Monday debate: Superbowl advertising

I must admit, as one of the roughly 100 million viewers of the Superbowl, I count myself as one of the audience members who is more interested in watching the nearly-$3-million-per-30-second advertising spots than the actual play on the field.  The customary media narrative about Superbowl advertising starts with the breakthrough Apple “1984” advertisement for the Macintosh — directed by Ridley Scott, feared by company executives, aired only once, and subject to nearly constant buzz and reverence afterward, despite Apple’s consistently low operating system market share over the subsequent twenty-five years.  From that moment on, Superbowl ads became the epitome of fun, brand-building mini-movies, according to the conventional wisdom.

Did this year’s ads live up to the hype?  Writing in the New York Times today, Stuart Elliot points to the use of nostalgia in the game’s commercials (not to mention the halftime show) and laments “the belief along Madison Avenue that tough times call for familiarity rather than risks.”  But for this week’s Monday debate I offer a different critique of Superbowl advertising originally posted on AlterNet, a progressive independent media aggregator with a stated mission to “inspire action and advocacy on the environment, human rights and civil liberties, social justice, media, health care issues, and more.”  In “Half-Naked Hot Chicks and Beer: The Sexist Guyland of the Super Bowl Beer Commercial,” AlterNet contributing writer Vanessa Richmond argues, “the land of beer is a fun and raucous place” full of demeaning gender and sexuality stereotypes:

It’s a land where drunkenness, laughing, burping, irresponsibility, pranks and rule-breaking reign supreme. There are no awkward silences, no need to speak in words, no need to remember to say or do anything in particular or face the consequences. Heck, there are no consequences. It’s a world where women have fun entertaining men. It’s an escape from the tyranny of work and manners, from the ill-fitting harnesses of the digital age on our inner human cave animal. Can’t you just hear the whole nation sighing in relief?

Richmond challenges the depiction of both men and women in such ads as disturbing if not downright harmful. But she also argues that today’s ads incorporate a “wink” to female viewers even as those ads insult these viewers — a necessary compromise given the Superbowl audience demographics and the potential sales at stake:

They know women are in the game now, and are figuring out ways of keeping them drinking too. Women account for 25% of beer consumption, and almost half of the Super Bowl audience. Given that almost 96 million people watched last year’s Super Bowl, the second-most-watched broadcast ever, that’s a lot of women. According to Forbes, even back in 2005, 10 million more women watched the Super Bowl than the Academy Awards.

There’s a lot of money at stake too. The average 30-second spot sold for $2.5 to $2.8 million this year and Anheuser-Busch (which makes Miller Lite) has spent $311.8 million advertising at the event from 1990-’09.

Some marketing wonks suggest those precious dollars should cater more to this valuable co-ed audience. Marketing expert Gerry Myers points out that most Super Bowl ads are aimed at males, yet most money is spent by females.

I expect many of us in SJMC will be using the Superbowl as a timely media example in class this week.  Take a minute to check out Richmond’s complete article and then weigh in below — what do this year’s Superbowl ads say about our culture, and the way the consumer advertising industry understands, reflects, and molds our culture?  Pointers to other articles, videos, resources or discussions on this topic are welcome too.