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Ad Men

After the testosterone-fueled commercial wasteland of the Super Bowl, Olympics spots show some love to women.

Marjorie Ingall
February 22, 2010

Parenting news has been pretty depressing lately. You may recall my little tznius-based prostitot freakout last week. But there was also the ongoing saga of the Baptist missionary kidnappers in Haiti; the reappearance of melamine-tainted milk in China; and the recalls of baby-squashing cribs, lead-tainted stuffed animals, and unpredictable Toyotas.

And going back a bit further, there was the Super Bowl, with its raft of ads depicting women as castrating bitches. What a joy for our sons and daughters to view! There was Bridgestone, informing men that their tires were more valuable than their wives. There was GoDaddy, offering incoherent softcore porn with semi-clad blondes and Danica Patrick. FloTV, a device whose very name sounds like a menstrual product, ordered legions of spine-challenged, pussy-whipped men to “change out of that skirt.” And then there was the breathtakingly offensive “Man’s Last Stand” from Dodge, in which dead-eyed men stared into the camera, listing the daily oppressions they suffer, primarily at the well-manicured hands of domineering women. (At least someone created a superb and pointed parody).

Kate Bednarski, a specialist in brand strategy who’s held executive positions at Walmart, Nike, and Reebok and co-founded her own brand agency, agreed that this year’s crop was unusually noxious. “This year’s Super Bowl was full of ads with the theme ‘women are horrible to be around,’” she told me. “In all my years in this business I’d never seen anything that blatant.”

So thank goodness for the commercials airing during this year’s Winter Olympics. Compare the hate-filled Super Bowl Dodge ad to the Olympics’ Chevy ad. The former shows a man hell-bent on escape; the latter depicts dads proudly driving kids to games and practices. “We carry them,” the voice-over concludes as a father carries his sleeping child out of a game, “while they, of course, carry us.” Another Chevy ad shows a father taking his little girl out of a scrum of boisterous older siblings to sit quietly in the minivan for one-on-one bonding time. Meanwhile, the only little girl I can recall in a Super Bowl ad is the eTrade baby with a bow on her head, browbeating another baby for failing to call her, ranting about “that milkoholic Lindsay” in a nasal, princess-y voice.

Little girls in Olympics ads speedskate, ski, and luge. They’re aggressive and competitive; they hate to lose. Sometimes they do anyway: the Chevy ad features a dad comforting a scowling little ice hockey player with blonde braids. It’s notable that while there are little figure skaters represented in these ads, they’re shown as just one facet of a wide-ranging, diverse picture of what little girls can be and do. My kids will never be figure skaters, particularly after they develop the Jewish poulkes that are their birthright, so I’m thrilled to introduce them to sports they’ll be able to play, not just watch.

In contrast to the Super Bowl’s “woman as succubus” theme, the Olympics ads depict marriage as a partnership. Parents share driving and child-rearing duties. One ad for GE touts the company’s medical technology: “I’ve seen beautiful things,” intones a middle-aged guy. “But the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen is the image on a screen that helped our doctor see that my wife’s cancer was treatable.” If that dude were in a FloTV or Dodge ad, he’d want his wife to die. Then he’d replace her with a more youthful latex version.

The women in Olympics ads have agency. They’re not acted upon like the Bridgestone bimbo; they act. An AT&T ad shows Gretchen Bleiler, 2006 Olympic silver medalist in snowboarding, defying gravity and sailing into outer space as Lou Reed sings “Perfect Day.” The tagline says, “Here’s to possibilities.” For Visa, Morgan Freeman narrates the story of alpine skier Julia Mancuso, who drew a poster of herself as a gold medalist as a child, then achieved her dream. The tagline is “Go, World.” And then there’s the Visa ad, recapping the story of speed skater Dan Jansen, whose sister died of cancer hours before his race in the 1988 Olympics, and he promised her he’d win the gold, and he didn’t, and then he did six years later, and he skated a victory lap while holding his baby daughter Jane, and oh my God I’m crying again as I’ve cried every single time I’ve seen this farshtunkiner ad. Damn you, Visa.

Motherhood in Olympics ads is noble, not noodgy. Proctor & Gamble shows a montage of Olympic athletes as children, doing press, signing autographs, shaving, preparing to launch themselves out of ski gates as emotional music swells and a title card concludes, “To their moms, they’ll always be kids.” The tagline: “P&G: Proud sponsor of moms.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you may say. The Super Bowl is watched by men; the Olympics are watched by women. Hence the ad differential. But guess what? The Super Bowl’s audience is 55 percent male, which means that 48.5 million women also happened to watch the game—4.3 million more than last year. In fact, the percentage of the Super Bowl’s women viewers has been climbing for a decade, shooting up 17 percent in the last five years alone. The Olympics’ viewership, meanwhile, is 51 percent female and 49 percent male. Not a huge difference.

Perhaps you feel that the ladies aren’t really watching; they’re just preparing the chili while the menfolk are glued to the screen. Wrong again. An NFL representative told Forbes magazine that NFL focus group research has found that women do watch. They view football as a Sunday afternoon family activity and cherish the hangout time.

Or perhaps you think that the Super Bowl’s viewership skews more downmarket than the Olympics’, and that tacky ads appeal to the unwashed masses. Not true either: The Nielsen Company found that 74 percent of all households earning $500,000 or more per year tuned into this year’s game, compared to 45 percent of all households. The demographics are similar for the Olympics. And here’s the kicker, as it were: Woman-bashing ads don’t work. In a roundup of all the data crunched by different media-measurement analysts, Jezebel pointed out that viewers either loathed or didn’t recall the most misogynistic ads: FloTV, Dockers (with its tagline “WEAR THE PANTS”), Bridgestone, GoDaddy, and Dodge.

So why create such ineffectual, hateful spots? I’m not sure. Perhaps advertisers unconsciously viewed football through the lens of their own misery. Maybe the idea of primal, thuggish manliness appeals to advertising guys who feel powerless because their business is withering. Thanks to time-shifting, an increasingly fragmented media marketplace, and ineffective measurement systems, they can’t even get reliable data on who sees their ads. Maybe rather than a male howl in the estrogen-filled wilderness, Super Bowl advertising was an industry’s wail of impotent frustration.

And maybe the Olympics offer more inclusive, embracing, multi-cultural ads because advertisers see those values as girly. Just as movies and television shows with a female lead are seen as being “for girls” even if guys like them as well, sporting events with just a few more female than male viewers get lady-focused ads. Is that idiotic? Yes. But we’ll take it, since it offers a pretty excellent view of the world, some damn fine advertising, and maybe even some behavioral modeling for a culture that could use a lot more girl power.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.