What can 6 years of Super Bowl ads tell us about representation in advertising? An analysis of 400 ads shows that Super Bowl ads don’t represent the people that watch them.
The Super Bowl is the most-watched show in the U.S. Ever. Of its ten most watched shows (averaging over 100 million viewers), nine are Super Bowls (the other being the final episode of M*A*S*H in February 1983). In terms of reach, you cannot compete. Despite shrinking viewership numbers, the Super Bowl reaches almost a third of the country. This means there is no greater opportunity for exposure, especially for advertisers.
Last year’s Super Bowl TV ad impressions reached more than 6.3 billion. Advertisers are spending big bucks to reach 100’s of millions of people across TV, social media, and earned media. Research shows that ads that embrace diversity in content deliver better results. So to what extent do Super Bowl ads represent the people who watch them?
To learn more about how Super Bowl advertisers represent people in their ads, ~400 Super Bowl ads deployed in the US between 2016 and 2021 were run through CreativeX technology.
Leveraging techniques like computer vision and optical character recognition, the frequency of visual cues were measured across each creative, including but not limited to people, age, skin tone, and setting. We used the Fitzpatrick Scale to label participants’ apparent skin tones.
If we, collectively, as an industry, are going to challenge the bias that prevents effective and inclusive creative decisions; fight the harmful stereotypes that damage people’s perspective of themselves; and champion more progressive portrayals of society - data can empower us by establishing an objective baseline, with real measurable opportunities to understand how to move forward. Put simply, data can show us where we are - and just how far we’ve got to go.
Comparing and analyzing the frequency of people’s skin tone, gender, their age, and the setting they appear in reveals trends in both the representation and portrayal of people, as well as some of the underlying bias that precedes casting and storytelling choices.
Despite Super Bowl viewership being approximately 50% female, just 35% of characters in Super Bowl commercials were women. Within this, darker skin tones were cast half as often in female characters than they were in male characters (7% vs 16%).
To assess whether Super Bowl ads reinforce existing stereotypes about gender, skin tone, and age, characters’ environments are also analyzed. Of the five environments analyzed (domestic setting, family setting, leadership setting, physically active setting, professional setting), overall, characters in Super Bowl ads are most likely to be featured in professional settings (82%).
35% of Super Bowl characters are female, where they’re most likely to appear in professional settings (32% of total) and family settings (27% of total). They’re nearly 6X times more likely to feature in family settings (27%) than leadership positions (5%), and 3X more likely to feature in domestic settings (16%) versus leadership settings (5%).
65% of Super Bowl characters are male. They are also most likely to appear in professional settings (50%), and also physical settings (21%). However, they are much less likely to be shown in a family settings (11%); in fact, they are shown 5X less frequently in family settings than they are in professional environments. Male characters are least likely to be shown in domestic settings (5.5%).
Today, women consistently do more unpaid caretaking and domestic work than men, and contributing to this reality are social norms surrounding gender roles, which gaps in advertising like this reinforce.
When comparing the share of characters; gender by environment, differences that reinforce gender norms are evident.
Skin tone representation analysis revealed a preference for characters with lighter skin tones (Type I-III on the Fitzpatrick scale). 76% of characters in Super Bowl ads had the three lightest skin tones (Type I-III), compared to 23% for the three darkest skin tones (Type IV-VI). 1% of characters were marked as unknown.
Type II (white skin tones) was a particular outlier, making up nearly half (48%) of all characters featured in Super Bowl ads. These findings suggest the persistence of colorism – preference for lighter skin tone and white standards of beauty – in Super Bowl commercials. However, people of color are more likely to trust brands that show more diversity in their ads, as are a majority of younger consumers of all races and ethnicities.
The Super Bowl is losing viewers between 18 and 49, but 82% of commercials focus on this demographic.
Questions have been asked about the Super Bowl’s “aging” viewership, but our analysis shows that commercials ignored this part of their fanbase.
Just 4% of ads featured people 60 and older. Further, ads were more likely to feature a child under the age of 12 than feature a person 60 and older (6% compared to 4%). Of the characters 60 and older, 68% were men, while just 32% were women. These insights are consistent with other studies that analyze the presence of older characters in popular media, where older men are three times more common on-screen than older women.
When ads do feature people 60 and older, they are most likely to be featured in professional settings - 44% - but all 60 and older characters in professional settings were male characters. There were no female characters in professional roles who were 60 and older.
No Super Bowl ads feature people over the age of 60 in physical settings, reinforcing stereotypes that older people are inactive and homebound, despite studies that show older people are becoming more physically active (in the UK, older members visit their gyms more frequently than younger members); they’re also having more sex, and retiring later. Yet Super Bowl commercials with characters 60 and older don’t reflect their more dynamic reality.
"As the most-watched event on TV, people from every demographic tune in to watch the Super Bowl, and nearly as many people tune in to see the ads. People expect Super Bowl ads to be funny, surprising, and set new standards for advertising ingenuity. Expanding inclusivity can contribute to these goals. Advertisements that air during the Super Bowl should not only reflect the people who are watching the game, but also should upend tired stereotypes that reinforce outdated ideas about women and older people. This will drive other advertisers to be more inclusive, and as research shows, the payoff is more effective ads." - Madeline Di Nonno, President and CEO of the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media.
Not only is it better business to be more equitable, but advertisers have a huge role in promoting a vision of society that is more fairly representative and equitable, with less bias and stereotyping because it’s the right thing to do… If advertisers are collectively spending almost $500 million a year on Super Bowl ads, there is no greater opportunity to change the narrative around representation.