the wane overall and it is a trend that is likely to continue.
But that’s not to say the Super Bowl Ad Class of 2016 was perfect.
In fact, Kat Gordon, founder of The 3% Conference, which champions creative female talent and leadership, said while there isn't as much overt sexism in ads, women are still noticeably absent from most Super Bowl spots. Case in point from Super Bowl 50:
"Brands seem to have gotten the memo that women watch the game in almost equal numbers as men and drive more social media sharing about the ads than men. They also typically influence consumer spending at higher rates than men,” Gordon said. “Yet, as recently as , many ads objectified or sexualized women during Super Bowl spots. The good news is they've stopped. The bad news is they don't seem to have found a way to incorporate women into the brand message at all or in more than a sidekick role. There's huge opportunity for brands to invite more consumers into their messages via Super Bowl ads. The smart ones -- Mini, Intuit, PayPal, Bud Light -- are doing just that."
Although it is perhaps worth noting Gordon made this comment on January 18, which was before many of the ads below had been released.
Further, Tiffany R. Warren, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at advertising agency Omnicom, said her take -- as of February 1 -- was that Super Bowl ads were “pretty safe this year” and it seems the commercials have returned to more standard Super Bowl fare.
“They’re definitely not targeted towards women,” she said. “Maybe the household products are when you look at Persil with Mr. Professional – that’s clearly targeted toward housewives, but in terms of professional women, there are none targeted toward me even though they’re all products I would use.”
Warren makes a valid point.
The Class of 2017 isn't otherwise flawless…
This year is not without issue, for instance when the Yellow Tail Guy asks model Ellie Gonsalves if she wants to “touch [his] Roo” in Yellow Tail’s Big Game Commercial.
Then there is Paramount Pictures’ Ghost in the Shell trailer which is arguably more of the same – but it’s also technically a movie ad and not strictly Super Bowl creative.
And, at this point, the WeatherTech teaser could go either way – it appears there’s a woman in a lead role, but she’s also – ahem – dressed like a woman, isn’t she, President Trump?
Despite these spots, because we had a fully clothed Mirren in 2016 and zero McKinneys, Bar Refaelis or Kate Uptons, an argument can be made that Super Bowl 50 marked the beginning of a shift – and the spots and teasers released as of the Friday before Super Bowl 51 indicate progress continues this year.
As noted above, they may not always hit the mark, but Super Bowl advertisers are speaking to women and including women in lead roles in greater numbers than ever before.
Then there is the curious case of Mr. Clean’s Cleaner of Your Dreams. which has turned the age old brand ambassador into a sexpot, driving 5.1 million views on YouTube since its release on January 26, indicating that it has surely hit at least a few brand objectives so far. Although is male objectification much of a move forward?
Per marketing analytics firm Origami Logic, which called it a “memorable 30-second commercial,” the video indeed has mixed reviews, receiving more than 16,000 likes and 2,200 dislikes, which are both several times more than any other Super Bowl ad on YouTube this year. This speaks to Gordon’s point about brands still figuring out how to speak to women during the Super Bowl. It’s also certainly not the first Super Bowl advertiser to objectify a man, remember David Beckham and H&M – but, if nothing else, it demonstrates Procter & Gamble knows women are watching – and buying - and it is acknowledging them, for better or worse.
Then there’s Audi, which, on February 1, released Daughter, an ad advocating the presumably unprecedented Super Bowl topic of pay equality. A story in the New York Post noted the timing of the message, which was surely in the works long before election results were in, makes it look an awful lot like Audi was banking on a Clinton presidency. And while I hate to give credence to an argument diminishing pay equality as valid message in and of itself. The message however would perhaps be more poignant if America was under the care of President Clinton instead of Trump however.
And even if the message amounts to no more than pandering to women’s brains, it has driven 5.3 million views on YouTube and is certainly a step up from Hyundai’s Ryanville last year in which women’s problems seemingly begin with not being able to stop staring at the dreamboat that is Ryan Reynolds and end with advanced braking technology.
Women in lead roles
And here’s where it starts to get really interesting. There are at least four Super Bowl 51 spots so far with women in lead roles. That includes:
84 Lumber’s The Journey Begins
Kia’s Hero’s Journey
Tiffany’s Introducing Lady Gaga for Tiffany Hardwear*, which, to be fair, is only a teaser, but it would be awfully rotten of Tony Bennett to show up and steal her thunder at this point
And Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale
An additional four spots feature women as co-stars, including:
Febreze’s Halftime #BathroomBreak
And Wix’s Big Game Campaign
Although Jennifer Bassett, global managing editor at content discovery and marketing platform Outbrain, noted Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot “doing her thing in the Wix ad…fits a conventional (and more traditional) understanding of ‘sexy.’" So that one may go either way, too.
There are also 18 spots in which women play supporting/background roles:
Of these ads, Buick is the most unfortunate with Kerr tacked on to the end as a supermodel with nothing else to do or say, than, “Nice play, Billy,” but that’s perhaps beating a dead horse.
And 13 Super Bowl 51 spots appear to have no women at all:
And Wendy’s Cold Storage.
And then roughly ten brands remain to be seen:
Even so, that means the vast majority of Super Bowl ads still put women in supporting/background roles – or don’t include them at all. And it’s worth noting this simply considers gender and not diversity more broadly, which is another post entirely.
But the glass-is-half-full spin is that Super Bowl Sunday is no longer a day in which advertisers speak exclusively to white men. And maybe that isn’t a huge victory – or even something to celebrate – but there is the indication that ads from Audi, 84 Lumber, Kia, Tiffany and Hulu mean 'the Era of Female Objectification' in Super Bowl Advertising is officially over.
According to Daniel Lobring, managing director of communications at sports marketing firm Revolution, this isn’t an impossible dream as Super Bowl advertisers have seen increased pressure to be more authentic, entertaining and humorous instead of sexist or playing into gender stereotypes.
“So if you believe in authenticity is key for brands/advertisers connecting with audiences, then it goes hand-in-hand that the ads need to reflect the changing cultural and demographic landscape,” he said. “To that point, the Millennial generation, one that is highly coveted for advertisers, is also ushering in a new era of broader diversity.”
What’s more, Bassett said the advertising industry itself is starting to be more conscious of how it represents the world.
“Overall, I hear from colleagues, too, about some of the responsibility they feel in regards to some of the tactics that marketers now rely on -- for example personalization and micro-targeting -- and how that has ultimately impacted culture for better or worse,” she said. “I think the industry, in general, feels more accountable and will be making an effort to think more about what they put out there.”
*Teaser only as of February 3, 2017.
**Reportedly the actual Super Bowl spot, but not verified by The Drum prior to the Super Bowl.
Keep tabs on The Drum's Live Coverage of the Super Bowl and how brands react around it tonight, in partnership with The 3% Conference.