Super Bowl LV advertisers disappoint on diversity in the director's chair
Though diversity was apparent on screen during the Super Bowl commercials, with spots from major advertisers featuring multicultural ensembles as well as people of color in leading roles, progress on Big Game casting was stagnant, according to a recent report from the Association of National Advertisers’ Alliance for Inclusive & Multicultural Marketing (AIMM). Forty-five percent of the ads reflected inclusive casting, remaining at the same level compared to last year. But behind the camera, the story is even worse.
According to credits provided by agencies and advertisers for all the spots that ran nationally during the game, Ad Age determined that there were only three women, and at most five people of color, in the director’s chair, accounting for only 9.2% of the 87 ads that ran nationally and during the game.
Sophie Gold, a Black production veteran who runs her own production firm, called Eleanor, says, “I’m so disheartened that on advertising’s biggest stage, brands and agencies abandoned their pledges, black boxes and grandiose statements in favor of ‘safe’ white directors while patting themselves on the back for increased diversity on camera, which is performative.”
In 2016, Director Alma Har’el made waves in the industry when she introduced the Free the Bid initiative. It called for the ad and marketing industry to commit to ensuring gender diversity in the director’s chair, given the lack of female talent stepping behind the camera in commercials. The organization eventually expanded to Free the Work to broaden the call for diversity to also include BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] and other groups. Such efforts and societal forces such as the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter seemed to propel the industry to take action, leading to some movement, at least in the case of female directors. From 2017 through 2020, three to four women took the helm of national spots for major brands, according to data compiled by Ad Age as well as Free the Bid/Free the Work.
Since founding Free the Bid (now Free the Work) five years ago, “we've seen the awareness of diversity and representation in front of the camera soar around the world,” says Har’el.
But the pandemic seems to have set the industry back when it comes to what happens on set.
“Things are shifting for some of us, but not for most of us,” Har’el says.“With COVID keeping people off sets, we see that agencies and brands revert to their old ‘white-men-we-can-trust’ tactics.“
The shifting trends in front of, and behind, the camera suggest that brands and agencies may simply be performatively following the sway of the zeitgeist, rather than embracing DEI at their core.
“We are elated by the number of new organizations and databases fighting for representation, but also discouraged when they're announced with no discourse to follow,” Har’el says. “Brands and agencies who only do something when the tide of demonstrations is high, or when Black history month is celebrated, have no real stakes in the mission to make equality a reality. Our partners who commit to this mission all year see results because they're not just virtue signaling on days social media rewards them.”
Production company Somesuch is known for having a diverse roster across gender and ethnicity. Its director Kim Gehrig, one of the industry’s A-Listers, saw 80% of the Super Bowl scripts that the company received, says Co-Founder Sally Campell. Gehrig passed on most, due to schedule or the creative, with the exception of one, which she lost to a white male director.
Another veteran production company head expressed frustration over the Super Bowl in particular, noting how their top diverse talents had bid multiple Big Game spots and were often the agency’s recommended director. “We lost almost every one of those spots because someone felt it was safer to go with the director that had a ‘proven track record,’” the exec says. “This is very disappointing to see after the commitments we have heard in the last few years.”
“For all of the talk of agencies and clients making more of an effort to hire outside of white and male, we aren’t seeing much evidence of it outside of the creative agencies who always hire based on talent and are making the same strides towards anti-racism as we are,” Campbell says.
Pete Favat, creative chairman of Deutsch L.A. had posted a story last week on Instagram observing how he was hard-pressed to find directors attached to game-day ads who weren’t white men. “This year it seems like most people bet on familiarity, but we all have to cast a wider net; the talent is out there,” he says. “The industry has made progress with who is in front of the camera, but when it comes to behind the camera, it is clear we have more work to do.”
One production vet with more than 20 years of experience also observes that who sits in the director’s chair also impacts the rest of the set. “Black directors tend to hire more Black crew people, women often hire more women, so if you don’t hire Black or female talents, in general, you’ll see less diversity overall on set.”
Beyond the Bowl
Interestingly, in the past year or so, outside of the Super Bowl, some production execs have observed that advertisers and agencies have been more open to considering diverse directors.
