The most sophisticated gender politics in this year’s slate of Super Bowl ads came from companies selling insurance and feminine hygiene products, but make no mistake, the reach of feminism could be felt further than just the Always and Nationwide commercials.
Mindy Kaling managed to make a thought-provoking statement about the invisibility of women of color while still being funny. And her very presence, during the most-hyped television event of the year, helped chip away at that very invisibility. This was very much intentional — Kaling spoke recently at the Sundance Film Festival with Kristen Wiig, Lena Dunham and “Orange is the New Black” creator Jenji Kohan on a panel dedicated to female characters and writers in television and film.
Always put forth a spot that highlighted the absurdity of using the phrase “like a girl” as a pejorative. Not only was it attempting to dismantle the idea that women and girls are inferior athletes, it aimed to reclaim a phrase that’s been used to police gender roles and stereotypes that are harmful to boys and men, too. Proctor and Gamble, Always’s parent company, was banking on social media buzz, urging viewers to tweet with #likeagirl to further its message.
For feminism, those were the obvious wins — the ones that prompt a proverbial spiking of the football — but its effects could be felt in more subtle ways as well.
Two companies, Go Daddy and Fiat, both known for championing a specific frat boy sort of machismo in their ads, toned things down this year as advertisers started to acknowledge that, well, women watch the Super Bowl too.
Notoriously bro-centric ads, such those 2011 spots for Dr. Pepper Ten, no longer go unchallenged. Even Forbes called the Dr. Pepper Ten campaign “bizarre.”
Writing for AdWeek last year, and pointing out that women out-tweet men, Kat Gordon admonished, “ignore our tweets at your peril.” Once again, this year, the Representation Project kept score with #NotBuyingIt and #MediaWeLike. It would appear advertisers have taken heed, and the Manly Man brands have retooled a bit.
Go Daddy, a vigorous and enthusiastic proponent of commercials specializing in presenting women, especially NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, as little more than sex objects, took a step back from its usual modus operandi of employing ample decolletage and windblown hair to convince you to use its domain-registering and hosting services. Go Daddy spots were fairly reliable in gleefully obscuring the company’s purpose — it came to define their television strategy. This year’s spot featured an architect hard at work in his studio, missing the Super Bowl. True to the overall theme of this year’s ads, it was earnest.
Fiat’s tone shifted noticeably, too, though not as dramatically as Go Daddy. This was a company that enlisted an out-of-control Charlie Sheen to hawk its Abarth line. And remember in 2013 when the company was employing sexualized aesthetics aided by the use of suggestively placed cappuccino foam?
This time, viewers were invited to follow a single blue pill (obviously Viagra) on an odyssey from one man’s fingertips to the gas tank of a bright red Fiat 500. Once ingested, the 500 “grew” from a modest hatchback into a 500X crossover SUV.
The central message remained: Buy this car and women will fall for you. However, this year’s ad was cheekier and more creatively deployed, even if it relied on some well-worn tropes — namely, when it comes to getting women, bigger is better. The absence of women breathlessly pawing at themselves was noticeable. Also worth noting? The bed-mate of the man who loses said blue pill wasn’t a much-younger model type, but a realistic-looking contemporary.
Marketers haven’t always known how to speak to women watching the Super Bowl. Even the NFL has been guilty of deploying the “Pink It and Shrink It” strategy to reach its female fan base. But the Always commercial in particular demonstrates that it’s not necessary to condescend to football’s female audience, nor is it necessary to run from the fact women are a chief part of the Super Bowl’s viewership (50 million women watched the Super Bowl in 2013).
Will we see more advertisers embracing the #likeagirl strategy in 2016? It’s too soon to tell, but the needle certainly appears to be pointing in that direction.