Super Bowl Advertising: Gender Stereotyping at the Big Game

Superbowl 2013 was not only demoralizing to 49ers’ fans. It was also demoralizing to 51% of this country.

Every few ads we were presented with swimsuit models, dumb blondes, pole dancers, showgirls, and Megan Fox in a bubble bath. If you had lived in a cave for the last thirty years and turned on the TV during Superbowl, you might think that America had become a nation of teenage boys.

51% of this country are women.  At least 46% of Superbowl viewers were women. 85% of all consumer purchases are reportedly made by women. However, ads after ads, 51% seems like a minority.

But there is a bigger problem.

What impression would your 8-year-old nephew get? That the relationship between men and women is sexualized and materialistic? Case in point: a man who owns a Mercedes-Benz gets chased down the street by a few dozen excited women (Mercedes-Benz: Soul). The scantily dressed Kate Upton gloriously joins the ranks of a luxury sedan as an object of desire and want (Mercedes-Benz: Kate Upton Washes the Mercedes-Benz in Slow Motion). Driving a convertible Fiat is compared to taking the top off of a curvy bikini model (Fiat 500 Abarth: Topless). An audible, slimy kiss between a sexy model and a geek reinforces the stereotype that it is always more important for women to look attractive and for men to be intelligent (GoDaddy.com: Perfect Match). Women are the objects of rescue and the girl saved from a shark attack is supposed to fall in love with her rescuer, becoming his prize (Axe:  Lifeguard).

In what we consider the most important advertising opportunity of the year, women were frequently depicted as objects of sexual desire. If exploiting the body of a woman appeals to testosterones and grabs eyeballs, never mind that such portrayal of women is repeatedly, regrettably, and resoundingly limiting.

All of our 8-year-old nephews – and nieces – will grow up and someday share in the task of shaping our future. The cultural imprint left by a few short ads will have far-reaching consequences. Even as the left brain knows that the measure of a person is her character, the right brain continues to judge a woman by her sex appeal.

We have a choice in the kind of legacy our generation leaves to the next. We can perpetuate the marketing norm that appeals to base emotions because sex sells. Or we can confront the norm and ask: can ads like the ones by Dodge and Jeep during the Superbowl, which appeal to higher aspirations, be more successful for the brand and our culture in the long run?

Gender bias is not a problem for the 51% or the 49%. It is for the 100%. Cultural norms limit the roles that we – both men and women – can play in the classroom, the living room, the ballroom, and the boardroom. We have a choice: we can trivialize a view that challenges the dominant culture, or we can break the silence and have a real dialog now.

February 11, 2013