Super Bowl Ads Are Increasingly Aimed at Women. Here’s Why.
Armchair critics like to opine on everything about the Super Bowl—not just the game itself but the halftime show, the announcers, and of course, the ads. But attentive viewers who stay in front of the screen this year instead of going to the bathroom or getting a refill in the kitchen during the commercials will notice a shift in whom some advertisers are hoping to influence with their $7 million, 30-second spots. The conventional wisdom for decades has been that the huge Super Bowl audience is overwhelmingly male, and so men were by default the demographic targeted in ads. Women were generally an afterthought.
But this year, a large percentage of the ads are aimed at women, and there seem to be more women present as celebrity product pushers, too. This is the culmination of many years of change, as the business and sports community has finally come to recognize that women (1) are actually sports fans now more than ever before, and (2) are the dominant buyers in their households.
Not that women were left out of the ads in the past. It was just how they were presented. Think of the Victoria’s Secret ad in 2015, in which sexy women were waiting in their lingerie for the game to end and to “let the real games begin” with their men. Or think of the sexy mermaids enticing the gruff male sharks to come over for some spiked seltzer drinking in a 2019 ad. Or the 2015 ad where hot model Charlotte McKinney walks through a farmer’s market seemingly naked and then takes a big bite out of an enormous Carl’s Jr. burger.
But in today’s commercials, women are no longer relegated to the background as party guests or as the love interests of football-watching men or as bikini-clad beer- and burger-peddlers. The reason for that is multifaceted—cultural, political, economic—but the essence is that ad execs and companies buying those commercials realize that appealing to women as buyers makes more sense than leaving them out.
Hence, this year you have Canadian singer and feminist icon Sarah McLachlan pitching Busch Light beer while she also comedically spoofs her animal cruelty prevention campaign.
And tennis star Serena Williams pushing Michelob Ultra while beating all the men in golf in a Caddyshack send-up.
And with quite a bit of pre-Super Bowl fanfare, M&M’s is apparently making a big show of getting rid of the perceived sexism from its “spokescandies” and bringing in comic actress Maya Rudolph as a new spokeswoman. “Women all over the world are flipping how they define success and happiness while challenging the status quo, so we’re thrilled to be able to recognize and celebrate them,” said Gabrielle Wesley, chief marketing officer for Mars.
For a long time, much sports-related advertising and merchandising directed at women could be explained with the catchphrase “shrink it and pink it.” Up until about a decade ago, the NFL marketed apparel to female fans by pushing jerseys that were white and pink and sparkly—in other words, not in the teams colors—and smaller than the men’s style. Sales of these jerseys didn’t do very well, so a few years ago the NFL switched its emphasis, making it easier for women to get the same jerseys as men, just in smaller sizes. The league realized that both sexes were potential consumers of NFL products, and the one thing the NFL does very well is to run to where the consumer spending is.
“Women are too often left no choice than to use products that were designed by men for men, just scaled down and colored pink, or some stereotypical feminine color,” wrote Harvard design critic Karen Korellis Reuther this past October. “In the best case it can be insulting, in the worst case it can be deadly”—a claim referring to products designed without “comfort, safety and functionality for women” in mind.
Some observers are saying business is being more inclusive. But the business community never does things for the sake of feel-good inclusivity. What decisively shifted the sales strategy was refocusing on the monetary bottom line—because women are now about 46 percent of the football fans in this country, a figure that is growing among women under the age of 40. Fantasy football groups and legalized sports betting companies are seeing an increase in women participants, too (in 2022, there were 4.6 million active women sports bettors—an increase of 115 percent over 2021, according to Gambling.com).
Single women now own about 2.64 million more homes than single men do in the fifty states (10.76 million to about 8.12 million). Women make up more than half of the U.S. population, and control or influence 70-80 percent of consumer spending. And women now outnumber men in the college-educated labor force.
And they pay attention to sports more than they used to. In a recent survey, 87 percent of the women respondents said they watched or followed at least one sport over the past year, and 38 percent reported attending one or more sporting events. Those figures are very similar to those for men. There are some slight differences in men and women as sports fans, however. Women tend to be fans of the sport they are watching in general, while men are more tied to an individual team. Men tend to get angrier when their team loses, while women tend to be more forgiving. The study also found that women with children living at home participated in higher-than-average sports consumption—presumably to be more aligned with their children’s sports interests.
“A lot of promotions by teams to attract women assume that all women are the same and don’t recognize that many are already passionate fans,” said Frances Sutton, a graduate student at Ohio State and the lead author of the study writing up the survey. Adds her coauthor, Ohio State sociologist Chris Knoester: “It seems wise to start by simply asking women what they want from sport, rather than making assumptions based on gendered stereotypes.”
So it’s the decline of the “shrink it and pink it” business model that you’ll be able to see as you watch the Super Bowl commercials this year. There might be the occasional sexy women parading around in a bikini and pushing beer. But—based on a rough count of the ads that have been previewed already—it looks like perhaps three-fourths of the ads this year will have either female celebrities or women as the “main characters” in them. Because the target audience is no longer just men sitting on the couch and yelling at the TV. It’s women sitting on the couch and yelling at the TV, too.
“We see with the leagues now, more and more women are attending,” said Meghan Chayka, the CEO of the sports data firm, Stathletes. Women are “attending with other women friends; they’re following their favorite teams and engaging on apps.”
“It’s this emerging market where we’re having companies that are looking at the demographic and creating content, having analysts that speak to these smart, savvy, educated women fans,” she added. “We’re seeing this demographic now being taken seriously, as it should be.”