The oldest Madison Avenue mantra is that “sex sells.”
Never was that short-sighted axiom more evident than in the broadcast of the 2013 Super Bowl. As a woman with a daughter and a granddaughter, I was both insulted and saddened to see the demeaning portrayal of women in the commercials and the halftime show.
I don’t know exactly what GoDaddy.com does, but their marketing department is clearly hostile to smart women. The first commercial had a supermodel lock lips in a graphic kiss with an archetypical nerdy guy to show how their company joined sexy and smart.
The underlying message of this ad was as repugnant as the close-up visual and auditory depiction of the kiss. GoDaddy.com made it clear that women are beautiful and sexy while men have the brains. This is reminiscent of the 1992 fiasco when Mattel manufactured a Barbie doll that said, “Math class is tough!” It was unacceptable then to insinuate that women are incapable of complex thinking and it is equally unacceptable now.
GoDaddy.com continued to belittle women in its next commercial. One by one we see a series of men who claim to have come up with “the next big thing.” In each case a woman, presumed to be his wife, berates him for not claiming the Internet domain for his idea. Only men are the brilliant innovators. Women are the nagging shrews.
Apparently, long legs and plenty of cleavage are necessary to sell beer and cars. Lovely ladies are objectified as nothing more than eye candy to adorn the arms of men who drive and quaff beer. I am sure this effectively catches the attention of the men who are the target audience of these ads. That does not, however, change how dehumanizing it is to women.
And then came the halftime show with Beyonce.
After all the controversy over her lip-syncing of the national anthem during the inauguration of President Obama, one would have thought she should highlight her tremendous vocal talent during her Super Bowl performance. Instead, she arrived wearing revealing leather and lace and proceeded to bump, grind, and gyrate in a manner that made it clear it was not her voice that was being showcased. How sad that her considerable musical talent was overshadowed by her provocative performance.
These celebrations of vice were the price viewers paid to watch a very entertaining game. I know of several parents who grew weary of having to constantly switch channels in order to shield the eyes of their children from inappropriate material. They gave up and switched to the Puppy Bowl.
Yet in spite of the inundation of prurient displays by marketing departments, the commercials that captured America’s collective heart were two that celebrated virtue. Dodge Ram Trucks offered a tribute to the work ethics and sacrifices of American farmers with a voice-over by Paul Harvey. Budweiser honored love and loyalty with their Clydesdale horse commercial entitled “Brotherhood.”
The purpose of advertising is to build positive associations with a product. The ads, that were but a hair’s breadth away from pornography, offered only selfish pleasure. Some may enjoy watching them, but when the commercial ends there is merely emptiness. On the other hand, images of love, self-sacrifice, honor, and patriotism stay with us. They give us joy. If I were trying to build a positive image of my product, I would want the lasting power of virtue instead of the transient thrill of vice.
This is not to say that every commercial must be a sermon. Poking fun at the differences between men and women or our various foibles makes for some very funny commercials. The key to good humor is finding a kernel of truth and wrapping it in exaggerations and slapstick. We laugh because we relate. Laughing at the dehumanization or objectification of someone else is not humor. It is bullying.
This year’s Super Bowl showed that in spite of the proclamation made several decades ago that “We’ve come a long way, Baby,” we women still have a long way to go. Women are still exploited as sex objects for the benefit of men, and what is worse, this is done increasingly in the name of “empowerment” of women.
The message that beauty and brains are mutually exclusive still resonates in our culture. Talent is not appreciated unless it is wrapped in sex.
But there is also a glimmer of hope.
When the game is over and we are cleaning up the chips and dip, the ads that are replaying in our heads are not the ones that degrade women and all of humanity. We remember the ones that elevate our soul. Clearly, such ads were the exception, not the rule this year.
We have a lot of work to do to build a culture that respects the dignity of all men and women. Like football teams around the country, we need to take the lessons from this season and seek to do better in the future.
Maybe next year…