A massive cultural shift in the portrayal of women in advertising is evident at this year’s Super Bowl.
The #MeToo movement, increased social activism, and greater efforts by companies looking at gender equality appear to have had an effect on decision-making in marketing departments and creative agencies.
While the NFL's audience typically skews male, viewership of the Super Bowl is almost evenly split between men and women, according to Nielsen data. Yet not so long ago, Super Bowl ads were largely aimed at male viewers, and the commercials were typified by sexist beer ads. Website domain registry company GoDaddy ran especially provocative spots — one year featuring supermodel Bar Refaeli making out with a young tech nerd, something that would seem unthinkable in today’s climate.
With almost half the audience made up of women, it makes sense to run female empowerment ads — all the more so, given that they have performed well in previous years, both with men and women.
Super Bowl audiences had mostly positive reactions to Audi’s "Daughter” commercial, featuring a young girl competing against boys in a soapbox derby with a final call for equal pay; and Procter & Gamble’s award-winning, “Like A Girl,” from 2014.
"We are seeing the death of sex appeal in Super Bowl ads," Charles Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova University School of Business, told NBC News.
This year, viewers will be treated to ads that put women front and center of the action. Toyota’s Super Bowl ad is about Antoinette Harris, a young college athlete aiming to become the first woman accepted into the NFL. The commercial portrays the athlete’s younger self overcoming assumptions about her abilities.
For last year's Super Bowl, only 34 percent of ads featured women playing a significant role. Men were featured prominently in 72 percent of ads, according to data from research firm ABX, cited by Ad Age.
There are many more female celebrities this year; Ad Age magazine counts double the number of female stars, as compared to last year.
Among them are tennis player Serena Williams, who fronts an ad spot for dating site Bumble — which markets itself as enabling women to make the first move; actress Christina Applegate features in a spot for M&Ms candy; and Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth promotes Avocados from Mexico, marking the first time the company has used a female lead.
“Bumble is using Serena and taking her reputation to translate female empowerment, with women making the decisions,” noted Alex Siddall, group strategy director at Initiative ad agency. He sees more companies looking to take a stand, following the reaction to Nike’s campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Zoe Kravitz underscore just how far things have come: They both appear in beer ads. The former “Sex and the City” star plays her character, Carrie, trading her signature Cosmopolitan cocktail for a Stella Artois, while Kravitz stars in a spot for Michelob Ultra. That ad was made by a predominantly female team and commissioned by Anheuser-Busch's vice president of marketing, Azania Andrews, who told Advertising Age, "First and foremost, as a woman in marketing, a woman in beer, with all the conversations around diversity, I feel that I want to use my power for good and I feel a responsibility to try to create equity in the industry by creating opportunities for women."
Procter & Gamble, a long-time Super Bowl advertiser, told the Cincinnati Enquirer it would not air its controversial new Gillette shaving ad. That commercial, titled, “We Believe,” asks men to teach each other to behave better, and features instances of sexual harassment and boys fighting.
The ad received intense criticism from some quarters who felt it portrayed men negatively.
However, the packaged goods giant is planning to air a Super Bowl spot for its skin cream line Olay, featuring “Buffy the Vampire” actress Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Kraft Heinz tried a new tack with its Devour brand of ready meals. The commercial features a man slavishly eating fast cook meals at work and looking at a tablet with photos of food with his female companion, as he explains to the audience that he is addicted to “food porn.”
However, the brand reportedly had to make some cuts to its Super Bowl commercial. The word porn is not allowed — even if it’s just about food.