It wasn't so long ago that it was common, even expected, to see a woman seductively eating a cheeseburger or trading flowers for sex during the Super Bowl.
Marketers have been exploiting women as sex objects for decades to peddle cars, beer and snacks, and no more visibly than on TV's biggest stage.
But as the country reels from what seems like daily revelations of new sexual harassment allegations, with women standing up to tell their stories of abuse in the workplace, microscopic scrutiny will be applied to the way Super Bowl advertisers portray women in the game Feb. 4.
Some of the worst offenders over the years, like GoDaddy and Carl's Jr.—check out this list of some of the most sexist Super Bowl ads—have cooled their objectification of women in recent years. There's a less obvious problem, however, that continues to make the so-called Ad Bowl a reflection of male privilege: a huge, persistent gap between the number of men who are front and center in Super Bowl ads and the number of women in big roles.
So while brands may refrain from showcasing scantily clad women—to be sure, just 6% of Super Bowl commercials had sexual messages over the last decade according to research out of Villanova University—in many cases, they simply aren't featuring women at all.
Over the last decade, 76% of Super Bowl ads featured men as the principle character, says Raymond Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business. And twice as many male celebrities starred in Super Bowl commercials as female celebrities during the same period.
In last year's Super Bowl LI, more than 2.5 times as many leading ad roles went to men than to women, 61 for men compared with 23 for women, according to the Ad Age Super Bowl Archive, which excludes movie trailers and TV promos. That's just slightly better than five years earlier, when men got more than 3 times as many key parts as women—60 for men and 18 for women.
Of the ads that included adult humans (and excluding move trailers), 14 didn't include any women while just 1 lacked any men: a World of Tanks commercial that spoofed "The Real Housewives" by driving a tank through a hair-pulling brawl.
Women appear far more often in the background as party guests or love interests.
"There is a major improvement in terms of stereotypes, both male and female, being reduced, but what's happening is women are being left out of the narrative entirely," says Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Movement, which promotes more gender and ethnic diversity among creative directors.
For the past five years, Gordon and her team have hosted Super Bowl viewing parties where agencies open their doors to creatives to discuss how women are represented in big game ads and share their takes in social media. "We have gone from women being gratuitous to women being completely absent."
Despite the inordinate amount of attention expected to be paid to how brands cast, script and clothe the women in their Super Bowl commercials this time around, diversity advocate Cindy Gallop doesn't expect anything significant to change.
"All it means is there are a lot of white male creatives saying we better be careful how we depict women," Gallop says. "I guarantee we will see tone-deaf, unthinking depictions, just as many as years before."
The issue, according to Gallop, is the lack of females creating and approving the ads. This means "the default setting is male" and leads to a funny ad that features men.
"When we have as many, if not more, female creatives as men…not only will we see better depictions of women but better depictions of men," Gallop says.
It's not only the surge of attention to harassment and gender equity that is pressuring brands to do better. The Super Bowl audience has changed over the years until there are now nearly as many women as men who will tune in.
Last year 54 million women watched the Super Bowl, 49% of the total audience. That's up from 39 million women who watched the game in 2009, just under 40% of the total. The 2009 game, as it happens, was the last Super Bowl to average under 100 million viewers. In other words, the game's recent audience growth owes a lot to new female viewership.
And as Gallop points out, women tend to be the primary purchasers or primary influencers on most products.
Essential for growth
For the beer category, which is looking to bring in women drinkers to drive growth, it's become essential to rethink stereotypical marketing like the Budweiser and Bud Light Super Bowl spots from the early 2000s. Between 2001 and 2004 the Anheuser-Busch brands ran several Super Bowl ads depicting women as nags.
Azania Andrews, VP of marketing at Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra, says both A-B and Michelob shifted their marketing tactics a while ago. While Michelob Ultra won't specifically set out during the Super Bowl to make a statement on women's rights, Andrews says the brand will continue to strive to represent women and men in an authentic way.
"We are really focused on not playing into stereotypes of either gender or push gender bias," she says. "It is really important for the growth of the category. We need women to drink beer, so it is not to our advantage to portray them negatively in any way. It is something we think about every day and will take into the development of our Super Bowl ad."
And as brands look to target more millennial viewers, Andrews says, "it does a brand a disservice to play into these old tropes. Young people today, it's not how they function. They are interacting with the world in a much more gender-neutral way."
Even brands who became known for their raunchy depictions of women have realized the need to change course.
Carl's Jr. announced it was re-steering its marketing in March to focus on food—a stark departure from its racy ads, like its 2015 regional Super Bowl spot starring model Charlotte McKinney.
"I'm proud to be part of the new leadership team who is telling the world the real story of Carl's Jr.," says Jeff Jenkins, chief marketing officer at Carl's Jr. and Hardee's parent CKE Restaurants, in an email. "We are focusing our advertising and marketing strategy where it should be—on our great tasting, high-quality food. Moving forward, we will continue to be impossible to ignore, but with our food as our star."
GoDaddy began revamping its marketing strategy in 2013, replacing its too-hot-for-TV antics with a woman quitting her job during the game to start her own company. A spokesman for the brand declined to comment for this article.
Villanova's Taylor says there's an opportunity for brands to make "sensible, pro-women" statements, by which he means depicting female empowerment that does not come "at the expense of men."
"The whole #metoo movement involves bad actions from men towards women, but how do you frame it positively toward women without coming across badly toward men?" Taylor says, adding that marketers should encourage men to become part of the solution.
Nothing is risk-free
But these types of messages don't come without risk. Take Audi, which dove head-first into promoting equal pay for women with its 2017 Super Bowl ad. In it, a father cheered on his young daughter in a downhill cart race while pondering how society to will view her worth. "What should I tell my daughter… that she will automatically be valued less than every man she'll ever meet?"
While the overall reaction was positive, some critics called it disingenuous. They pointed to the company's own executive ranks, where at the time only two of the 14 USA executive team were women.
"Elevating a topic like pay equality on a national stage was bound to spark conversation and drive awareness, which was the goal," says Loren Angelo, VP of marketing at Audi of America, in an email. "We think the spot nailed it. When you see high-profile individuals like Sheryl Sandberg and Ashton Kutcher re-posting the spot, you know you've struck a chord."
Since the commercial aired, Audi has created two grants to support female leaders in STEM and film and supported several women's conferences. It also added a requirement that half of the enrollment in its existing graduate internship program must be women.
While Gallop, who late last year issued a call to action for advertising professionals to speak up about sexual harassers in the industry, praised the Audi commercial, she says brands should refrain from playing on the #metoo movement.
"I don't want to see any brand or agency doing things with #metoo," she says. "I want to see them ending harassment within their ranks."