Television

Super Bowl Commercials 2015: Solemn, Smart, Not Too Sexist

A few favorites

The trailer for the 2012 documentary film Miss Representation opens with a quote from author and activist Alice Walker:

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

When it comes to our entertainment, many of us consume what is put before us. We don’t feel that we have any power to influence the multi-million dollar investors who back terrible TV shows and awful advertising. How valuable are our voices in competition with their wallets?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s award-winning film “explores the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America, and challenges the media’s limited portrayal of what it means to be a powerful woman.” According to one advertising study, American young people spend 13.6 hours a week watching TV and 16.7 hours a week online. During that time, they are bombarded with images, many of which idealize certain body types, promote certain lifestyles and lack diversity of race and gender. Young people who don’t see people they can identify with on TV are more likely to feel unwelcome and “othered” (“not one of us”) by society, and by peers who better fit physical and cultural stereotypes that are represented.

The film inspired an online movement, The Representation Project, to call out sexism in the media. One of its most enduring campaigns takes place during one of America’s most visible cultural touchstones: the Super Bowl. For the past four years, thousands of Twitter and Facebook users have been working hard each Super Bowl Sunday to let corporations and advertisers know that using sexism, racism and classism to sell their products is not okay. They’re talking back with the hashtags #NotBuyingIt and #MediaWeLike.

Much to the pleasure of those who participate (myself included), the last two years have seen a remarkable drop in offending ads, and an uptick in ads that promote nuanced views of gender. It might be a direct result of the massive social media campaign, or it might be because these issues are more present in our collective consciousness these days, and the needle of progress is slowly moving across our culture. Regardless, this year featured several great ads, as well as some total duds.

Here are a few favorites:

The first ad of the evening came from Toyota and featured badass Paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy doing what she does best—being a badass athlete, dancer and fashionista.

Nationwide insurance featured funny lady Mindy Kaling exploring all the things she would do if she were invisible—including sniffing Matt Damon’s hair. Julia Roberts’ voiceover was a welcome contrast to the mostly male-voiced ads that dominate the small screen.

And Always (purveyors of maxi-pads and lady empowerment) showed us we can do anything #LikeAGirl, and be the best at it.

Some are referring to this year the “year of the crying dad,” with several ads featuring stories of sappy fatherhood. Nissan’s thoroughly confusing #withdad [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bd1qCi5nSKw] commercial featured an absent race car driver father whose family still inexplicably loves him (maybe because of his cool-looking car?), while Dove Men+Care asked “What makes a man stronger?” The answer: caring for your kids.

Others are calling out the serious tone of some of the ads during what is supposed to be a fun family event. (Tell that to the men beating each other in the game’s final seconds.)

After its hilarious ad with Mindy Kaling, Nationwide ran an ad featuring an adorable child talking about all the things he would never do. There were equally adorable cooties, a puppy, and a soaring adventure with a homemade hangglider. As it turns out, he died from a preventable accident. Dark.

Weight Watchers’ smart new campaign takes on consumerism in a bold way, pointing out the conflicts between a culture that tells us we must be skinny—but also supersize. We should control our eating—but also buy in bulk. Aaron Paul narrates this epic takedown of our over-indulging, fat shaming society.

The NFL also ran a serious ad: a public service announcement about domestic violence. With all the (deserved) criticism surrounding Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and others, and its handling of domestic violence in its ranks, the NFL is paying its penance. According to The New Yorker, the NFL’s partner organization No More estimates that sixty per cent of Americans know someone who has been a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, and that this Super Bowl ad is aimed at them, asking them not to be silent bystanders.

Still other advertisers relied on tired tropes that frustrated the #NotBuyingIt crew. T-Mobile’s first spot, an ad for their Data Stash data-rollover program, was basically an ad for Kim Kardashian’s bum. The reality queen lamented the loss of data that could be used to view her (ahem)…assets.

But the mobile provider later made good on its sins with an ad featuring two funny ladies (Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler being their funny selves in an age when many believe women aren’t funny (especially feminist women).

And as per usual, many advertisers called on the power of the penis. We are to believe that the Fiat 500X “grew” because a little blue pill fell into its gas tank. And Skittles invited us to “settle the rainbow” (i.e. the battle for the last yellow Skittle) with an arm-wrestling match. What displays of masculinity have to do with cars or candy, we may never know. But if these are the worst of the poor gender representations this year, The Representation Project is doing something right.

Visit their website for a full list of ads. It’s not too late to weigh in and let these brands know what you think.

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