Super Bowl ads reflect gender shift

The Super Bowl, traditionally the focal point of any good man-cave, is no longer just an interest of men. Last year, more than 51 million women tuned in to the event, making it a game changer for the NFL—and advertisers.

According to a recent survey by Advertising Age, 55 percent of American women watched at least one regular season NFL game last season, and women account for 20 percent of all fantasy football participants.

While the NFL has done its job, appealing to the female audience; it is now up to advertisers to deliver those fans to their clients. In order to capitalize on this growing fan base, advertisers must revisit the question, what do women want?

The answer appears to be more family fare.

Since 2004, NFL has been promoting more family-oriented half-time entertainment and fan attractions. It also recently launched a new line of women’s fan gear called, “It’s My Team.”

Some advertisers and their clients have also altered their audience approach by using cozy animals, talking babies. For example, the most popular Super Bowl advertisements as rated by USA Today’s “Ad Meter” include the E*Trade talking babies and the CareerBuilder.com driving monkeys. 

Ads that include cleverness and humor are most appealing, a survey by PHD Worldwide Media, suggests. The survey also found that cute animals were a close second.

But that doesn’t mean advertisers are moving away from the idea that sex sells.

“Especially given the female viewership, advertisers have to be broadly acceptable without being polarizing,” said Tim Calkins, marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Of course there are exceptions like GoDaddy.com that depend on being polarizing as part of their marketing strategy.”

Each year, companies such as Axe and GoDaddy.com rely on beautiful women to carry their campaigns, and this year will be no different. Mercedes Benz has partnered with model Kate Upton for a commercial that is sure to be a topic of discussion.

In the ad, the model is taunting a football team washing new Mercedes Benz C-Class in revealing attire for the entire 90 seconds of air-time.

 Upton/Benz screen grab“With fewer sex appeal ads running, it makes companies like GoDaddy.com separate themselves. It makes their sex-driven ads standout,” Calkins said. 

In general, “Marketers are very cautious about what they run,” Calkins said. The Super Bowl is almost as synonymous with flashy advertising as it is football. And, like the NFL, advertisers are quick to adapt to a changing audience.



More than half of all women polled in the PHD survey reported that Super Bowl advertisements using sex appeal equally targeted both genders. Seventy-four percent of women aged 18 to 34 said they liked the sexy images in the previous year’s Super Bowl advertisements, compared with 84 percent of men in the same age range. 

“Today women are increasingly owning their sexuality for themselves and thus women, particularly younger women, have little problem seeing empowering female sex appeal used in advertising,” said Emnos consultant Leah Wawrzyniak.

“Still, I would challenge advertisers to find a way to embrace female sexuality without the woman being a mindless servant or the man displayed as weak.”

Calkins said the bottom line is that “savvy marketers test everything.”

He referred to an ad that fans won’t see during this year’s Super Bowl.

“A testing process that just prevented Coca-Cola Co. from running a Super Bowl advertisement involving camels that has drawn a lot of criticism,” he said.

As for the Mercedes Benz ad, “You can safely assume it tested well in the marketplace prior to the Super Bowl,” Calkins said.

Most advertisers agree that nothing compares with the reach provided by the Super Bowl, which offers a rare opportunity to enter the household of more than 100 million viewers. For that reason, Super Bowl advertisers strive to create advertisements that are both memorable and relatable for a mass audience.

“As an advertiser, the best Super Bowl ad is the one that can broadly resonate with the most viewers,” he said.

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