Marketers have been exploiting women as sex objects for decades to peddle cars, beer and snacks, and no more visibly than on TV’s biggest stage.
But as the country reels from what seems like daily revelations of new sexual harassment allegations, with women standing up to tell their stories of abuse in the workplace, microscopic scrutiny will be applied to the way Super Bowl advertisers portray women in the game Feb. 4.
Some of the worst offenders over the years, like GoDaddy and Carl’s Jr.—check out this list of some of the most sexist Super Bowl ads—have cooled their objectification of women in recent years. There’s a less obvious problem, however, that continues to make the so-called Ad Bowl a reflection of male privilege: a huge, persistent gap between the number of men who are front and center in Super Bowl ads and the number of women in big roles.
So while brands may refrain from showcasing scantily clad women—to be sure, just 6% of Super Bowl commercials had sexual messages over the last decade according to research out of Villanova University—in many cases, they simply aren’t featuring women at all.
Over the last decade, 76% of Super Bowl ads featured men as the principle character, says Raymond Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business. And twice as many male celebrities starred in Super Bowl commercials as female celebrities during the same period.
In last year’s Super Bowl LI, more than 2.5 as many leading ad roles went to men than to women, 61 for men compared with 23 for women, according to the Ad Age Super Bowl Archive, which excludes movie trailers and TV promos. That’s just slightly better than five years earlier, when men got more than 3 times as many key parts as women—60 for men and 18 for women.
In fact, 14 ads last year from marketers including Bai Brands, Nintendo and Intel didn’t include any women at all. Just one had no men: a World of Tanks commercial that spoofed “The Real Housewives” by driving a tank through a hair-pulling brawl.
Women appear far more often in the background as party guests or love interests.
“There is a major improvement in terms of stereotypes, both male and female, being reduced, but what’s happening is women are being left out of the narrative entirely,” says Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Movement, which promotes more gender and ethnic diversity among creative directors.
For the past five years, Gordon and her team have hosted Super Bowl viewing parties where agencies open their doors to creatives to discuss how women are represented in big game ads and share their takes in social media. “We have gone from women being gratuitous to women being completely absent.”