Film & Television

How Women Fare in Super Bowl Ads

As its name implies, the Super Bowl is all about superlatives. 

PredictHQ, a demand intelligence company, estimates that the 2022 Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals may draw as many as 117 million viewers. (As of this writing, the official number hasn’t been released yet.) This would not only beat last year’s relatively modest 96.4 million (the lowest audience since 2007), but it would also surpass the current record of 114 million held by the 2015 matchup of the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots. I live in the greater Boston area, and Tom Brady’s godlike status (which continues despite his defection to Tampa Bay and recent announcement of retirement) owes much to his seven Super Bowl rings.

Brands pay dearly for the big game’s supersized audience. The current rate is about $7 million for a national 30-second spot. (Ads in the first Super Bowl televised by NBC back in 1967 were a paltry $37,000.) And that’s just the cost of the media. Between paying ad agency fees, casting celebrities, and springing for movie-caliber special effects, the actual price tag is much more. 

Historically, the Super Bowl has attracted more men than women. A recent poll by Economist/YouGov reports that only 40% of women planned to watch this year, while 54% of men planned to. When asked why they planned to watch, there were additional differences. Thirty-nine percent of women are most interested in the game itself as opposed to 63% of men. Twenty-five percent of women tune in for the halftime show, as opposed to just 11% of men. And, 32% of women watch for the commercials, as opposed to 23% of men.

It may be that this last imbalance has finally been noted by advertisers. Or, the entertainment and marketing industries may finally be sunsetting some of their most egregious gender stereotypes. In either case, I’m happy to report that this year’s Super Bowl ads were less sexist than usual. 

But to truly appreciate this progress, let’s regress and take a look at some of the worst offenders from years past. For the sake of keeping this column to a reasonable length, we’ll only look at ads from this millennium.


Joy of Pepsi” Pepsi, 2002

Not sure whether to focus on Britney’s gyrating hips (nothing says sex like a soft drink) or the fact that she looks underage and the ad appeared during an event infamously linked to human trafficking. 

Cat Fight” Miller Lite, 2003

The “Tastes great” vs. “Less filling” debate was no longer news to Miller Lite’s audience, so the brand breathed new life into it with a poolside cat fight between two bodacious models, who conveniently get wet, get undressed, and get down together in a vat of liquid concrete.

“Tune Out” Budweiser 2004

Ever wonder how referees keep their cool under major league pressure? Apparently the trick is to marry an utterly untamable shrew so you can practice ignoring all the verbal abuse. It’s absolutely hilarious — and that’s absolutely sarcasm.

Valentine’s Night” Teleflora, 2012

In marketing, the concept of the “give/get” ratio is a central one. According to this ad, the math is very simple. If you give your lingerie model girlfriend a nice floral arrangement, you’ll get … well … whatever it is Adriana Lima is selling.

Innovators” Best Buy, 2012

The good news: women aren’t being exploited here. The bad news: They’re being ignored. In an ad that celebrates “innovation,” all of the innovators are men. All of the women are flight attendants or Best Buy sales associates.

Avoid Distractions” Cure Auto Insurance, 2016

How anyone could find this funny — or think it effectively sells insurance — is beyond me. A fairly unremarkable young man is at the deathbed of his father, about to hear the old man’s dying wish, when he’s distracted by a hospital hottie and the aforementioned father flatlines.

Cleaner of Your Dreams” Mr. Clean, 2017

What turns women on? Bald cartoon characters in tight white pants or chubby hubbies willing to do a little house cleaning. Either way, sex is again offered up as a quid pro quo, in this case a reward for doing your share of chores.

Women in this year’s ads, many of which were released online before the big game, fare better overall. Here are some of the standouts that don’t exploit women for laughs or sales:

Mind Reader” Amazon

Real-life couple Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost imagine their less-than-picture-perfect life together if Amazon’s Alexa could read Colin’s mind. The spot is genuinely funny — even if a little creepy given how Alexa, Siri, and their ilk seem to be always listening.

Zeus and Hera” BMW

Another couple, in this case ancient Greek, finds retirement happiness when the missus gets her mister an all-electric luxury auto. Salma Hayek and Arnold Schwarzenegger team up in the ad’s title roles, and their onscreen chemistry is, shall we say, electric.

Lizzo in Real Tone” Google Pixel 6

Set to a soaring new song by Lizzo, the ad points out that photography has always been geared to represent white skin tones, but the new Google phone captures every shade. Not only is it a beautifully inclusive ad, but it’s for technology that’s long overdue.

Sally Seashells” Squarespace

Dot-coms have a relatively long track record of investing in Super Bowl spots. This one, starring it-girl Zendaya, shows how a sophisticated ecommerce platform can spell sweet success for an enterprising entrepreneur.

What’s Gotten Into Lyndsay?” Planet Fitness

Poking fun at the reputation of a Hollywood wild-child (with her complete cooperation), this ad dramatizes how Planet Fitness can improve your life. Along with the now “fitacular” Lyndsay Lohan, it features celebs William Shatner, Dennis Rodman, and Danny Trejo.

High Stakes” Rakuten

Emmy-winner Hannah Waddingham (Ted Lasso) stars as a glamorous high-stakes gambler who is thwarted by an astute Rakuten shopper. Not sure which line is more memorable: “Cha-ching!” (Rakuten’s cash back tagline) or Waddingham’s disgusted, “Get the cat!”

Dream House” Rocket Mortgage

How can I possibly exclude the perfect woman, who, at 63 still has the curves of no-real-woman-who-ever-lived? Barbie is featured, along with a wry Anna Kendrick in a fun and funny ad for  Rocket Mortgage. (I expected to cringe, but found myself laughing along instead.)

Welcome to Superior Bowl” Michelob Ultra

Strength Made Me” Tonal

The pairing of the biggest sports event in the United States with Serena Williams, arguably a sports world G.O.A.T. (“greatest of all time”) herself, is a match made in Madison Avenue heaven. These last two ads — one for (you guessed it) another beer and one for a home fitness system, use a celebrity spokeswoman who personifies talent, strength, power, and whatever the opposite of being exploited is. And, while other top athletes (including Peyton Manning, a two-time Super Bowl winner) quake when Serena shows up for a friendly bowling tournament in the first ad, she espouses a philosophy of personal best in the second. “Own your strength and see how far it takes you.”

That’s a goal we can all agree upon.

If I’ve missed any of your favorites — good or bad, leave a note in the comments below.


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  • Deb Lundstrom February 15, 2022 at 1:42 pm

    My fav is the NFL ad with the tiny players coming out of the TV, into the house of 2 young kids. The grandma with the football in her mouth and the girl ordering Payton Manning to complete the play, until he is waylaid by the baby so Walter Peyton takes over. Perfection.