Every Super Bowl features a handful of blatantly sexist commercials. Super Bowl XLIX’s crop was barely better. It included an ad from Carl’s Jr showing a half-clothed model walk past slack-jawed men. It may have nothing to do with the product being advertised, burgers, but the ad was clearly a viral success ahead of the game: It had more than six million hits on YouTube even before the kickoff.
Even so, 2015’s ads were less sexist than usual overall. Advertisers mostly shied away from objectifying women, and instead let women be funny and play sports.
It’s encouraging to see feminism appear more in the most-watched sports game of the year. Maybe it’s a victory for women and a sign of evolving tastes. Still, it’s too soon to cheer, because there’s an obvious reason for why advertisers played it cautious: The NFL’s domestic abuse scandals. They didn’t want to be caught in the middle of the NFL’s public relations problem, nor did they want to follow on the heels of a harrowing domestic violence PSA that aired during the Super Bowl.
Patti Williams, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania, explained by email that advertisers are generally risk averse. The drop in sexist advertising is part of a longer-term trend “toward more 'inclusive' ads that have a wider appeal,” Williams said. “But given a cultural climate where these scandals are very well known and the general risk aversion of advertisers, I think it’s fair to suppose that most of this year’s advertisers have chosen to steer clear of anything that would link their ads to that discussion in a negative way.”
Next year, sexism could very well make a comeback.
Here are some highlights from 2015 commercials:
In this Always commercial, "run like a girl" means being fast and strong:
A common trope in media is to show men as either absent or incompetent fathers. Huggies fell into that trap in 2012, and was forced to pull an ad that called dads irresponsible. Dove for Men flipped that stereotype around, showing men as caretakers:
Female comedians appeared in a few ads:
Mindy Kaling stars in a Nationwide Insurance ad, in which the narrator says, "After years of being treated like she was invisible, it occurred to Mindy Kaling she might actually be invisible.” Rhitu Chatterjee asked on NPR if the commercial is meant to show how minority women in America often feel invisible.
GoDaddy has built its brand around sexism in its Super Bowl ads the last decade. In 2013, the 30-second spot showed a “sexy” woman in pink make out with a “smart” nerdy man. Since then, the company vowed to be different, and no longer objectify women. They kept to that promise, but that’s no reason to applaud the company. That’s because a sneak-preview of its 2015 ad caused an uproar the week before the Super Bowl. It showed a puppy. Animal rights activists charged this was abuse, and Go Daddy apologized and pulled the ad, it aired a replacement. Outcries from feminists never generated the same swift apology.