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Super Bowl

Super Bowl Ads Low on Testosterone, High on Cultural Awareness

After a year of scandals, frat-boy humor gets shut down

Will this year's Super Bowl ads accurately depict American life? Illustration: Alvaro Dominguez

Can you hear that? That's the sound of the National Football League breathing a huge sigh of relief that advertisers still want to sidle up to the Super Bowl buffet, after a rocky year that gave "let's go to the videotape" entirely new meaning.

Kat Gordon, illustration by Alex Fine

Fiancée elevator beatings, toddler corporal punishment, rape accusations—oh, my.

As the NFL scrambles to rebuild its image, including appointing its first female CMO and referee, advertisers paying $9 million a minute are part of another reimagining of sorts: What it means to be an American in 2015.

Advertising has always been a mirror into culture, and the Super Bowl remains one of the last broadcasts that Americans, in large numbers, tune in to in real time. More than one in three citizens watch, typically in social situations, often while sharing via social networks, making it a unique microcosm of American life.

Cultural trends and conversations unfold before our very eyes, echoing sentiment with 25 million tweets and 55 percent of viewers posting to Facebook during the game. It's like a three-hour jam session of getting reacquainted with our compatriots—all 316 million of 'em.

From the ads leaked thus far, we'll be seeing a lineup that sidesteps stale stereotypes in favor of new characters and storylines more in keeping with what the U.S. looks, feels and sounds like in 2015. As President Obama challenged in his recent State of the Union address: "Imagine if we broke out of these tired, old patterns."

It appears Madison Avenue has not only already imagined this, but is delivering on it.

We'll see spots that are newly multicultural and inclusive. Cheerios and Coca-Cola stole the show in 2014 with new depictions of family life and patriotism. Most consumers were overwhelmingly supportive. This year we'll see more of the same, including Toyota's spot featuring Paralympic athlete Amy Purdy, a double below-knee amputee.

We'll also see ads that wouldn't have belonged in a Super Bowl lineup even five years ago, thanks to a business marketplace that is increasingly entrepreneurial. Squarespace, Wix and TurboTax are ponying up big money to capture the small-business market, which employs about 50 percent of private-sector workers and accounts for 75 percent of net new jobs in the U.S. economy. This list is all the more notable when you see who's not advertising: Cisco, Intel, Microsoft and other b-to-b behemoths.

Lastly, and this is a biggie, Super Bowl spots—once like open-mic night for frat-boy humor—are doing the unthinkable in actually challenging gender stereotypes. The NFL ran its "No More" PSAs addressing domestic violence during the playoffs, but has not confirmed whether the work will run during the Super Bowl. Regardless of their media placement plans, other brands are showing men as proud fathers (Doritos' "Baby's First Word") and in redefining roles in Dove Men+Care's campaign (#RealDadMoments).

As for the depiction of women, most of the Super Bowl preview commercials I've seen are shedding old stereotypes of females as either bikini babes or buzzkill wives. One glaring exception is a Carl's Jr.'s spot that crams every clichéd sophomoric trick in the book into 30 seconds. Given that 46 percent of the Super Bowl viewing audience is female and the majority of social chatter during the game comes from those women, the only way they could look more out of touch is if they included their fax number in the ad.

I'll be watching with a keen eye—along with dozens of other female creative directors participating in live Super Bowl Tweetups organized by The 3% Conference. Some serious creative talent from DDB Chicago, The Hive in San Francisco and other agencies nationwide will be serving up wit and wisdom in 140-character bites. Participants include: Libby Brockhoff, co-founder of Odysseus Arms; Mimi Cook, chief creative officer of Y&R San Francisco; DeeAnn Budney, owner of The Hive Advertising; Jean Batthany, senior vice president, group creative director at DDB; Lindsey Stuart, director of design at DDB; Shira Bogart, creative director at Swirl; Karin Rose and Mary Beth Adduci, creative directors at DDB; Faye Kleros, senior vice president at Y&R; Kris Kiger, evp managing director at Visual Design, R/GA; and Chloe Gottlieb, senior vice president, executive creative director at R/GA, among others. Representation Project, an organization that strives to overcome limiting stereotypes, will be partnering in these gatherings and tweeting brand love and hate with their hashtags—#mediawelike and #notbuyingit.

We'd love to hear what you think about the Super Bowl spots. Do they depict American life as it is, as it was, or as it is becoming? Tweet us using the hashtag #3percentsb.

Kat Gordon is the founder of The 3% Conference that strives to elevate and expand female representation in media and advertising.

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