Super Bowl Female Ads: Nice Try but No Cigar

Most Spots Were Off the Mark in Humor and Charm

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Nice try but no cigar yet for female-targeted Super Bowl ads. Overall, marketers in this year's broadcast showed a new sensitivity to women consumers but most still didn't get the details quite right.
Super Bowl 06
Dove's 'Self Esteem' spot was right on the money.
Anheuser-Busch's 'American Dream' was also a winner for women viewers.

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43 million women
With a few exceptions, the ads in this year's big game were a big yawn. If any of them truly aspired to connect with the 43 million women who tuned in to watch, they showed a marked lack of ambition.

And let's face it -- advertising on the Super Bowl demands ambition. If you're not willing to swing for the fences, to mix a metaphor, then don't waste your money. A significant percentage of today's viewers tune in for the ads as much as for the game. That means the bar is set unnaturally high -- different standards apply. Not only do you have to meet the challenge of all good advertising -- command attention, communicate a relevant message and compel more sales -- but you have to do it with enough wit or warmth or both to elicit a "Good one!" from the crowd on the couch or the next day at the water cooler. An "everyday" ad -- like Overstock's spot, Aleve's "Mr. Spock" ad or the one Blockbuster Online ran not once but thrice! -- is almost guaranteed to fall flat, simply because expectations are set so much higher than "everyday."

Emotional, nurturing creatures
Being the emotional, nurturing creatures they are, women love the big, gorgeous, warm ads that feel like Kodak or Hallmark. There were a couple of terrific entries this year, including the stunningly lovely Dove campaign for girls' self-esteem, and that sweet Clydesdale colt with a grown-up dream to pull the Budweiser wagon.

In the warm and funny category, my two favorite ads turn out to be winners of the "Most likely to be overlooked by Super Bowl ratings lists" awards. First, there was American Airlines' wonderful "Tickets for Two" ad, which tapped into a female fantasy of a man who not only cherishes his woman enough to spirit her off on an unexpected vacation, but also gives at least a moment's thought to what shoes and nail polish she might likely want with her. (I told you it was a fantasy!) And then there was the "I'm going to Disney World!" spot; I doubt it's very often all these rough, tough NFL players are called "adorable," but there's just no other word for it! What a brilliant way to bring that wilted signature line back to life, rescuing it from the cultural dustbin in a way that could not have been more charming.

So kudos to the charmers for a great creative effort. But then there's the classic conundrum of editorial context. As a general rule, an ad that is aligned with the loud and rowdy spirit of the party is probably going to slip more smoothly onto viewers' radar screens than one that requires him or her to downshift to a different mood for 30 seconds. While a tug of the heartstrings may be a perfect fit for the Academy Awards, when it comes to the Super Bowl, viewers are more primed to deliver a shout of laughter than a teary eye.

Women's humor is different
So how do you make a lady laugh? Not surprisingly, women's humor is often different from men's, because it is grounded in the particular language and customs of its own gender culture. For most men, whose world-view is hierarchical and whose interest is in establishing a place on the pyramid, humor is usually outer-directed, basically ridicule aimed at someone lower down the ladder. Just look at the language: Expressions like "the butt of the joke," "the joke's on him," "he can't take a joke" and "practical joke" capture the key dynamic of what's funny for men -- humor is about losers. Great examples of the genre include the AmeriQuest "oops!" commercials; Sprint's "my phone's better than yours" spot; Michelob Ultra's "His and hers flying tackles" spot; and GoDaddy's "Congressman's heart attack" ad.

For most women, who see the world as one big peer group and who are more often looking for what they have in common with other people, rather than what they have that's better than others, humor originates in a flash of recognition: "Ohmigosh, that's just the way it is with me. I am so exactly like that!" And the nominees are ... few and far between. Best I can come up with is Tostitos "three guys and a working woman" ad.

There are signs that a certain number of advertisers have figured out the Super Bowl is a great way to reach women. Now the next step is to figure out how to reach women effectively, i.e., how to connect with them in a way that's relevant, clear and evocative. And that typically takes three swings of the pendulum. The first try tends to come out too pink; the second, too beige. And then the third's a charm, as the agency team hones in on how to speak to women in a way that resonates with who they really are.

Why it matters
Everybody should. Women buy the majority of almost everything; not just packaged goods, but financial services, home improvement, consumer electronics, personal computers, new cars ... the list goes on. Turns out the "highly coveted target of men 18-34" (it's always called the "highly coveted target") doesn't really buy much of anything, except for maybe fast food and beer.

Women buy "only" about 40% of the beer sold in the U.S. -- hardly worth thinking about, I guess. But wait -– didn't I just read that Anheuser-Busch sales were off almost 1.8 share points, with earnings down 18%? Given that nobody -- but nobody -- in the beer category is targeting women, doesn't it seem like maybe the field is wide open for somebody smart to jump in and secure share with the fairer sex?

That goes for all the advertisers who decide to run ads in the Super Bowl. Given the incredible amount of cash invested to make and air a Super Bowl spot, isn't aspiring only to be inoffensive to women aiming rather low? Wouldn't there be an enormous return to actually wooing them and winning their business? A radical idea, I know. Just asking.

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Marti Barletta's book "Marketing to Women" was released in its second edition this January, and her new book, "Trends," co-authored with Tom Peters, was released in July. Ms. Barletta is Founder & CEO of The TrendSight Group, a Chicago-based consultancy specializing in marketing to women.

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