Super Bowl ads are a big deal. This year, the impactful spots cost a whopping $4.5 million to capture an estimated 112 million people for 30 seconds. Studies show there's good reason brands are willing to shell out the big bucks: Ads reflect cultural values, shape our attitudes and impact our feelings. But there's an insidious flip side to all this high-profile marketing, especially when a large percentage of ads sold portray offensive or sexist messaging.
Tired of having to confront demeaning, hypersexualized presentations of women (not to mention stereotypical depictions of men) that have long dominated sporting events like the Super Bowl, viewers have started to push back in recent years. Many express their displeasure through social networks like Twitter, which networks track; in 2014, there were 1.8 billion recorded social media impressions during the Super Bowl.
One of those fighting back is Shira Tarrant, an associate professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach. "There's a problem when advertisers relentlessly portray women as hypersexualized objects," Tarrant wrote about the 2014 Super Bowl on AlterNet. "But there is also a problem when white men are overrepresented in ads." She continued, "When men are featured as active agents, inventors, funny guys, even lovable losers, and women are excluded, we become invisible."
In response, Tarrant created a test to evaluate how sexist these ads are based on three seemingly basic criteria, which Ms. Magazine dubbed the "Tarrant Test" to evaluate how sexist these ads are based on three seemingly basic criteria. (It's a similar theory to the Bechdel Test, which performs a similar function for movies.) Tarrant's three rules are:
1. Does the ad feature a woman (or women!) in the lead, or in dignified speaking roles that don't mock, infantilize or hypersexualize?
2. Does the ad feature women of color?
3. If the product being advertised is designed to be used by anyone (women AND men), does it feature more women than men?
The official rules suggest rating the ads on a subjective scale of 1-10, but in order to simplify the process somewhat, we gave each ad a point for meeting the criteria generally. Ads with the most points, therefore, are arguably less sexist than those with none. The point of the scoring system is to highlight the levels of sexism that exist in advertising. While some ads may be more blatant in their offensive content, ads that don't accurately represent women or only represent certain types of women also send problematic messages to the masses.
Here's how the 2015 Super Bowls stack up, according to Tarrant's test:
The Least Sexist
Nationwide's "Invisible Mindy Kaling": A badass, hilarious woman of color is the central figure in an ad that both allows her to poke fun of herself and hit on Matt Damon? This ad was a winner.
Always' "Like A Girl": This was arguably one of the most anticipated ads of the game, widely lauded as the "best" and "most inspiring" spot of the night. By Tarrant's criteria, it lived up to the hype, featuring diverse women imparting an inspiring message about gender stereotypes and double standards. On the other hand, it isn't actually new: The spot first debuted back in the summer.
No More: While this ad technically failed to feature diverse women, the message it imparts about the reality of domestic violence, especially given NFL's troubling history with the issue, warrants some positive attention. Hopefully, more platforms with vast audiences will use their ad time to address serious issues as well.
The Pretty Good
Toyota's ad, which featured paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy, BMW's ad, which poked fun at Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel's Internet ignorance and Snickers' insertion of Danny Trejo into The Brady Bunch were popular and generally non-sexist — but they weren't terribly progressive, either. All failed to represent women of color and/or, when selling gender-neutral products, failed to include a healthy representation of women versus men.
T-Mobile faired pretty well when it came to featuring women, including pairing hilarious female comedians Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler. They arguably even humanized the oft-objectified Kim Kardashian by giving her a chance to make fun of herself in #KimsDataStash. But neither was able to score in every category, falling short on diversity and sexualization of its subjects.
Lexus, Wix, Esurance and Bud Light squeaked by when it came to featuring women, though just barely. Bud Light magnanimously allowed a woman to speak yet failed to ever actually show her face. Esurance poked fun at women specifically and, as many social media users interpreted it, perpetuated offensive stereotypes about women and driving. Kate Upton's Game of War commercial "Who I Am" was certainly less sexual than one would expect from the supermodel, but ultimately her role seemed more about sex appeal than anything substantive.
