Five Feminist Ads from Super Bowl 54

Since launching our #NotBuyingIt social activism campaign more than five years ago to call attention to Super Bowl advertisers who under- and misrepresented women in advertising’s biggest night, we’ve come a long way. Finally recognizing the consumer power of women, who make up half of the viewing audience of the big game, there were several ads featuring women and/or using themes of women’s empowerment. It’s hard to believe that only six years ago, nearly every ad featured a limiting and often harmful message about women. From Carl’s Jr. to Go Daddy to Victoria’s Secret, brands told us time and time again that a woman’s value lies solely in her youth, beauty, and sexuality. And with your help, we told them loudly that we were #NotBuyingIt. But in 2020, we saw #MediaWeLike from brands like Secret, Olay, Microsoft, and even Budweiser that sent powerful, uplifting messages about equality, representation, and inclusion. 

Thankfully Madison Avenue has caught on that women make 70 – 80% of all purchasing decisions in American households. Once rare to see in Super Bowl ads, brands that cater to women and value their largest buying block are investing in the game—which draws ~100 million viewers during the 3+ hour telecast. And with the first two Latinx women to ever headline the halftime show, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, women viewers may have tuned in more than in recent years. Our favorite ads broke new ground in one way or another. Take a look at our picks for the top five feminist ads from Super Bowl 54.

1. Kick Inequality from Secret

This pre-game spot featured Women’s World Cup soccer champions Crystal Dunn and Carli Lloyd as the “Secret Kicker” who makes a game-winning field goal and reveals that she and the holder are women. What makes this spot especially significant is that Carli Lloyd kicked a 55-yard field goal in a practice with the Philadelphia Eagles last fall and has said that she might pursue a career as an NFL kicker once she retires from soccer. Kick Inequality holds another powerful message coming from representatives of the team that is in the midst of a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation for pay inequality, set to go to trial in May—just months before the 2020 Olympics.

2. Microsoft Surface, featuring Katie Sowers

The San Francisco 49ers offensive coach Katie Sowers is the first woman and the first openly gay person to coach in a Super Bowl game. In an ad for its Surface tablet, Microsoft celebrates Sowers, showing her dreaming of playing and then coaching football ever since childhood. Sowers is a champion for inclusivity in the NFL, telling OutSports “No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are. There are so many people who identify as LGBT in the NFL, as in any business, that do not feel comfortable being public about their sexual orientation. The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day.”

3. Olay’s #MakeSpaceForWomen, benefitting Girls Who Code

Olay hired a woman-founded advertising agency to create its second Super Bowl ad in as many years. Inspired by the first all-women spacewalk last year, the ad looked to the stars to send a dual message that it’s time to “Make Space for Women” and close the gender gap in STEM education and careers. Katie Couric, Taraji P. Henson, Busy Phillips, Lilly Singh, and retired astronaut Nicole Scott starred in the spot which tied into a social media hashtag campaign that aimed to raise $500,000 for Girls Who Code through a retweet campaign.

4. Budweiser’s Typical American, directed by Oscar-winning Best Director Kathyrn Bigelow

Budweiser hired the only woman to ever win an Academy Award in the directing category, Kathyrn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2010 Oscar), to direct its “Typical American” ad. And it’s appropriate that a woman would lead this ad which flipped the script on stereotypes of typical Americans—showing the braver, more compassionate, empathetic side of ourselves in its patriotic, unifying spot. Aside from flipping stereotypes, the best thing about this ad is that it highlights the importance of representation behind the camera. According to the Celluloid Ceiling by Dr. Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University, “women comprised 20% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 100 grossing films in 2019, up from 16% in 2018.” We look forward to the day when women make up half of all people who work behind the scenes on films and advertising.

5. Amazon’s Alexa, featuring Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi. 

2020 saw a welcome increase in representation of LGBTQ people in Super Bowl ads, with the most prominent being an Amazon ad titled “Before Alexa” starring couple Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi imagining life before the ubiquitous AI device. Critics correctly pointed out that all of the historical flashbacks/hijinx featured only white people in what was a representation fail. Other ads which showed LGBTQ and gender-fluid people included Lil Nas X for Doritos, Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness in a Pop-Tart ad, trans actresses Trace Lysette and Isis King in a Turbo Tax “All People are Tax People” ad, and drag queens Miz Cracker and Kim Chi in Sabra hummus’s first Super Bowl ad. GLAAD’s Chief Communications Officer Rich Ferraro told them magazine that just fifteen years ago he would “have to monitor ads with homophobic tropes” during the Super Bowl instead of enjoying the game with friends.

While there weren’t any ads that peddled in overt sexism during the big game, there’s still room for improvement on the gender representation front. According to AdMeter, which allows audiences to rank their favorite Super Bowl ads, the top five fan favorites were almost all starring men. In Jeep’s aptly timed Groundhog Day reboot, fans loved seeing Bill Murray reprise his role in the cult classic film. But couldn’t the ad’s creators make space for Andie MacDowell? Hyundai’s hilarious “Smaht Pahk” ad featured three famous men and one famous woman. We would have loved to see fellow Bostonians Uzo Aduba and Maria Menounos or even Barbara Walters in the ad along with Rachel Dratch, Chris Evans, John Krasinski, and David Ortiz. And Jason Momoa’s ad for Rocket Mortgage showed the famously muscular actor strip away his “fake” muscles and signature locks in the comfort of his own home, a place where he said he could let his guard down and just be himself. The ad was funny, the CGI was amazing, leaving audiences genuinely stunned, but let’s remember that the brain is the only muscle that matters when it comes to masculinity. The other two finalists for the top five favorite ads were the tear-jerker Google ad “Loretta” and the Doritos ad featuring Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott. 

A quick count of the celebrities who appeared in Super Bowl ads showed a 1.4:1 ratio of celebrity men to celebrity women with 33 cameos by famous men compared to just 23 famous women making it into 2020 Super Bowl ads.

Overall, the Super Bowl ads in 2020 continued to show improvement in the way women and people of color were represented. But as new research out of Google and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media shows, “the advertising running during the game hasn’t caught up to the people watching it.” Researchers examined a representative sample of 273 Super Bowl ads from 2015 to 2019. They found that:

  • Male characters receive about 2.5X more speaking time than female characters.
  • Male characters are about 2X more likely to be portrayed as leaders than female characters.
  • Female characters are about 3X more likely than male characters to be shown as “skinny” or “very skinny.”
  • Female characters are about 9X more likely to be shown in revealing clothing than male characters.

With women representing half of the U.S. population, and even more of the buying power in the economy, it’s time for advertisers to catch up to audiences.

Take Action! Help us continue to cheer and jeer advertising year-round with the hashtags #MediaWeLike when an ad gets representation right and #NotBuyingIt when you want to call a foul.