Challenging the Male Gaze of Super Bowl Commercials
by Alexis Baro
This much we know: women watch the Super Bowl. Yes, the Super Bowl is traditionally a day filled with appetizers and rowdy cheering, but as it has gained popularity, the annual football game has become more than a game for men to watch in the confines of their man caves. Instead, recent years have seen the Super Bowl become a more family-oriented spectacle, with men, women, and children tuning in together.
Be it from personal experience as a spectator or from the barrage of tweets on game day, just about everyone is familiar with what can be considered the defining moments of the Super Bowl: the commercials. Most viewers eagerly await the usually compelling, thought-provoking commercials that are played at breaks, but sometimes the nature of these commercials are questionable.
Sports Business Daily estimates that women comprise about 46% of the Super Bowl’s viewing audience, a number that has steadily grown over the past decade. While these numbers aren’t exactly equal, it is clear that women watch the Super Bowl. However, commercials often overlook this staggering number of female viewers, instead catering to society’s ideals of what men should want.
Unfortunately, far too many companies use their 30 seconds of airtime (valued at over $4 million!) as a means of promoting images surrounding stereotypical male culture, contributing to a bias that favors male audiences. Now, the term “Super Bowl commercial” automatically prompts recollections of ads that feature scantily clad women or plot lines that are outright degrading to women. Society has become so accustomed to witnessing this type of routine misogyny and objectification that we can fail to recognize it.
In 2015 alone, numerous commercials exhibited ideals that were fundamentally contrary to the dignity of women. For example, Carl’s Jr., notorious for using sexism to sell their products, released an ad featuring model Charlotte McKinney. She walks through an outdoor market, barely clothed, and ultimately is shown enjoying a Carl’s Jr. all-natural burger. This ad equates women to their bodies and literally attempts to use a woman’s body as a means of endorsing their hamburgers.
A second example, the classic Victoria’s Secret commercial, is certainly aimed at the male viewing audience. Women walking around, again, barely clothed, hardly makes other women want to buy underwear. What this type of marketing does, however, is, once again, entice men. Men are meant to be intrigued by the models and then somehow relay that curiosity into purchasing women’s undergarments.
Admittedly, these commercializations of products—and women, for that matter—are geared toward men. The ads are meant to portray women in a distinct light, one that reduces them to their bodies, and to show men what an ideal female is, as well as what their own role should be. A 2010 commercial by Flo TV depicted an exemplary man. The ad shows a man shopping with his girlfriend, and he clearly doesn’t want to be there. He is dragged along to purchase scented candles at the whim of his seemingly controlling girlfriend, while all he wants to do is watch the big game. Ultimately, it is said that the man has had his spine removed by his girlfriend, and it reflects the idea that women can threaten masculinity and make men less than they should be under the patriarchy’s standard.
Somehow, this is meant to inspire men to take control of their lives and buy a handheld TV. Nonetheless, this commercial perfectly epitomizes the issue at hand: men are portrayed and expected to act in a certain manner, and women are supposed to willingly oblige, while being beautiful at the same time.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned ads are only a sliver of the extensive collection out there—out of dozens of 2014 car commercials, only two feature women behind the wheel. Ad agencies clearly have work to do when it comes to breaking the cycle of male-directed commercials, especially considering the growing number of female viewers. So, how do we transform a male-dominated culture in an increasingly male-female field?
Recent years have seen a bit of positive change, with the company Always working to promote female empowerment through the uplifting #likeagirl commercial. The commercial truly is an amazing one, as it is a reminder to consider the way we treat girls in a traditionally patriarchal world. However, while we should all welcome such a positive message, it’s important to consider the implications of telling a girl she can do anything right after she’s seen countless commercials objectifying women. This is, ultimately, the heart of the problem. As much as we try to add new and positive things to solve the issue of gender imbalances in the media, it won’t work. That is, our efforts won’t prove effective until we completely rid ourselves of the idea that we need to convey gender in different ways. To combat the sexist media, we can’t simply add things—we have to change things.
And, by the way, let’s try reminding ad makers that women wear clothes, can be independent without being controlling, and also happen to drive cars, too.