Super Bowl ads feature LGBTQ-friendly, women-centric messages

This year’s 77 Super Bowl commercials feature notable LGBTQ figures, women behind the camera and in front, and two big-name politicians.
Image: Super Bowl ad themes
LGBTQ representation is just one of the themes to look for in this year’s slate of Super Bowl commercials, which will draw upward of $400 million in revenue for Fox.Adrian Lam / NBC News

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By Claire Atkinson

For this year's Super Bowl, Madison Avenue will serve up its traditional mix of stars and products during the commercial breaks, but there will be some surprising firsts, too.

Facebook, which has been under siege by regulators, has bought an ad starring Chris Rock to promote its groups feature. Its rival Google will also air a commercial promoting how it can be used to track treasured memories.

President Donald Trump and White House hopeful Michael Bloomberg will be blitzing viewers with political messages, the first from presidential candidates to air nationally at a Super Bowl. Those ads will not be the only ones to break new ground — viewers will also see the first Super Bowl spot to feature drag queens.

LGBTQ representation is just one of the themes to look for in this year’s slate of Super Bowl commercials, which will draw upward of $400 million in revenue for Fox.

Inclusion and pride

The featured drag queens are Miz Cracker and Kim Chi, and they star in a spot for the hummus brand Sabra.

A Microsoft ad celebrates the first woman and first openly gay coach in a Super Bowl, Katie Sowers, an offensive assistant with the 49ers. And a commercial for Turbo Tax also features trans actresses Trace Lysette and Isis King, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

“For too long LGBTQ visibility in Super Bowl ads was nearly invisible, but this year will mark a breakthrough in LGBTQ representation with many prominent members of our community appearing in ads,” the organization said. “This is a positive step forward in reflecting the diversity of the world we live in today and a sign that global brands have woken up to the fact that the American public largely expects and wants to see LGBTQ people attached to their brands."

Comedian Ellen DeGeneres, well-known to television audiences everywhere, and her wife, actress Portia de Rossi, return to the small screen in an ad for virtual assistant Amazon Alexa.

Another ad, for Pop-Tarts Pretzels, features Jonathan Van Ness, the star of Netflix’s “Queer Eye."

“It’s not so much of a surprise that there’s LGBTQ representation this year, the surprise is that it took so long,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

While this year’s 77 Super Bowl commercials will include other notable LGBTQ figures, they will also feature more women behind the camera and in lead roles.

The future is female

Olay, owned by Procter & Gamble, will run a Super Bowl ad starring actress Taraji P. Henson — who played Cookie Lyon, a feisty music entrepreneur on Fox’s “Empire” — as well as late night television host Lilly Singh and retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott. The ad promotes #MakeSpaceforWomen and raises money for female coders.

“The Olay spot and all the female characters is really interesting to me,” said Charles R. Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova who has conducted research on women and minorities in advertising. “We’re finding that female lead characters tend, on average over the last five years, to do a little bit better with audiences.”

Other celebrities making commercial appearances include Molly Ringwald, who will tout Avocados from Mexico, and Winona Ryder, who will promote the web hosting firm Squarespace.

Those female-forward ad spots come in stark contrast to the male-targeted ads that aired during the Super Bowl 10 years ago.

In 2010, Dodge aired a spot promoting its Charger sports car titled “Man’s Last Stand” showing a montage of beleaguered men with a voiceover listing a partner’s endless requirements. That year, Dockers showed a group of men in their underwear singing “I Wear No Pants,” concluding with “It’s time to wear the pants,” and website creator “Go Daddy” marketed their product by featuring scantily clad professional auto racer Danica Patrick.

Hard to imagine those ads running today.

Now “everything goes through the lens of, ‘Is it appropriate?’” said Rich Silverstein, partner at the ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which has created numerous hit Super Bowl spots for the likes of Budweiser and Cheetos.

A balance of humorous and serious

Silverstein predicts a return to more light-hearted commercials, after some darker themes from recent years, such as an 84 Lumber ad that referred to immigration and the border wall.

Two former "SNL" comedians will make appearances: Jimmy Fallon stars in a spot for Michelob Ultra about his dislike of the gym, and Rachel Dratch jokes about Boston accents in an ad for Hyundai.

But that doesn’t preclude some hard-hitting messages, such as the NFL’s PSA about the police shooting death of a relative of retired NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin and another about Botham Jean, who was shot and killed in his apartment by a Dallas police officer.

The death of NBA star Kobe Bryant led Planters to pause a Super Bowl-related online ad campaign showing the apparent death of its company icon, Mr. Peanut.

Finding common ground

Some of this year’s biggest spenders are hoping to unite America by focusing on common themes, while also showing the strength derived from our differences.

New York Life Insurance, which will air its first Super Bowl spot in 30 years, will show how people express different kinds of love.

“We want to emotionally connect with millions of Americans,” Kari Axberg, the company’s vice president and co-head of marketing, said.

Anheuser-Busch’s U.S. chief marketing officer, Marcel Marcondes, said the company’s research showed a divided nation that is looking for a sense of togetherness. He said the divisive nature of the presidential election cycle has people wanting messages like: “Let’s leave politics aside and be proud of who you are. That’s what matters.”

The Budweiser commercial “Typical American,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the first female director to win an Oscar, attempts to reverse negative stereotypes by showing "extraordinary people" doing good deeds.

When it comes to ads that cost as much as $5.6 million, though, the stakes are high.

“Super Bowl is not for the faint of heart. It’s going to take an act of bravery to do a Super Bowl commercial,” said Rob Schwartz, the chief executive of the New York office of TBWA\Chiat\Day, which created a spot for Mountain Dew for this year’s game.

And the audience reached by the ads aren’t just those Americans who will be in front of their TVs this Sunday.

“America’s living room has enlarged itself — its called Twitter,” Schwartz said. “You’re not only watching the Super Bowl with the people in your home, you’re watching it with all your Twitter people.”