Super Bowl

Super Bowl commercials' portrayal of women has improved, but not much, study finds

The survey asked consumers whether women were portrayed respectfully and appropriately

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Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer
Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer Credit: Anheuser-Busch

The portrayal of women in Super Bowl commercials improved this year, but not as much as you might think, based on the more prominent roles that women played in many ads, according to a new study.

Research firm ABX said respondents to an online survey gave some ads starring actresses relatively low marks for how they depicted women. That was the case for AB InBev's Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer, featuring two mermaids; Procter & Gamble Co.'s Olay, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar in a spoof of her '90s horror flick roles; and Mars' M&Ms, with Christina Applegate scolding M&Ms characters for misbehaving.

On a scale where 100 is average for all ads tested in the ABX database, those ads all scored below average for their portrayal of women, at 84, 92 and 93 respectively.

The study surveyed a nationally representative panel of 150 people for each ad and asked whether women were present in the ads and portrayed respectfully, appropriately and as role models.

ABX, which tests all ads it can find in all media with online survey respondents, is working with the Association of National Advertisers' #SeeHer initiative to track gender equality in ads. The ABX Super Bowl research wasn't conducted for or sanctioned by the ANA.

Overall, women were featured in 41 Super Bowl ads this year, down from 45 last year, while men were featured in 47, down from 52, ABX says. The general score for women's portrayal in Super Bowl ads this year averaged 98.4, up from 95.9 last year. But both scores fell below the index average of 100, and year-over-year improvement wasn't enough to be statistically significant, ABX President Gary Getto says.

One of the best-scoring ads for its portrayal of women came from dating and networking app Bumble and featured Serena Williams at 115. It was bested only by Verizon's ad at 117, featuring the first responders who saved Los Angeles Chargers Head Coach Anthony Lynn.

On the other hand, ads featuring mermaids didn't fare well. Sprint's ad, which featured robots alongside Bo Jackson carrying a mermaid, got a low score of 81. Bon & Viv's ad, also with a below-average score, portrayed women dressed as mermaids as founders of the brand. The brand was actually launched by a man. And an actress has criticized the casting process for the Bon & Viv ad, saying women were asked to wear a bikini and dance during the audition.

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