It was impossible not to notice that Super Bowl advertisers got feminism this year. The #LikeAGirl commercial was such an emotional call to consider the implications of casual sexism that we forgot Always was selling us maxi pads. The dad-centric ads from Dove and Nissan were the sort of thing that women, all too used to commercials that venerate motherhood as a higher calling, have longed to see. There was an entire Nationwide ad based on Mindy Kaling saying she felt rendered invisible by sexism and racism. (Score one for intersectionality!) Then there was the NoMore.org spot, a PSA about domestic violence that was aired during the NFL's own allotted advertising time. “For feminism, those were the obvious wins — the ones that prompt a proverbial spiking of the football,” wrote Soraya Nadia McDonald at the Washington Post.
I certainly prefer girls throwing punches and Mindy Kaling’s eye-rolls to the back-slapping boys'-club tone of GoDaddy and Budweiser ads from Super Bowls past. But this year’s empowerment-infused commercials left me feeling conflicted. Of course I endorse the idea that "girly" is not an insult, that being a dad is important work, that systemic injustice can render certain women invisible, that domestic-violence survivors deserve support not scorn. I want these ideas to go mainstream. So then why did I cringe watching companies use those ideas to sell stuff during the Super Bowl?
It’s not because I’m an impossible-to-please feminist killjoy. (Though the NFL does tend to bring out that side of me.) It’s because most of the ads are hollow: soaring messages with few concrete policies or actions behind them. Modern feminist-tinged advertising — or “empowertising,” as Andi Zeisler calls it — works on two levels. It feeds our collective hunger for big cultural shifts, while simultaneously allowing corporations an easy way out of helping to make those shifts a reality. High in calories but low in nutritive value, to put it in Super Bowl snack terms.
This year’s case in point is the domestic-violence PSA. It directs viewers to NoMore.org, a PR effort with no full-time staff that is bankrolled by a bunch of big companies. The site links to established nonprofit groups that do great work — like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which received $5 million from the NFL in the wake of the Ray Rice incident. But it's a convenient distraction from the fact that the NFL has not actually changed its policies on domestic violence, and has deftly avoided Congress's efforts to get it to step up. (The NFL even hired one of the architects of the Violence Against Women Act as a lobbyist to convince senators to drop the issue.) “The NFL has changed,” Deadspin reports, “but mainly in ways that promote its image, allow it to work with brands, and don't really do much to help anyone on the front lines of working with domestic-violence victims.”
Slate declared last year “our first feminist Super Bowl.” It seems safe to say that 2014 was the first of many Super Bowls that will carry that title. But make no mistake: This isn’t companies waking up to feminism. It’s companies getting real about the fact that 46 percent of Super Bowl viewers are women, and pseudo-feminist ads grab their attention a lot better than traditional beer-commercial fare. Women also out-tweet men. “Ads with female appeal = best return on $4 million price-tag,” wrote Kat Gordon at Adweek. That’s not merely because of women’s long-touted buying power. Women are more active on social media than men, and a heartfelt “experiment” in girls’ self-image or a loving shout-out to fatherhood is going to get a lot more of their tweets and Facebook shares than a woman eating a cheeseburger in a bikini.
“It’s great to see brands do something bigger with their Super Bowl ads,” a creative director told The Wall Street Journal. And I agree that dedicated dads and fierce-faced girls are better than beer-soaked sexism. But rather than feeling satisfied that these ads represent how far we’ve come, we should see them as an indication of how far we have to go. They open up a great opportunity to press the advertisers for details on how they’re putting their purported ideals into practice. How much of its annual profit is Always diverting to girls’ empowerment programs? What sort of paternity-leave policies are in place at Dove and Nissan — and do those companies support better federal family-leave laws for all parents? How is the NFL changing its policies, not just its messaging, toward players who abuse their partners?
The underlying problem for advertisers is that feminism doesn’t really work as a brand if that’s all it is. Once you bring people’s attention to these issues, they’ll start to notice when things don’t track. Just look at the cynicism that’s emerged regarding Dove’s “real beauty” ads. Nobody remembers “You’ve come a long way, baby” — the mother of all pseudo-feminist slogans deployed to sell products — as a cry of empowerment that ushered in an era of pay equity and financial freedom. We remember it as a cigarette company trying to get more women to light up.
Therein lies a lesson for the corporations eager to gain women’s dollars and tweets with feminist-friendly Super Bowl ads. You wanted the attention of viewers like me? You got it. But now that you have it, don’t be surprised to hear that I have a few follow-up questions.