Column: Super Bowl ads now focus on women viewers

'Beyond the Lines'

While the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles and their fans are preparing for the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, not everyone will be focused on the game. Viewing, analyzing and comparing the Super Bowl ads — dubbed the “Ad Bowl” — is a ritual almost as old as the game itself.

One of the themes marketers have historically used is the depiction of women as sex objects in an effort to peddle products, particularly cars, beer and food. Two of the worst offenders have been Carl’s Jr. and GoDaddy.

When I ask students in my Sport Marketing course to find the least effective ad one of the most frequent candidates is Carl’s Jr.’s 2015 Super Bowl spot featuring model Charlotte McKinney. The model, attired in a bikini, is seductively looking into the camera while preparing to chomp down on an enormous cheeseburger. Students uniformly discredit the ad, claiming no one who regularly eats oversized cheeseburgers could look like McKinney.

Another example of extreme sexism was GoDaddy’s risqué ads with NASCAR driver Danica Patrick that tried to convince us we needed a website.

In fairness to Carl’s Jr. and GoDaddy, both advertisers have scaled back their objectification of women in recent years. They aren’t alone. Most brands now refrain from featuring women as sex objects. According to a study conducted at Villanova University, during the past decade only 6 percent of Super Bowl commercials contained sexual messages. One reason for the trend may be the addition of more women on the creative side of the camera, although men still far outnumber women.

Another reason is the Super Bowl viewership has evolved over the years. According to Ad Age, less than a decade ago the television audience for the game was 60 percent men and 40 percent women. Last year’s Super Bowl audience was almost evenly split, 51 percent men and 49 percent women. Perhaps more importantly, women tend to be either the primary purchasers or the primary influencers on the purchase of a variety of products, a fact automobile manufacturers discovered years ago. Therefore, it behooves advertisers to create messages that resonate, rather than offend, women.

The beer industry, a major advertiser during sporting events, has begun targeting women to drive growth in a basically stagnant market. Anheuser-Busch brands Budweiser and Bud Light once featured women in less than complimentary roles. No more. Azania Andrews, VP of Marketing for A-B’s Michelob Ultra, told Ad Age, “We need women to drink beer, so it is not to our advantage to portray them negatively in any way.” A-B sees millennials as another potential market for growth. “They (millennials) are interacting with the world in a much more gender-neutral way,” Andrews says. “It does a brand a disservice to play into these old tropes.”

In fairness to marketers, the recent public attention on harassment in the workplace was not the motivating factor in their effort to tone down the emphasis on sex to sell products. But given the media coverage of the #MeToo movement, advertisers should expect additional scrutiny on how women are portrayed in this year’s Super Bowl ads.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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