A host of ads technically scored 0, but (probably depressingly) deserve a shout-out for at least not being sexist. Mercedes Benz's "Fable," for example, scored a zero, but then again it failed to feature humans at all. Similarly, Budweiser also scored a 0 but featured the undeniably momentous story of a young puppy's journey. Then there was the #Dadvertising: Dove's #RealStrength commercial and Nissan's #WithDad are commendable for their alternate expressions of masculinity, but failed to account for women and largely featured white men.
Other brands, such as Squarespace, Skechers, Mountain Dew, NASCAR, Skittles, Pizza Hut, Geico, Sprint, Kia Sorento, Mophie, Carnival, Turbo Tax and Avocados from Mexico (presumably using their entire annual marketing budget) were also dude-centric or concept-based, but hardly sexist.
The Sexist Jerks
Unsurprisingly, most ads failed to feature diverse women substantively or quantitatively and, furthermore, were decidedly sexist and/or offensive. In order to parse out their (lack of) merit, however, we needed to introduce another ranking mechanism: public rage, specifically frustrations measured by The Representation Project's #NotBuyingIt, a hashtag Twitter users employed to call out advertising sexism throughout the event.
Carl's Jr "Charlotte McKinney All Natural Burger": This ad may have only aired on the West Coast, but its blatant sexism was heard, and decried, across the country. Carl's Jr. has a history of gross ads, but this blatant hypersexualization isn't just offensive — in 2015, it's completely tone deaf. Fail.
Fiat "Blue Pill": It's unclear why Fiat thought that reinforcing tired tropes about gender and sexuality would inspire people to buy their cars. It's safe to say, however, that after this offensive commercial, they're going to have to rethink their strategy.
Weight Watchers "All You Can Eat": Fat shaming? Check. A misplaced hypersexualized woman suggestively holding a sandwich? You bet. Hardly a convincing argument to inspire potential dieters.
Chevy "You Know You Want A Truck": As Mic's Derrick Clifton put it, "It wouldn't be the Super Bowl without at least one advertisement to remind everyone what a stereotypical 'real man' looks like." This commercial reinforces tired ideas about masculinity, a heterosexist view of women and fails to offer any real progress.
The Missed Opportunities
These ads scored 0, but furthermore seemed like perfect (wasted) opportunities to make a better statement.
Dove's "#Real Strength": While promoting depictions of a more authentic masculinity and involved fatherhood is great, it's worth pushing back on this ad for basically congratulating men for showing up on a basic level. That's not to mention the many contradictions and hypocrisies of Dove as a brand — especially since Dove's parent company, Unilever, is the same one that produces Axe, a brand notorious for sexist ads that feature far more devalued presentation of masculinity.
Victoria's Secret's "Look Who's Coming to the Game": Maybe Victoria's Secret thought exploiting the sexuality seemingly inherent to their product would compel Super Bowl viewers to go out and buy some Valentine's Day lingerie. But relying on this old trope ignores the fact that in actuality, 46% of Super Bowl viewers are women. This seems like a missed opportunity to both improve upon previous poorly executed attempts at marketing body positivity and to capture that female audience in an authentic way.
Ultimately the 2015 Super Bowl ad lineup was noticeably less sexist than in years past. Whether this is due to women standing up for their beliefs and taking to the Internet and social media in vast numbers or advertisers finally realized that sexism doesn't sell, it's certainly a welcome change.
As our tally shows, however, there were plenty of brands who didn't get the message. Until they do, it's our job as consumers to hold companies accountable and let it be known that ads featuring diverse women in authentic ways aren't just good for women, they're good for business.
Correction: Feb. 3, 2015
An earlier version of this article stated that Shira Tarrant named the Tarrant Test. The test Tarrant created was named by Ms. Magazine.