“On almost every job, we’re getting calls to send in reels for Black, POC or female talents,” one senior production exec says. “They don’t necessarily get bid, but they are asking for reels. Some people have actually said we are going to hire POC or women, so don’t even send anyone who isn’t—but we got no calls like that for a Super Bowl ad.”
Even when diverse talents are given a shot, however, some observe they’re often sold short.
“We have been getting a lot of calls for Black History Month, but they’ll come back and say, ‘Oh, but we have half the budget,'" says the aforementioned production exec. "They want a Black director but only have a $150,000 budget when the job would usually call for $300,000.”
Also, there’s the pigeonholing. “From the more conservative agencies it’s the same as usual, unless it’s a script about racial inequity backed by a brand,” says Campbell. “Then it’ll be sent to one of our Black directors, which is absolutely missing the point—equity is all people seeing the same work,” she says.
“Generally, during pandemic production, there has been a big move towards ‘insider’ awards,” says Free the Work Chief Operating Officer and Director of Partnerships Pamala Buzick. It’s “very relationship-driven or there’s a 'must go with known’ factor since the agency is not able to physically be on set to be as involved, leading to a lack of underrepresented directors—namely female and BIPOC.” However, some of Free the Work's partners, she says, “have far exceeded their goals for diverse representation, particularly during the pandemic. Addressing the lack of diversity behind the lens is about commitment year-round, not just when convenient.”
PepsiCo, one of the game's longstanding advertisers, has tapped female talent to direct its Big Game spots over the years, but for 2021, all three of the company's Super Bowl spots were helmed by white male directors. That said, PepsiCo last fall announced its company-wide Racial Equality Journey, in which it has committed more than $570 million to support Black and Hispanic communities, increase representation and more. With regards to subsidiary Frito-Lay, Senior VP-Portfolio Marketing Marissa Solis told Ad Age for a story earlier today, “We aim to represent the diverse makeup of the communities in which we live and operate in our creative, and that was no different with our Super Bowl spots. We also make sure the creative is authentic and reflects the brand and the context in which we are engaging consumers."
Despite the apparent setbacks, some are setting an example. Game day’s biggest advertiser, Anheuser-Busch, which had five spots in the game, also had arguably the best score when it came to director diversity. Though none of its ads were directed by women, two were helmed by Black directors, Calmatic of Prettybird and Spike Lee; and one by Reset’s Adam Hashemi, who is Danish and Iranian, though he hesitates to be considered as a POC in consideration of the struggles faced by others (“I don’t want to be exploitative because I can’t say I have been limited in a way I am certain others have,” he says.)
“As one of the largest and longest-running advertisers in the Super Bowl, we want to lead by example,” says Anheuser-Busch Chief Marketing Officer Marcel Marcondes.” We knew we had an opportunity to advance diversity in advertising by encouraging our teams to reflect the diverse American consumers we seek to engage by leveraging multicultural talent in front of, and behind, the camera on advertising's biggest stage. We are proud of our work this year but recognize there is always more to do, and we'll continue to use the many platforms we have to reflect our commitment to diverse and inclusive advertising."
One major advertiser accounting for more than 30% of the game’s negligible pool of diverse talents, however, shows that the industry still has a long way to go in terms of director DEI.
Prettybird director Calmatic, who directed AB InBev's "All-Star Cast" ad for Michelob Ultra featuring celebrity lookalikes, says that he had written treatments for three Super Bowl ads and scored with that one. However, he knows many others aren't so fortunate. "I’m totally aware that there are directors of color that exist, but the fact that their names aren’t on the tip of my tongue the way other directors are is the issue," he says.
“Globally, the film and commercial business is a world that is very comfortable with the status quo, and its habits are hard to break,” adds director Hashemi. “For that reason, the industry has to be put under constant pressure to try for more diversity. If not, the wave that started a few years back runs the risk of becoming a fad.”
“As one of our directors said, ‘It’s not my job to alleviate white people of their guilt,’” says Somesuch’s Campbell. “Super Bowl is a perfect and depressing example of this, and the fact that it’s regressed this year is a devastating sign of a return by many to racist complacency. That’s why it’s even more vital that we don’t give up, don’t give in, work our asses off and keep questioning.”