Super Bowl LVI ads improve diversity, but there’s work to be done

Campaign Savvy wordmark with headshot of Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrott

More diversity was noticeable on screen this year but, behind the camera, progress is slow.

From featuring a Black woman in a healthcare ad to the 90s-era dream that was the halftime show (shout out to Mary J. Blige for both performances), representation improved somewhat on screen during Super Bowl LVI.

But there's evidence that, overall, brands continue to miss opportunities to include and connect with women and diverse audiences on the country’s biggest stage.

According to an analysis by CreativeX and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender Equality in Media, male characters were featured nearly twice as frequently as female characters in this year’s batch of Super Bowl ads.

Not only are women underrepresented in Super Bowl ads, it's also been true for some time that, when they do appear, they’re likely to be doing stereotypical things. In the past seven years, female characters have remained eight times more likely to be cast in a domestic role than a leadership role in a Super Bowl ad, while men are seven times more likely to be cast in a leadership role, according to the report.

We saw this trend continue in 2022, with ads like Nissan’s featuring Brie Larson as co-star to Eugene Levy and BMW making Salma Hayek the Hera to Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s Zeus.

As for racial diversity (or the lack thereof), 50% of characters from the last seven years of Super Bowl ads have been white. Women of color are particularly underrepresented, as men with darker skin tones have appeared twice as often as women with darker skin tones in Super Bowl ads over the same time period. This year we saw some improvement, with Zendaya and Lizzo starring in ads – but that’s really not enough to significantly move the needle.

And that’s just in front of the screen. Out of more than 50 ads aired during the game this year, just seven were directed by women and five by people of color.

The Super Bowl is the biggest stage to connect with the broadest group of U.S. viewers possible at the same exact time. But getting in front of the right audiences can only take you so far if you don’t have the right message – or messenger.

According to X_Stereotype, which uses AI to analyze diversity in ads, spots like Google’s, which focused on bias in AI and featured a credible messenger like Lizzo, as well as Squarespace’s ad starring Zendaya, scored very high among diverse audiences for both driving purchase intent and fostering feelings of inclusion.

But T-Mobile’s ad starring Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton, as well as Expedia’s ad starring Ewan McGregor, didn’t land as well with diverse audiences. Meanwhile, diverse audiences felt Intuit Quickbooks’ ad featuring DJ Khaled felt inauthentic and stereotypical.

According to X_Stereotype CEO and founder Larry Adams, connecting with diverse audiences is not just about diverse casting. In fact, Amazon’s ad featuring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost scored very highly among diverse audiences.

“It's about who feels included,” Adams said. “We want to see relatable situations and people.”

A no-brainer for brands is to represent diverse people in ads for products predominantly consumed by, or that can have the most impact on, their communities. As Adrian Whant, VP of marketing at multicultural agency My Code Media pointed out to me, Cue Health’s Super Bowl ad missed an opportunity to introduce the communities most affected by COVID-19 to its at-home testing device by casting a white family.

This feeling of inclusion extends to the NFL itself, the scenery behind this year’s creative showcase. While the halftime show was celebrated as a clear effort from the league to boost diversity on screen during the game – hip hop is also massively popular, accounting for one in three streams from US listeners in 2021 – it doesn’t mean much set to the backdrop of former Miami Dolphin’s coach Brian Flores’ discrimination lawsuit against ith the league. 

Given that nearly 70% of NFL players are Black, as is 20% of the league’s audience, respecting diverse players and coaches would seem to be not just the right choice, but a smart choice.

When advertising isn’t representative, and efforts to include diverse audiences are performative, brands miss opportunities to connect with key customers. As the U.S. only becomes more diverse, there's not a single brand out there that can afford to miss that opportunity.

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