From a barefoot Kenyan runner to making light of the crises in Tibet, Super Bowl commercials – indicative of the industry as a whole – haven’t been a beacon of inclusivity. In fact, in some cases, Big Game ads have been outright racist, misogynistic and sexist.
There are the very obvious blunders like Just For Feet’s 1999 spot “Kenyan Runner,” Groupon’s 2011 “Tibet” and Salesgenie’s 2008 spot “Pandas,” which was criticized for the animated animals’ over-the-top accents.
While most Super Bowl commercials don’t go as far as Holiday Inn’s 1997 “Bob Johnson” ad, which compares the hotel’s upgrades to gender affirmation surgery, perhaps, just as problematic has been the widespread absence of any real effort to tell more inclusive stories.
Amid the renewed social justice movement sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers last spring, Super Bowl LV will be closely watched for how well it embraces inclusivity and pushes for accurate representation.
This doesn’t mean brands must lean into social justice messaging in order to honor the movement. Marketers will be judged in 2021 by how they are “prioritizing the use of cultural insights in the content in order to connect with consumers at the heart, thus maximizing corporate growth,” says Aaron Walton, CEO and founder of the agency Walton Isaacson, whose Super Bowl experience has included 2018's "Black Panther"-themed spot for Lexus.
“As one can see, the emphasis is on accurate representation and on the prioritization of cultural insights,” Walton adds. “These are filters through which we should be looking at Super Bowl work in 2021. Not simply in terms of inclusive casting – but in terms of how consumers of color and of diverse cultural backgrounds are represented – how their lives and values are reflected. What roles are they given to play and what messages are conveyed?”
But to be sure, at the very basic level, representation in casting has been lackluster.
In Super Bowl 2020, 26 people of color had starring or featured roles in ads, compared to 41 white actors and actresses, according to Ad Age’s Super Bowl Ad Archive. This does not include ensemble cast members or those with minor roles in the ad.
There were several ads last year that made strides in diversifying casting, including TurboTax’s “All People Are Tax People” and Sabra’s “How We Muss.” Those ads had cameos from drag queens and transgender actors and actresses, two deaf women, and people of various races and ethnicities.
“Casting is a last opportunity for diversity and inclusion, it is a last chance,” says Jay Kim, president, AAAZA, which stands for Asian American A to Z agency. “It should happen from the beginning of the script.”
The Asian community is also grossly underrepresented in Super Bowl ads, much of which is a factor of the National Football League not speaking to the group and no recognizable Asian players in the league like the National Basketball Association's Jeremy Lin, he says. According to Ad Age’s archive, there were only three cases of Asian representation in Super Bowl ads last year, and none of those were in lead roles.
And when Asian Americans are cast, Kim says it is usually in stereotypical roles “and we have to raise a red flag and say you can’t do that.” The end result, is often removing Asian representation entirely, he adds.
Walton says brands often “conflate casting with culture” and when they do cast diverse actors and actresses they put them in secondary roles. They also don’t use diverse directors, producers, post houses or agency teams.
If you take a look at the Super Bowl ads that got it wrong, most resorted to stereotypes and clichés as a way to check a box. There are the exaggerated accents, generic gay jokes, sexualization of women or turning them into the nagging wife.
“It’s seems paradoxical, but the more specific a story, the more universal it can be. And yet, most marketers shy away from telling deeply cultural stories, allowing Black consumer life or Latinx consumer life – any ‘marginalized’ groups life to come through in a very specific way,” Walton says. “They are afraid mass audiences won’t understand or relate. They fear backlash. But the reality is, and one can see it in the successful work mentioned, when the work is specific it touches everyone’s heart.”
When looking at LGBTQ+ representation in last year’s game, for example, while there were at least 13 people who identified as LGBTQ+ appearing in commercials. While GLAAD recognized this as the largest representation of the community in the Big Game to date, “the spots really weren’t all that queer,” Walton says. He adds that they mostly stuck to “conventional hetero-normative narratives.”
Lucas Crigler, associate creative director, McCann, says there’s been little true effort made in representing the transgender community. He points to the Pop Tart’s spot last year starring “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness. Crigler says while the commercial was fitting for Van Ness’ on-screen person, “it would have been nice to hit a little harder on his pronouns somehow in the spot as perhaps most people only perceive him to be a cis gay man.” Van Ness identifies as non-binary, Crigler notes.
And in TurboTax’s ad there’s a cameo from Trace Lysette and Isis King, two transgender women, who play ballroom judges. “This isn’t horrible, but in my opinion it’s not the best representation of trans women,” Crigler says. “This ‘ballroom’ trope has been overdone as of late and trans people exist outside of the ballroom scene. We have jobs and families just like anyone else.”
GLAAD praised last year’s efforts around LGBTQ+ representation. “For years we were invisible, or if we were included it was poking fun,” says Rich Ferraro, chief communications officer, GLAAD.
There was significant blow-back, for example, following the 2007 Snickers ad, “Mechanics,” which shows two men overreacting after an accidental kiss, with critics saying at the time that kind of response helps fuel anti-gay bullying.
Ferraro says last year’s spots were praised on social media for including diversity inside the LGBTQ+ community with people like Lil Nas X and Van Ness who is non-binary.
There have been fits and starts when it comes to accurate representation in ads. In particular, 2014 was an important year for such efforts, Walton points out. In 2013, Cheerios introduced Gracie, the daughter of a biracial family, which was well received despite some online haters. In response to the trollers, Cheerios brought Gracie to the Super Bowl in 2014 and introduced a new baby to the family.
Coca-Cola also ran the “It’s Beautiful” spot, which featured languages spanning English, Spanish, Keres, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French and Hebrew. In 2018, Coke won plaudits with its "The Wonder of Us" spot that broke ground by very subtly using the gender-neutral pronoun “them” to refer to a non-binary person. “Coca-Cola just told thousands of non-binary people, ‘We see you,’” is how one LGBTQ org put it.
The 2014 game also saw Microsoft make its Super Bowl debut with “Empowering,” an ad that starred former NFL player Steve Gleason, who is battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, using eye-tracking on a Surface Pro tablet to speak.
Microsoft’s 2019 ad featuring children with disabilities playing Xbox, is another Super Bowl commercial that gets high marks for inclusivity, says Storm Smith, producer, BBDO LA. “It showed how motivated they were to play to win the game. Their disability didn’t matter. It shows them laughing and having fun and with a competitive nature. That was beautiful. It shows how children with disabilities are like any other children who want to have fun and are gamers,” she says, adding that Microsoft made that specific product more accessible as well.
Pepsi’s 2008 pre-game spot “Bob’s House,” was also significant in the deaf community, Storm says. In the commercial, two deaf men are reenacting in sign language a famous deaf joke: they are in a car trying to find their friend’s house (who is also deaf) but they don’t know where it is. So they honk their horn and look to see which house on the street doesn’t turn on their lights, indicating they didn’t hear the horn.
“This one was really iconic for our community,” Smith says.
Both the Microsoft and Pepsi spots, she says, “show inclusiveness, diverseness and the storytelling is more than just about pointing out we are deaf or have a physical disability. These are not just ‘oh my gosh that’s so sad that person with a disability.’”
And another key point in both of the ads is that these communities were the stars of the spots, not the sidekick. “It is really easy to become a check box,” she says.
Smith notes that is the direction that needs to be enhanced in this year’s Super Bowl.