Just why Superbowl ads are so man-centric is something of a mystery – 46 percent of Super Bowl viewers are women, and more women watch the Super Bowl than the Oscars, Grammys and Emmys combined.
Yet, with a few notable exceptions, most of the 2015 Super Bowl ads centered around men, and especially fathers. Dove Men+Care released its beautiful #RealStrength ad, which showed vignettes of kids of all ages calling their father “Daddy,” “Da-Da” or “Dad.” In an ad for Toyota Camry, a man tears up as he thinks back on his daughter's childhood and watches her leave to join the military.
The Super Bowl may be the apex of manvertising, but it is far from the only way that brands are targeting men these days. Changes in American jobs and gender roles over past decades are putting more men in the position to buy and use commercial products for their homes and families. And that means brands are putting more effort than ever into marketing toward men.
Historically, most consumer brands have focused on women. Because women traditionally held the purse strings for their households, the advertising industry’s target customer has typically been a “she.” Most estimates say that women account for between two-thirds and 80 percent of U.S. consumer spending. They are also more active in managing the home: On average, women still spend significantly more time doing work in and around the house than men do, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet men are doing more housework, grocery shopping and childcare than ever before. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 32 percent of fathers with working wives regularly cared for their children in 2011, up from 26 percent in 2002. Research by Nielsen shows that American women took fewer trips to most retail stores in 2012 than they did in 2004, while the trend for men moved in the opposite direction.
A survey by market research firm NPD Group found that men are the primary grocery shoppers in 41 percent of U.S. households. In another survey, 54 percent of married men say they shop for groceries and household supplies more than their spouse. (We’ll never know what their spouses would say about that.)
These new responsibilities are a result of changing ideas about gender roles, as well as simple economics. Two-income households are increasingly the norm in the U.S.: For roughly half of all married couples, both partners were employed in 2013. Nontraditional households consisting of single people or roommates are also growing at a faster pace than traditional ones, meaning more men are in charge of purchasing decisions for their households.
Given this shift in attitudes and behaviors, brands are trying to identify how and when to market to men. Dannon’s Oikos Greek yogurt adopted more gender-neutral packaging; other food companies found that bold flavors and high-protein meals performed better among men.
Sometimes it’s a simple issue of organization: Procter & Gamble began introducing “man aisles” into some Wal-Mart, Target and Walgreens stores in the U.S. and Canada in 2012, which group all of men’s products into one place and use shelf displays and small TV screens to guide men to skin-care items.
Other ads have succeeded in marketing to men by embracing the humor of swapping gender roles. In this Miracle Whip commercial from February, fixing an amazing spinach artichoke dip becomes a new badge of manhood.
A window into the American psyche
In the past as now, advertising can be a brutally honest reflection of American attitudes about sex and gender. Sexist Mad-Man style ads of the pre-Women's Lib era were notoriously for playing on women’s insecurities about keeping their husbands happy and offering a suffocatingly narrow view of a woman’s role. "Keep up with the house while you keep down your weight," reads one ad for Total from 1970. "The Chef does everything but cook -- that's what wives are for!" reads another from 1961.
Sexism is still rife in advertising, to be sure. The simplest way to sell something is to display it next to a sexy, scantily clad woman. If women’s own desires ever come into the picture, they generally involve shoes and shopping. Depictions of men are terrible in their own way: Men are reduced to vehicles for burritos and testosterone, and fathers are often depicted as inept, bumbling and badly in need of maternal assistance.
In 2012, for example, Huggies came under fire from men’s groups for an ad campaign that urged shopper to put their diapers to the “Dad Test.” “To prove Huggies diapers and wipes can handle anything, we put them to the toughest test imaginable: Dads, alone with their babies, in one house, for 5 days while we gave moms some well-deserved time off,” the company’s ad materials said. That ad aimed to be playful but instead struck an ugly chord among dads who said the commercial implied that fathers can't take care of their babies.
These ads are the result of deeper perceptions about gender and behavior in the advertising industry. The experts and industry reports that advise companies on how to advertise to men or women typically include sweeping, silly or offensive assumptions about gender – for example, that men are more likely to take a second sweep through the grocery store because of their “hunter mindset,” or that women’s brains are evolutionarily “programmed to maintain social harmony.”
Most of the ads in the 2015 Super Bowl reflected this deeply traditional American view of gender roles -- absent but heroic fathers, allusions between cars and penises, and Kate Upton in a bathtub, and then in a metallic bustier. But a newer kind of masculinity was also on display, a marketer’s vision of a man as someone who is emotionally connected with his family – nurturing, invested in his children and not afraid to cry.
Are these ads shameless plays on our emotions? Absolutely. But they are also signs that, as American men are changing, America’s ideas about manhood are changing, too.