Forget about the Presidential State of the Union address.
If you want to understand American values, you need to watch the annual Super Bowl advertisements. This year 114 million people watched the ads during the TV broadcast of the game, which is the most watched event in US television. Millions more watch the ads on social media, especially YouTube.
Unlike the World Cup that has a strong global audience, Super Bowl ads are targeted toward a mostly American audience. Thus, the 54 ads that were shown this year reflect what advertisers and creative agencies felt were the messages with which Americans would most resonate.
Having viewed all the 54 ads, here is my analysis of the 2014 Super Bowl ads and changing American values, especially in relationship to American gender relations. Two themes emerged strongly in the ads. The first I categorise as Female Power and the second as Caring Fathers.
Four Super Bowl ads represented the cultural value of Female Power. With 46% of the Super Bowl viewers being women, the appearance of more feminist perspectives in the ads is not surprising.
Considered to be one of the top Super Bowl ads, Like a Girl by the feminine sanitary product brand Always reflects a growing focus on maintaining girls’ self-esteem.
In the ad, a woman asks boys, men, and women to show her how to run, throw, and fight like a girl. People run, thrown, and fight in weak ways. She then asks the same question to girls under the ages of 12 years. They run hard and fast in place. They throw the imaginary ball far. They fight with strong uppercuts and jabs. It ends with the statement, “Let’s make #likeagirl mean something amazing”.
Toyota’s How Great I Am ad extends the message of female power. In it, 2014 Paralympic bronze medallist Amy Purdy runs, dances, and snowboards in her leg prosthetics to the words of Muhammad Ali.
Reflecting corporate feminist issues, Indian-American sitcom star Mindy Kaling takes the social invisibility of women literally with humorous effects in the first of two Nationwide Insurance ads.
Finally responding to the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal, the NFL released the ad No More. The ad is a chilling re-enactment of a real emergency call made by a woman who had to pretend that she was ordering pizza to inform emergency services of her plight.
These four ads are remarkable given the long history of the sexual objectification of women in Super Bowl ads. While the Victoria’s Secret’s ad continued in this tradition, it was the only one.
Representing a more fundamental change in American gender relations, a few Super Bowl ads redefined masculine power as the acceptance of the role of men as caretakers. Feminist scholar, bell hooks writes:
One of the most positive interventions the feminist movement made on behalf of children was to create greater cultural awareness of the need for men to participate equally in parenting not just to create gender equity but to build better relationships with children.
Dove’s Men + Care ad Real Strength was one of three ads that focused on this new understanding of co-parenting.
In the ad, a series of point of view and objective angle close-up shots show children of different ages, genders, and races saying “Daddy” or “Dad” for older children. It effectively captures the joy and heartbreak of children’s unconditional love for their fathers as the reward for their dad’s caring about them. It ends with the tag line, “Care makes a man stronger”.
Toyota Camry’s My Bold Dad ad has a similar message but is focused on the relationship between one dad and his daughter who has decided to join the US Military. It highlights how being a dad is a choice and a commitment.
Nissan Maxima’s With Dad ad shows a NASCAR driver’s attempt to balance his racing career with spending time with his son as the son grows up. It emphasises the importance of dads being present in their children’s lives.
According to a Pew Research Center study, the greater emphasis on being a dad reflects the changes in the way in which parents think about their roles over the past 50 years. The study states that there is greater convergence in mom and dad roles in regards to paid work outside the home and housework and child care:
Fathers have nearly tripled their time with children since 1965.
The Caring Dads advertisements reflect a change in American values where being a dad who cares is just as, if not more, important than being a dad who provides.
In watching the 2015 Super Bowl ads, it is fascinating to see how a new American gender reality is being sold to the American public. How might the AFL game advertisements compare?