This year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials will feature two drag queens, an all-female cast, Ellen DeGeneres and her wife, and a “Queer Eye” guy. It's a step in better representing modern society by casting more diverse ethnicities, lifestyles and cultural perspectives in the Big Game. It’s an effort that shouldn’t further fracture a divided nation, but Sabra Chief Marketing Officer Jason Levine says, “Inclusive marketing, even under the best intentions, can find itself feeding into the divisiveness of the country.”
And if there is one goal nearly all Super Bowl LIV advertisers have, it’s to not alienate a particular group or political ideology.
To that end, those who are at least attempting to recast Super Bowl commercials, which historically have not been friendly to women or minorities, are doing so in the least controversial way possible--—by cushioning them with humor.
For its second consecutive Super Bowl ad, Olay was inspired by shows like Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Fleabag” in its effort to depict women in roles typically held by men, especially in the fields of science and technology.
Starring an all-female cast of celebrities, including YouTuber Lilly Singh, comedian Busy Philipps, Taraji P. Henson, Katie Couric and retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, the space-themed commercial, “Make Space for Women,” makes light of the fact that as a society we have not historically made space for women.
“We wanted to make a spot that focused on the idea that there’s plenty of space for women, there’s plenty of space for everyone, but do it in a way that everyone got the joke,” says Madonna Badger, whose agency, Badger & Winters, created the ad.
Badger calls the tone of the commercial “humor with a social purpose.”
“When we offer optimism about problems that seem unsolvable, comedy resonates with audiences and creates a really simple gateway or door for us to have an increased understanding of complex issues,” she says. “Beneath our playful story is a very sophisticated and substantial message.”
This strategy, Badger says, resonates with millennial women who “love their humor mixed with who they are and what they can do.”
But Olay isn’t looking to solely speak to these women. Quite the opposite. “We wanted to do it in a way that embraces everyone,” Badger says. “It’s a women-first message everyone can appreciate, men, children, teenagers, millennials, Gen X-ers.”
It’s a similar approach taken by Sabra hummus, which will make its first foray into the Super Bowl with a commercial that stars Kim Chi and Miz Cracker from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” feuding “Real Housewives of New Jersey” stars Teresa Giudice and Caroline Manzo and rapper T-Pain, among others, in an effort to speak to the entire nation of potential hummus consumers.
“There’s something for everyone in this ad,” Sabra CMO Levine says, noting the upbeat, humorous spot takes an “apolitical” approach.
Not taking sides
Even as brands make a social statement or look to be more inclusive in their representation of America, they are being careful not to take a political stance in the Super Bowl.
Budweiser avoided anything that even carries the hint of politics in its “Typical Americans” spot, which features viral videos of everyday people engaging in acts of kindness and triumph juxtaposed to negative stereotypes of Americans.
As the voiceover bemoans that “typical Americans” are always “showing off their strength,” the ad shows a firefighter battling flames. “Look at him, touching other people’s things,” the ad continues, as a scene is shown of a man pushing someone else's car out of the snow. Other scenes include a soldier’s surprise homecoming—“showing up uninvited”—and a man giving his shirt to a shirtless man in a subway car—“removing their clothes in public.”
One part of the ad that could have potentially been controversial shows a clip of the founder of the Free Hugs initiative doling out embraces to a police officer during a protest march. Nowhere in the clip, however, is it clearly identifiable what issue the march was addressing.
“The use of these commonly used stereotypes against America was a means to help remind us that this is something that we are in together,” says Monica Rustgi, Budweiser’s VP of marketing. “These are stereotypes that we all collectively share. We strategically used those to help everyone see themselves as being on the same team, and then debunking those stereotypes and rising above.”
‘Pandering or fake’
While brands might be playing it safe in their efforts not to offend any group, there’s always a risk when attempting to be inclusive.
“It can come off as pandering or fake,” says Peter Daboll, CEO of Ace Metrix. “They are checking the boxes but it comes across as very awkward or forced.”
If the brand isn’t practicing what it preaches in hiring practices and in other parts of their business, it can appear as if it’s capitalizing on a cause for the brand’s own benefit, which can result in viewers feeling exploited, he adds.
True progress is also more than just casting female leads, minorities or LGBTQ in a spot or making a statement of support for any specific group. Instead, Daboll says, the goal should be normalizing same-sex relationships and women in roles traditionally played by men, for example. It’s about “representing contemporary society better rather than pushing a cause.”
Still a divide
There’s no denying there's a pressing need for Super Bowl ads to be more friendly to women, minorities and LGBTQ.
While it's been at least several years since Super Bowl commercials portrayed women as sex objects or the stereotypical nagging wife, women are still featured far less in Super Bowl commercials than men.
Last year, 21 women had starring or feature roles in Super Bowl commercials compared to about 43 men, according to Ad Age’s Super Bowl archive. And of the celebrities that appeared in Super Bowl LIII commercials, 25 were male while just 13 were female, according to data from E-Poll Market Research. (This does not include the 40 or so current and former football players that appeared in the National Football League’s spot.)
While things are moving in the right direction, the percentages are out of sync with the Super Bowl’s audience, which is nearly half female. Last year, 39.5 million women watched the Super Bowl, accounting for 46 percent of the 98.2 million viewers.
When it comes to LGBTQ representation, the situation is even bleaker. While there have been a few attempts made over the years to represent the community, such as Coca-Cola’s 2018 ad “The Wonder of Us,” which embraced gender-nonconforming pronouns, or Axe’s 2016 ad showing a man vogueing in heels, those efforts are few and far between.
That’s changing a bit this year. Ellen DeGeneres and her wife Portia de Rossi will star in Amazon's ad for its Alexa device; “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness will appear in a spot for Pop-Tarts, while rapper Lil Nas X, who came out as gay last year, will be featured in Doritos’ commercial.
Kim Chi, a South Korean-American drag queen, artist and TV personality best known as a contestant on season 8 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” says “Ten years ago if you would have said there would be a queer artist of color in a Super Bowl ad you would have laughed at it.”
This year, Kim Chi and Miz Cracker, another contestant from the show, are featured in Sabra’s spot.
“Growing up for me there weren’t many Asian representations in pop culture and gay role models were extremely, extremely rare,” Kim Chi says. “For me, to be that for an Asian kid growing up gay in a small town watching football with their family, that’s incredibly exciting.”
Join Ad Age on Jan. 28 as we bring together some of the top brands, agencies and creatives, including Hyundai, BBDO, Sabra hummus, Madonna Badger, Pop-Tarts and WeatherTech, to discuss what it takes to pull off a Super Bowl commercial.