Media

Half-Naked Hot Chicks and Beer: The Sexist Guyland of the Super Bowl Beer Commercial

The land of beer is a fun and raucous place. It's also filled with deeply sexist images.

In guyland, beer is the official drink, beer ads are the constitution and the Super Bowl is the annual holiday.  

Yes, it’s beer day on Sunday. It’s the second biggest eating day of the year after Thanksgiving, and I’d put a Vegas wager on it being the biggest beer-drinking day. It’s also the biggest celebration of beer ads, which unlike beer’s buzz, live forever due to YouTube. It’s a day that brought us Wassup, the Budweiser Frogs, and of course, the Cat Fight.  

After watching dozens of beer ads over the last few days, I can report that the land of beer is a fun and raucous place. It’s a land where drunkenness, laughing, burping, irresponsibility, pranks and rule-breaking reign supreme. There are no awkward silences, no need to speak in words, no need to remember to say or do anything in particular or face the consequences. Heck, there are no consequences. It’s a world where women have fun entertaining men. It’s an escape from the tyranny of work and manners, from the ill-fitting harnesses of the digital age on our inner human cave animal. Can’t you just hear the whole nation sighing in relief? 

I understand the merits of the golden liquid, with its bubbles on a quest for freedom. But beer ads don’t really bother with that. They sell an escape to fantasy masculinity. And boy, while there might be more women drinking beer and watching the Super Bowl than ever, and more ads directed to them in some ways, most beer ads -- especially the sexy ones -- are like masculinity on steroids.  

Beer ads have always been about sex. In the beer ads of my youth, long-haired women in skimpy outfits danced to rock music, while guys stood around holding beers. Women smiled at men, and the men grinned at each other. (When I went to my first parties, as a teenager, I actually wondered if I was going to have to behave like that.)

Those ads look pretty tame today. In last year’s Miller Lite Cat Fight, which got over six million views afterward, women leave a lunch table to rip off their clothes and fight in their undies, mud-wrestle, then make out. “The first beer commercial that starred actual soft-core porn actresses," is how the TV Munchies blog hailed it. “Bravo Miller Lite! We’ve never been thirstier!” The follow-up Cat Fight ad features a scantily clad Pamela Anderson joining in a pillow fight.  

Sportswriter Robert Lipsyte points out that "Because of their insecure young male demographic, ads tend to be so aggressively and cartoonishly hetero that 1) there is no orientation issue, and 2) there is no threat of actually having to perform. You can watch sexy women the same way you watch football players -- from a superior remove.” 

There is another change from the sexy ads of a few decades ago. Today's ads are so over the top it’s clear they’re somewhat ironic. At the end of the cat fight ads, for example, the women, who are also drinking beer, roll their eyes. The ads create a knowing wink fantasy bubble that’s enhanced by the fact that everyone knows they’re getting away with something naughty. Mmm, delicious. 

It’s also surely about advertisers giving a nod to the "other” audience. They know women are in the game now, and are figuring out ways of keeping them drinking too. Women account for 25% of beer consumption, and almost half of the Super Bowl audience. Given that almost 96 million people watched last year’s Super Bowl, the second-most-watched broadcast ever, that’s a lot of women. According to Forbes, even back in 2005, 10 million more women watched the Super Bowl than the Academy Awards.  

There’s a lot of money at stake too. The average 30-second spot sold for $2.5 to $2.8 million this year and Anheuser-Busch (which makes Budweiser) has spent $311.8 million advertising at the event from 1990-'09.  

Some marketing wonks suggest those precious dollars should cater more to this valuable co-ed audience. Marketing expert Gerry Myers points out that most Super Bowl ads are aimed at males, yet most money is spent by females. He writes, "Though many women love football, and a lot of men enjoy seeing the new commercials, women focus more on the commercials... and men more on the game." Myers believes the ads should focus more on women. 

And some ads do. The Clydesdales ads played well with women, for example (though rumor has it there won’t be any this year since they didn’t test well). And one of this Sunday's commercials features a man who skips his softball game to attend his wife’s book club because she’s serving Bud Light. 

But I doubt the book club ad will play as well as the cat fight. So it’s almost certain that beer advertising will spin ever more elaborate gender fantasies, rather than walking the middle line. 

Take this new Andes beer ad (not for the Super Bowl) by Saatchi & Saatchi in Argentina. It features guys at a bar using a new high-tech contraption, a sound-proof “teletransporter” with sound effects of hospitals, traffic jams and crying babies. As one AdFreak blogger wrote, it "lets men convince annoying girlfriends when they call, that they’re not, in fact, at the bar." The contraption was actually installed at bars around the city of Mendoza, and the ad presumably features real footage of guys.  

Or there’s this Ariana beer ad, in which a woman opens a beer with her boobs. Or this Bavaria beer ad, in which a girl in a bikini mimics the way a guy moves the beer bottle around in his hand. As one TV Munchies blogger wrote, “This explains why so many young Brazilian dudes get their peens caught in beer bottles."

Everyone knows these ads are ridiculous fantasies that are enjoyable to the target gender and deeply sexist to the other. Advertisers seem to be trying to get around that by making them so over the top that no one with any sense of humor could accuse them of sexism. Take this brilliant meta ad from Quilmes, for example. At the risk of being called a humorless feminist, let me say that while the tactics of music, movement, smiling and fun work on me because I am human, and while I might indeed laugh at them, I still know they do a lot of gender damage. What’s more influential then fantasy? 

But anyone who thinks "Ads that depict raucous males drinking beer and giving a bartender babe a hard time are passé," is just plain wrong.  

The fantasy is that men, in particular, can have it all. Because the ads wink at viewers, and because they're so over the top, men can get away with enjoying the pleasures of a sexist fantasy world, while an equal number of women sit in the audience. They can have their beer and drink it too. 

Vanessa Richmond is an AlterNet contributing writer.