Super Bowl commercials have for years targeted a classic stereotype of sports: manliness. Whether hawking beer, Axe body spray, or trucks, hyper-masculine tropes often came standard.
The issue, however, is that while men make up a large part of the viewing audience for the Super Bowl — and the NFL in general — female viewership has been steadily climbing. Marketing companies are starting to take notice, however slowly, and this year brands like Olay and Bumble are targeting women specifically.
Using capitalism as a bellwether for gender equality is imperfect, obviously. But the lack of patronizing or condescending language is better than the alternative.
While men make up a large part of the viewing audience for the Super Bowl — and the NFL in general — female viewership has been steadily climbing.
According to the NFL, women make up 45 percent of the league's audience, and other polls note football is the most watched sport in the U.S. An estimated 86 million women watched the NFL in 2017, and women were almost half of the 108 million people who watched the 2018 Super Bowl. Despite this, only about a quarter of Super Bowl ads have starred women, and even fewer focus on products geared towards them. A quick peek over the last several years shows that the brands targeting women have mostly been cleaning products, like Tide detergent, Febreze, and Mr. Clean (the latter company ran an ad for 2017’s game that garnered controversy after attempting to turn the brand’s animated logo into a sex symbol).
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While there are always outliers and exceptions — Audi’s 2017 ad that confronted equal pay is one, and the 2015 Always ad “Like A Girl” is another memorable example — the fact that advertisers continue to see women through the lens of traditional gender roles is frustrating, to say the least. There‘s a reason domestic products are so heavily represented. Similarly, male-focused ads play into masculinity stereotypes, showing men doing “manly” things like going to battle, swigging beer and driving big trucks. (Or, in the case of this Ram commercial, driving trucks and going into battle.) Notably, this year’s Super Bowl features an ad that departs purposefully from these stereotypes. Gillette’s ad encouraging men to “be better,” which has already debuted to mixed responses — and a lot of backlash from men, in particular.
Less progressive is a creepy Colgate ad starring Luke Wilson as a “close talker,” aka a white man with no concept of physical boundaries who can’t seem to take “no” for an answer. Especially in contrast with Gillette’s message, the Colgate effort strikes a decidedly uncomfortable tone in the era of #MeToo and conversations about consent.
Colgate notwithstanding, it’s true that the overt sexism of ads like Budweiser's 2004 “Tune Out” commercial featuring a nagging wife or Cindy’s Crawford’s infamous 1992 Pepsi commercial is mostly in the past. It’s much less acceptable now for commercials to be blatantly misogynist, moving away from objectifying women isn’t the same as appealing to them. Making sure you don’t offend someone is a pretty low bar.
And by the way, women are paying attention. They are over 26 percent more focused on the ads during the Super Bowl broadcast than their male counterparts, according to metrics platform TVision Insights. Women were also 27 percent more likely to be paying attention to the actual football game, according to the same measurements.
Enter Olay, with its first ever Super Bowl ad. The spot, starring “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” star Sarah Michelle Gellar, aims to “help change this narrative of ads during the big game” by “speaking directly to the women who are watching with a product and ad that is made for them,” the brand said in a press release. The ad publicizes the beauty brand’s 28-day skincare challenge by spoofing Gellar’s well-known image as a horror movie scream queen.
Dating app Bumble will also be debuting its first Super Bowl commercial, starring Serena Williams as part of a year-long marketing campaign with the tennis superstar. This campaign, called “The Ball is in Her Court,” goes the women’s empowerment route which jives with the dating app’s premise: On Bumble, women make the first move. “The spot was created by a predominantly female team of creatives… and was directed by A.V. Rockwell, a screenwriter and director from Queens, New York, whose work addresses such issues as race and systematic oppression,” according to AdWeek.
Williams and Gellar join a growing group of female celebrities who will be featured in ads this year, including Kristin Chenoweth (selling avocados), Christina Applegate (M&Ms), Zoe Kravitz (Michelob Ultra) and Sarah Jessica Parker (Stella Artois).
It’s better than nothing. For too long, women have been an almost entirely neglected market. But it’s also a reminder that the highly corporate professional sports world has yet to treat its female fans seriously. Pink breast cancer socks were nice, I guess, but making sure domestic abusers don’t get to take the field would be nicer. In the meantime, watching ads in which women are represented and not objectified will have to be enough.
Ultimately, the ideal commercial lineup would have ads that appeal to an array of genders instead of making outdated assumptions about who’s watching and what they’re interested in. Women are watching, and they’re interested in a whole lot more than laundry detergent.