In Super Bowl advertising, a woman’s place has been in a bikini. Now advertisers are waking up to the fact that if they’re going to spend roughly $4 million per 30 seconds to put a product in front of more than 100 million viewers, they’d better not alienate half of them.
Using scantily clad women and the promise of sex to sell everything from beer and body spray to Web hosting services is so 2006. The big splashes this year will be the ads that get men and women talking around the water cooler, not venting their disgust on social media.
Using scantily clad women and the promise of sex to sell everything from beer and body spray to Web hosting services is so 2006.
For Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII, several advertisers with a rep for scandalous content are steering away from their usual tactics. Last year Audi brought us “Prom,” a spot that critics labeled a glorified sexual assault, in which a high school boy’s fantasy of driving a cool car gives him the confidence to lay one on a stunned prom queen. This year’s ad features animated dogs and singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan — the founder of the Lilith Fair, the all-female concert/lovefest. Audi calls its parody of McLachlan’s heart-wrenching ASPCA ads “a comical take on how when people compromise, things go terribly wrong.”
Perhaps. But there’s more.
“The biggest change I see this year is with Axe, which normally is all about sex,” Bonnie Drewniany, a University of South Carolina professor and Super Bowl ad evaluator, said by email. The male fragrance company made its Super Bowl debut last year with a bikini-clad woman who turns her attention away from a lifeguard and flings herself at an Axe-scented astronaut. “This year’s spot uses a documentary style, with a theme of making peace, not war,” says Drewniany. Granted there’s still some making out, but it’s less insulting to women’s intellectual and olfactory gifts.
And there’s not a bikini in sight.
Why the change of heart? Given that the Super Bowl audience is now nearly a 50-50 gender split, it could be argued that knee-jerk sexism is an outdated sales tool. And, when viewers feel insulted, it’s easier than ever to take to social media and let advertisers know about it.
A Twitter campaign with the hashtag #NotBuyingIt was especially harsh on one of last year’s GoDaddy ads featuring a long, loud, disturbing kiss between supermodel Bar Refaeli and a nerdy young man. Social media responded with a resounding “ick.” This year, the Not Buying It campaigners are offering a location-based app expressly designed for venting about sexist Super Bowl ads.
The Web services company is toning things down for Super Bowl XLVIII, and their new direction has a specific and rather notable goal — to show what GoDaddy actually does. In doing so, however, they’re taking a big risk: Despite the negative publicity, GoDaddy reported record sales after last year’s Super Bowl. This time around, the campaign is going for a new segment by using female characters touted as “smart, successful small-business owners” to show off the brand’s small-business tools.
“Axe’s intent is definitely to employ a more mature, sophisticated tone of voice across all of its communication,” David Kolbusz, deputy executive creative director of BBH London, said through a spokesperson. “But we’ve been making the shift in small ways for several years now. It was never intended to be reactive to some of the Super Bowl advertising that has been perceived as sexist. It’s more a response to changing social mores. Young men grow up faster these days and have concerns beyond the fairer sex.”So are advertisers responding to popular backlash or simply adjusting their brands? Could be a little of both.
It’s too early to tell whether this year’s ads will be geared toward viewers who have outgrown juvenile stereotypes of women as sex objects or shopaholics. It takes creativity and a high risk tolerance to aim higher. “Telling an engaging story is much more difficult to do than just using sex for its shock appeal,” Drewniany said.
But the reward of a memorable ad is worth the risk. Women make 85% of average household purchases, and catering to their sensibilities could be the difference between being a cultural phenomenon and just another blip in a sea of channel surfing. The question is: Can they pull it off?
Why you should care
Advertisers bet big on your attention between Super Bowl plays — maybe this year they’ll do a better job of earning it.