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Olay’s Super Bowl return is unapologetically female: ‘We’re changing the narrative’

Lilly Singh stars alongside Busy Phillips, Taraji P Henson, Katie Couric and Nicole Stott

P&G’s Olay is back for a second year at the Super Bowl. The brand is carrying forward the humor of its 2019 spot but, as its communications lead explains, this year’s production comes with a clear female message delivered by a stellar female cast: we deserve to be here in this ad break, and we deserve to be everywhere.

In 2015, Victoria’s Secret ran a Super Bowl commercial declaring “real games” would begin once the football was over.

The retailer’s commercial was ostensibly targeted at women looking for lingerie. Yet featuring an array of models not wearing much at all, it produced entirely for the benefit of heterosexual men. The ad played out that year alongside Always’ ‘Like A Girl’, which went on to dominate headlines and evolve into an iconic case study.

Those were the only two commercials bought by female-centric brands in the Super Bowl that year. It wouldn’t be until 2019 that a new women’s brand would buy airtime during the game again.

That was the year Olay decided to take a risk and buy a spot. But, for senior communications manager, Kate DiCarlo, it shouldn’t have been seen as a risk at all: audience data showed roughly 47% of the game’s audience to be made up of female viewers.

“When we first joined and announced that we were advertising during the Superbowl, we got [ the same] questions a lot: ‘What role does a beauty brand have to at the Super Bowl?’ ‘Is this a good investment for you?’” she recalls.

“But we felt very strongly that it was a huge opportunity for us to speak to women in the place where very few brands are speaking to them.”

The 2019 commercial saw Sarah Michelle Geller spoof the horror movie genre. Feedback on the ad was good, says DiCarlo, particularly in the fact it was broadcast “on the stage that has historically really focused on men”. Before February was over, Olay had decided it would return for a second year.

“We still felt like there was tremendous opportunity to make a difference in the narrative of Super Bowl,” says DiCarlo. “Half of those NFL fans are women, but roughly only 27% of Superbowl commercials actually star women ... We always knew that there was a lot of potential for us to impact that narrative on behalf of women.”

Ready to launch

Badger & Winters, the New York agency specializing in advertising to women, was recruited onto the project sometime during the hazy week of Cannes Lions. The shop started gathering the assets Olay already had in place – a deal with actor Busy Phillips and comedian Lilly Singh and P&G’s association with the STEM organization Girls Who Code – and piecing them together against a backdrop of asserted female empowerment.

The creative idea that arose was space – both in the terrestrial and metaphysical sense.

“Space is as an idea,” says Madonna Badger, chief creative officer at Badger and Winters, “It's all about dreaming and new frontiers, [the idea] that anything can happen. It’s always meant that in every country, for everyone.

"And then we had this idea of ‘Make Space for Women’ have a double meaning, with Busy and Lily and also an actual retired astronaut.”

That astronaut is Nicole Stott, who retired from Nasa in 2015. According to Badger, the engineer didn’t need to be asked twice to participate. Completing the all-female cast are Hidden Figures actor Taraji P Henson and veteran broadcaster Katie Couric.

Who run the set?

The spot was shot and produced by a team comprised mostly of women, too. Badger raided her contact book for a female editor, executive producer, sound mixer and director. The creative team weren’t making a statement in this recruiting process, Badger says, but rather choosing to live the point of the ad and make space for women to “be curious out loud” behind the scenes.

“We try to very hard to create a very positive atmosphere and experience,” adds DiCarlo. “There were a lot of things that these women brought to the shoot that weren't scripted ... and giving them the freedom to authentically bring themselves and their ideas is really important to us. It enables us to get to a much better level of work.”

If last year was a testing of the Super Bowl waters for Olay, this year is a deep dive into how indisputably female representation and messaging will be received during the game. The team will have to wait until Sunday (2 February) to find out if the spark of any chauvinist backlash will shine brighter than praise from women and their allies.

Whatever the case, Olay is quietly confident in the fact it has started something bigger.

“In a way, we are boldly going where not many other female brands are going when it comes to Super Bowl,” says DiCarlo. “But I'm very pleased to see even more female-centric brands announcing Super Bowl spots this year than last year. I am proud of our team for stepping up and being one of the first last year ... and then continuing that narrative this year.

“So, in a way, I think we don't we don't really think of ourselves as leaving a legacy. But I am proud of us for forging the way and starting a conversation that will ultimately help change the narrative for women on a stage like the Super Bowl. “

Olay's full spot will be released on Tuesday (28 January)

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