Take one average looking man, paired with one impossibly gorgeous woman, and add a dash of the latest car, beer, cell phone, or other product needing to be sold and you’ve got the latest crop of Super Bowl ads.
The commercials that run during the Super Bowl are famous for both their high cost (Forbes magazine reported that the cost of a 30 second ad for this year’s game reached $4 million) and their shameless targeting of the male demographic.
It’s no surprise that Super Bowl ads tend to focus on products marketed to men, as football itself is marketed as an expression of traditional male traits. But these ads have some troubling things to say about how masculinity is defined, and this definition in turn tells us how men and women should behave in our culture.
In a particularly sexualized commercial advertising the Fiat 500 that aired last year, a female model is bending over in the street while a nerdy looking Average Joe ogles her from the sidewalk.
While at first the woman yells at him for gawking at her, her tone eventually changes from anger to seduction, culminating with her sticking her finger in Average Joe’s latte and dripping the foamed milk down her cleavage. It’s okay though because, twist ending, it turns out she was really a car the entire time!
Not to be outdone, in an advertisement for Audi set to air this year, a hapless young man goes to his prom without a date.
However, after driving his father’s Audi, he gets the “bravery” (the commercial ends with the hashtag #BraveryWins) to grab the prom queen and kiss her. Of course, she liked it – after all, he was driving a cool car.
Sex Role Stereotyping
What conclusions can be drawn from these advertisements? To say that the women are objectified is an understatement – the women in these ads are literally objects. They are stand-ins for the products being sold or they are rewards the men in the ads receive for demonstrating stereotypically masculine traits.
The men, in turn, are expected to be sexual agents and actors. It is their job to look upon the woman, to want her, and to eventually initiate sexual contact with her. They are also expected to be tough and willing to fight as well – the Audi ad ends with the protagonist smiling in the car with a black eye, courtesy of the prom king.
It’s no secret that ads, in addition to selling products, first sell a fantasy to consumers – the fantasy that life will be infinitely better once you buy what they’re selling. But Super Bowl ads sell a fantasy that is linked to cultural notions of hyper-masculinity.
Women are empty shells
Men in these ads are everything that men are told that they should be – daring, beer drinking, sports watching, financially successful, and sexually attractive to women. Conversely, the women are empty shells whose sole purpose is to highlight the success of the men in these various areas.
When people watch these commercials and buy into what they are selling – not just the products, but the ideals as well – they are embracing a set of impossible standards for both men and women.
Men can never live up to the unreasonable set of requirements to be considered perfectly masculine and women shouldn’t be expected to become one-dimensional sex objects that lack any agency or opinions.
Super Bowl ads don’t have to be high concept, but it’s not too much to ask that they feature women whose entire existence isn’t predicated on how much they can arouse heterosexual teenage boys.