Super Bowl 2014 Will Serve Up New Crop of Sexist Ads, But This Year You Can Tweet Back
Some are suggesting that this year’s advertisements are less sexist than the past. Is this true? Probably not.
The people at Superbowl-commericals.org seem to have confused sexy with sexist, suggesting that the issue is lewdness rather than political rudeness (recall that the members of the fictional band Spinal Tap had the same problem). While there might be less (female) skin this time around, that doesn’t mean that sexism in advertising has gone away. It’s simply going underground.
The number of sexist ads aired during the Super Bowl has been so extreme in recent years that calling them out is as easy as falling off a log. But marketers are getting smarter about their audience and how to grab our attention. This means, at first glance, it might seem like there’s some progress. The Volkswagen ad with “brainy engineers” calls out sexism and stereotypes in a humorous way, and this works. At the same time, only the male engineer in the duo has a speaking part. The female engineer is totally silent through the whole ad. To suggest that this year’s lineup is less sexist is like being a little less pregnant.
Axe Body Spray has come under a lot of criticism for its ridiculously sexist ads. Now it's rolled out “Make Love, Not War.” I got goosebumps when I watched the soldier in his military tank soften into an embrace with his girlfriend. I’m glad the company is promoting a message about global peace. But the ad is still full of gendered stereotypes such as the notion that men are warriors who can be tamed by the love of a good woman. This ad might not be in-your-face like a woman sucking up a sloppy burger while lying on her bed in lingerie. But the stereotype that women are inherently more peaceful is on the sexist spectrum.
There’s a problem when advertisers relentlessly portray women as hypersexualized objects. But there is also a problem when white men are overrepresented in ads. When men are featured as active agents, inventors, funny guys, even lovable losers, and women are excluded, we become invisible. Women’s full range of human capacity gets erased from the public view. As viewers, we are so used to seeing men in lead roles we don’t even notice that the women are missing or don’t talk. (See The Smurfette Principle and The Bechdel Test for more on this.)
Women’s invisibility sends a powerful message about sex and gender. This message is even more powerful because we don’t notice it.
Here’s something we do notice: Izabel Goulart's underwear. In the Super Bowl ad, the Victoria’s Secret model dances around in her panties, takes selfies in bed and nibbles a little piece of food (possibly her lunch). Obviously, this is how all women spend our time alone: We dance around the house in slow motion, wearing bikini underwear and kissing photos of ourselves. I can’t believe they let this secret out. (Kidding!) The problem is not the treacly slo-mo camera work. I refuse to slutshame women or girls, and I don’t hate underwear. The problem is that naked is one of the few ways we repeatedly see women displayed. During Super Bowl ads, we rarely see men in states of undress, never while dancing, and if we do, the guys will be buff, in the gym, or it will be a joke. It’s hard to think about women as presidents and CEOs when we’re so used to seeing them relatively powerless in panties. After all, lingerie does not convey messages of strength, authority and capability—except as all this relates to sexual fantasy.
As for that Doritos mermaid hanging on the wall, there are several problems. The mermaid helps send the message that Doritos are a guy thing. They are Man Food. These chips are not delicate ladychips, they are “for the bold.” In this ad, a thin white topless woman who does not have a voice has been captured and displayed on the wall like a trophy fish. She is a passive object, not an active agent. If this kind of ad only happened once, we could watch it and move on. But part of the problem is that we see this story told over and over. So do our kids.
As media scholar Susan Douglas is fond of saying (and as I’m fond of repeating), women have a love-hate relationship with pop culture. In her classic books, Where the Girls Are and Enlightened Sexism, Douglas explains that women simultaneously rebel against and submit to common pop-culture images about what a desirable, worthwhile woman should look like and act like. Mass media continually bombards women (and men) with mixed messages about what women can and cannot do, and who they should and should not be. In the world of pop culture, including the Super Bowl ads in question, female sexuality is exploited (especially to sell products) and also policed and punished (be sexy but don’t be a slut). Imagine that boys and girls are born into this world of advertising, that grown adults are immersed in it during the Super Bowl. It’s no wonder there are still such stubborn stereotypes about gender and why there remains a cost to gender.
All that said, it is still possible that we might enjoy what we see even while recognizing the sexist tropes. This simultaneous push-pull is an inherent part of pop culture. It doesn’t mean we’re bad women, sexist men or failed feminists. It just means that marketing is intense and it generally does what it sets out to do: seduce and entice, even when we are smart and savvy.
But if you object to what you see this Super Bowl Sunday, don’t let anybody tell you that it’s “just an ad,” or “just a joke,” or that you should “lighten up.” We are entitled to take offense. The problem is not our lack of humor. The problem is called sexism.
The Super Bowl Challenge
In between touchdowns and time-outs, I pose a challenge: Tally how many ads aired during Super Bowl XLVIII feature a woman in the lead, or women with dignified speaking roles that don’t mock or infantilize or hypersexualize. Research shows that if a children’s toy is geared toward boys, girls will never outnumber the boys on the packaging or other marketing material. People tend to get skittish about images that feature more girls than boys and will reserve these purchases for girls, lest it imply their sons are weak.
But this tendency doesn’t just disappear in the world of grownup advertising. So, give yourself bonus points if an ad features more women than men—and that product is intended to be used by anyone. Even in 2014, it remains unremarkable to see a predominately pale male lineup in an ad for a car, a beer, or a snack — products all sorts of people buy. If we flip that script so the actors are primarily female, the message is that this product is exclusively for women, or women are used as the sex-appeal bait, or in the finest of hipster tradition, we’re supposed to understand that the gender-bending is… ironic.
While we’re at it, count how many people of color appear in ads, with speaking roles or in crowd scenes. Nearly 40 percent of our nation’s population is Latino, Asian, black, and indigenous, yet advertisers still have a long way to go toward producing advertising images that accurately reflect this reality.
Pop Culture Pushback
One of the great things about pop culture in the digital age is that we don’t have to resort to helpless bystanding. Social media and smartphone apps are now routinely harnessed to push back against stereotypes, misogyny and sexism. While plans for the Super Bowl rev up, so do the plans for collective action.
A newly launched smartphone app has rolled out just in time for the Super Bowl. The Representation Project (formerly MissRepresentation.org) describes #NotBuyingIt as the world’s first app dedicated to fighting media sexism. For those without an iPhone, the Representation Project invites people to join them by using #NotBuyingIt on Twitter during the Super Bowl to call out sexist commercials in real time. The plan is to spark a national conversation around gender stereotypes.
This project is already underway. In 2013, the Twitter hashtag by the same name harnessed social media in calling out offensive ads. After last year’s outpour of critique against GoDaddy’s regressively sexist advertising, the domain sales company has changed its tune. In GoDaddy’s effort to change its image, Ad Age reports that auto racing champion Danica Patrick appears this year in a muscle suit, surrounded by gigantic men racing to a tanning salon.
So while we might lament the tired tropes that will air during this year’s Super Bowl, we are not helpless. We can download and speak up. In other words, technology and social media give us a chance to rebel.