Super Bowl

Super Bowl LIII commercials: The year of the woman

Toyota, Olay, Bumble and Michelob Ultra are among the brands putting women front-and-center in Big Game ads

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Serena Williams in Bumble's campaign
Serena Williams in Bumble's campaign Credit: Bumble

Female football players, kick-ass vampire slayers, and tennis superstars—when it comes to ads, Super Bowl LIII is shaping up to be the year of the woman.

While there's still a long way to go in improving the way women are portrayed not only in Super Bowl commercials but in all advertising, this year's Big Game is far and away the friendliest to its female audience.

Toyota, Bumble, Procter & Gamble's Olay and Michelob Ultra are among the brands featuring women in lead roles in their Super Bowl ads and leaning into themes of female empowerment. On top of that, there was also a noticeable push this year to hire more women behind the camera.

Considering nearly half of the Super Bowl audience is female, the shift certainly makes sense. Last year, 48.6 million women watched the Super Bowl, accounting for 47 percent of the 103.4 million viewers.

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 only 13 women had starring or feature roles in Super Bowl commercials compared to about 50 men, according to Ad Age's Super Bowl archive. (This does not include trailers for movies or TV shows and excludes animals and other non-humans). The year prior told a similar story: 61 men compared with 23 women. And out of the celebrities that appeared in Super Bowl LII commercials: 44 were male while just 12 were female, according to data from E-Poll Market Research.

This year, it at least appears the gap is narrowing, albeit slowly. Currently, there are 10 female celebrities slated to appear in Super Bowl ads compared with 19 of their male counterparts. This doesn't include the 40 or so football players the National Football League plans to feature in its Super Bowl ad, which are, of course, all men.

Of the full commercials released as of press time, there are more than double the amount of men than women in featured or starring roles (18 men compared with seven women).

But as the country continues to come to terms with over a year's worth of revelations regarding the sexual harassment and misconduct that pervades nearly every industry, there seems to be a push by marketers to be more inclusive. (It's also a relatively safe statement to make in what has become a minefield of potential political controversy marketers can easily step into.)

Bumble, the social networking app where women make the first move, is making women—both in front of and behind the camera—a cornerstone of its Super Bowl campaign. Not only does the spot star tennis pro Serena Williams, but the team who created the ad was predominantly comprised of women.

"As you know in the advertising world the number of female creatives is far less than the number of males, especially when it comes to Super Bowl ads," says Laura Hutfless, partner at FlyteVu Agency, which worked on the Bumble ad. "So if we were going to create a Super Bowl ad targeting women, we needed to have women writing the script—women understand women, so it made natural sense to us, that this ad needed to be created predominately by women."

The goal of the ad, Hutfless says, is to inspire "women who have been waiting for whatever it is in their life" to make the first move and not wait for it to come to them.

It was also important, Hutfless says, to feature a woman who is strong rather than overly sexualized, or in the supporting role, or make her appear weak, funny or sarcastic.

Similarly, Michelob Ultra made an intentional decision to both cast a woman—Zoe Kravitz—and employ a team of women to produce its spot for its new organic beer, Pure Gold.

"I am super proud of that," says Azania Andrews, VP of marketing at the Anheuser-Busch brew. "First and foremost, as a woman in marketing, a woman in beer, with all the conversations around diversity, I feel that I want to use my power for good and I feel a responsibility to try to create equity in the industry by creating opportunities for women."

One of the biggest issues in trying to improve diversity in advertising is actually finding the female talent, Andrews says. "When you ask somebody who are the leading female commercial directors, the list is not very long," she notes. "How do we change that so there are more storytellers out there that people are excited about working with."

It's also important to remember, Andrews says, that in many households, women are the key decision makers, especially for consumer packaged goods. So from a business perspective, it is important to put out creative that will motivate them and not make them feel alienated.

It's relatively rare to see very female-focused products advertised during the Super Bowl, when beer, soda, snacks and autos tend to dominate. But Olay will air its first commercial this year, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar (of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fame).

Other female celebrities set to star in ads include: Kristin Chenoweth for Avocados From Mexico, Christina Applegate in M&M's spot, and Sarah Jessica Parker reviving her role as Carrie Bradshaw in "Sex and the City" for Stella Artois.

Toyota is also leaning into female empowerment with a Super Bowl ad that features Antoinette "Toni" Harris, the first female football player who does not play a specialist position like kicker to be offered a football college scholarship. In Toyota's ad, released Tuesday, Harris is shown loading football gear into the back of a Toyota RAV4 and then doing some intense training. There's a voice over by Jim Nantz, who will call Sunday's game for CBS, about how she defied the odds.

"It's a perfect time in our society when women are becoming empowered as equal, more than equal, human beings. It's a fabulous story," Joe Pytka, who directed Toyota's commercial, said during a press briefing.

Contributing: Adrianne Pasquarelli, E.J. Schultz

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