How to diversify the Super Bowl ad directorial roster

Meg Ryan, head of impact and marketing, Sound Off Films
Meg Ryan, head of impact and marketing, Sound Off Films

As women and minority viewership grows, diversity remains scarce among the pool of Super Bowl commercial directors.

Surprising or not, last year’s Super Bowl was pretty much the same old story regarding representation

Despite constant news of top production companies signing compelling female directors, and amidst fervent ad industry hype and sweeping pledges on inclusion, Super Bowl LVI saw the majority of spots directed by white men. Just one commercial from a total of 65 Super Bowl spots was directed by a Black woman and 15% were shot by directors from underrepresented groups. 

While diversity in the coveted ranks of Super Bowl directors has slowly crept upward, it hasn’t kept pace with viewership changes of the Big Game.

Women have been increasingly tuning into the Super Bowl and now constitute about half of annual viewers. What’s more, researchers found that women actually are more focused throughout the event and are 26% more likely to pay attention to ads. In a 2021 survey of U.S. viewers, 43% of said they tuned in to the Super Bowl to watch the commercials. When it came to women, this figure rose to 60%.

It would follow that advertisers would want to reach a growing audience of women with advertising directed by representative women’s voices. Hiring female directors would seem a wise choice to create ads that speak to the unique sensibility of women Super Bowl viewers. 

Instead, last year saw commercials not only largely directed by white men, but also depicting tired tropes emphasizing (sometimes true, but outdated) gendered roles, such as associating mothers with household chores like doing the laundry. Research shows that in today’s families, nearly 30% of mothers are breadwinners and more than one-third are co-breadwinners, identities often overlooked. 

Ads like this are not only tiring — they may alienate rather than attract the sought-after Super Bowl viewer and reflect the ad industry’s failure to connect with modern audiences.

Decision-makers at ad agencies, brands and production companies can make progress in Super Bowl ad representation. 

Gather and release data 

Large holding companies as well as independent shops can publicly disclose their diversity data about the Super Bowl ads they produce. Many have begun to do this concerning the overall diversity of their employees, thanks to industry initiatives such as 600 & Rising and Free the Work.

Adopt hiring percentages for diverse directors

Pledging to hire appropriate percentages of women and BIPOC has been called for by industry initiatives such as Change the Lens and Free the Work. Agencies and brands can pledge to hire an ever-growing percentage of BIPOC/women directors for all of their Super Bowl projects.

Commit to measurable change

Tried and true formulas for Super Bowl advertising need to be challenged. Scripts, casting and crew norms need to shift in order to better reflect the diversity of today’s audiences and viewpoints. To reach modern audiences is to achieve success.

The need for change has often been ignored when it comes to the Super Bowl. Those of us who tuned into the 2021 game witnessed ads that spoke less to progress and more to a return to “normalcy.” We saw only 7% of ads created by BIPOC filmmakers and 5% directed by women, the lowest percentage of women-led commercials in the prior five years. At what is commonly called “the Oscars for commercials,” women and BIPOC representation decreased, despite a big industry focus on boosting representation.

Commercial directing serves as an entrée to joining the Hollywood filmmaking elite. It provides a portfolio, connections and resources, allowing newcomers to pursue creative opportunities. Michael Bay, Federico Fellini, David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro and many, many others used commercial work to support their careers before their big breaks. If women and BIPOC are denied this invaluable stepping stone, great directorial voices will be silenced. 

From a marketer’s point of view, continuing to deny women and BIPOC the director’s chair for Super Bowl commercials serves as a big fail, as the increasing number of women and minority viewers may be less engaged.

Meg Ryan is head of impact and marketing at Sound Off Films.

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