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Despite backlash, we’ll probably see more gender-themed ads like Audi’s Super Bowl spot

One of the most-discussed ads during the Super Bowl Sunday night was not about football, beer or food. It was an Audi ad about the gender pay gap, featuring a dad watching his little girl competing in a cart race and questioning whether she'd be compensated equally when she grows up. "What do I tell my daughter?" the narrator asks.

The spot was praised and pilloried. "Lean In" author Sheryl Sandberg, posting about it on Facebook, said "now more than ever, we need ads like this which push back on gender stereotypes," while high-profile Twitter users and consumers hailed the ad for its message.

But it also received heaping criticism, with more dislikes than likes on YouTube and, as of late last week, more negative than positive comments, according to a research firm cited by the Wall Street Journal, many of them questioning the basis of a gender pay gap. "This whole commercial is based off a lie," one wrote on YouTube. "Women don't make less than men. Total propaganda." (The gender wage gap is a complex topic, which can be primarily explained by differences in industry and occupation choice, hours worked, and gaps for taking time off to have children. But researchers have also repeatedly found that part of the gap that remains is "unexplained" or unaccounted for by any of these factors.)

The brouhaha over Audi's "Daughter" spot provided a data point to those wondering how the "femvertising" trend of recent years -- the move by brands like Dove, Always and Pantene to embrace gender empowerment themes in their ads -- might fare in the aftermath of such a divisive presidential campaign and amid heightened politicization of seemingly any corporate speech.

Brands, after all, now find themselves navigating two different movements: Consumers are threatening boycotts and backlash any time a brand wades into seemingly political turf, while voices from the right appear emboldened after the election, criticizing topics that invited much less public controversy in the past. Yet at the same time, the worldwide Women's March provided a massive counterpoint, demonstrating a powerful force and dynamic response that have elevated women's issues in the national conversation.

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Former Wall Street executive Sallie Krawcheck pointed to both in a recent interview. On the one hand, she's found online comments to her writing on gender issues transformed from professional and polite before the election to angry and contradictory after it was over. Yet in surveys of professional women, she's also seen them say again and again that they want to take action.

"There seems to be sort of an awakening, not just from the election, that we didn't make as much progress as we thought we did," she told The Washington Post in January. "There's a different energy among professional women right now."

Samantha Skey, president and chief revenue officer of SheKnows Media, a digital media company that run an awards program for such women-focused campaigns, thinks such ads will continue for brands where it makes sense. "It's just going to invite more discussion because it's going to seem political," she says. Internal efforts to improve gender diversity at agencies, combined with the long-term trend of brands being armed with more and more data to reach their target customers, could also play a role in their expansion. "There is no middle right now," Skey says.

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Susie Nam, chief operating officer at Droga5, the agency behind Under Armour's "I Will What I Want" women's campaign, agrees the trend will continue.

"I think there will be more of it," she says. The brands that succeed will be those that tap into "a really deep-rooted emotional core" and "deep insights about how we're socialized to behave in a certain way," rather simply latching onto the latest marketing trend. She cites the "Like a Girl" campaign for Procter & Gamble's Always feminine products as one example that embraced the concept credibly. "If you can get to that level of insight, where there's no dispute, it becomes interesting."

While ads explicitly focused on gender issues will continue, they could also become more subtle, where a female CEO is featured, say, but equality is not the core theme. " 'Normvertising' is probably what's going to come next," Skey said.

Meanwhile, young 'Generation Z' consumers remain concerned about discrimination issues of other groups, too. "I think the Women's March is an opening in a lot of ways, not only for 'femvertising,' but an embrace of non-marginalization," Skey said.

Both Nam and Skey note that structural changes in advertising agencies could also be a catalyst. Skey points to General Mills, which began pressuring the agencies it works with to have more gender-balanced teams last year.

And Nam said that internal work at agencies like her own to confront unconscious biases, particularly in a male-dominated industry, is likely to create more awareness of those issues in the work they produce. Asking questions like " 'why did I think, when we need gravitas in that CEO, that it needed to be a man?' start to permeate the work that gets out into the world. It's an inside-out effort," she says. 

A spokeswoman for Audi of America could not confirm whether the carmaker has a policy like General Mills' in place, but pointed to other gender initiatives at the company. The company signed the Obama White House's Equal Pay Pledge, has instituted a graduate internship program where 50 percent of enrollment must be female, and has made other external efforts to grow female leaders in fields such as science and the arts.

It's 2016, and women still make less for doing the same work as men

Still, some critics noted that Audi's executive team is largely male, with just two women on its senior leadership team in the United States and no women on its global management board. In an emailed statement, Audi of America vice president of marketing Loren Angelo said "we also will put aggressive hiring and development strategies in place to increase the number of women in our workforce, at all levels." Budweiser faced similar questions about its senior management team and internal practices when it launched a campaign last year featuring comedians Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen sounding off about equal pay.

Though that may read to some as hypocritical, Skey thinks Audi's message will still likely resonate with its upscale target customer.

"If you see a middle-of-the-road brand approaching this strategy, it is more risky," she says. "I don't doubt that Audi did this with eyes wide open about who it was going to alienate and who it was going to ingratiate."

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