Super Bowl LVI: Where are all the women and POC directors?

Campaign Savvy wordmark with headshot of Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrott

A plea to do better on the diversity front as this year’s batch of ads rolls out.

We’re just weeks away from Super Bowl LVI, which, for most people, means we're inching closer to the day when we can watch America’s favorite pastime while chowing down on dips and wings.

But if you’re reading this blog, Super Bowl likely has a different meaning to you. It’s advertising’s biggest showcase of the year, where a cool $6.5 million can get you 30 seconds of airtime in front of basically the entire country.

The Super Bowl is the largest possible creative canvas for a brand. Despite consumer viewership shifting away from linear appointment TV viewing, Super Bowl spots can still make or break creative careers.

And yet, it seems we're still excluding people from taking part in an experience that has the power to shape their professional futures.

Last year, after Super Bowl LV, I wrote about how brands and agencies missed the mark on diversity. Fewer than 10% of commercials that aired during the game were directed by women or people of color, while 95% of directors of Super Bowl ads were white men.

What resulted was a handful of commercials that fell back on tired stereotypes. Remember Tide’s ad featuring The Jason Alexander hoodie? Great humor, but it leaned uncomfortably on the trope that teenage boys are dirty and mom always does the laundry.

How about Bud Light’s ad that featured its past spokesmen (and yes, they were all men)? Or Squarespace’s ad that glorified hustle culture at a moment when women were in crisis and leaving the workforce in droves?

Misses like this aren’t a coincidence. They are what happens when the people in the room thinking of the idea all look the same, as do the people on the client team paying for the ad. It’s a problem that starts behind the camera but is very much visible in front of it. Last year’s Super Bowl ads, for example, featured tons of male leads while just two female actors — Amy Schumer and Maya Rudolph — snagged lead roles.

I was skeptical that this year, even after all the hard work, pledging and promising that the industry made to improve its lack of diversity, that the Super Bowl ad lineup would also improve. So I put a call out on Twitter in the hopes of proving myself wrong.

Turns out my skepticism may have been right. After being retweeted 24 times by advertising and marketing executives with far greater followings than me (Walt GeerStephanie Nadi Olson and the official 3% Conference handle, to name a few), just two female CCOs – Margaret Johnson from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Amy Ferguson from TBWA\Chiat\Day NY – were floated as an antidote to the scores of white men directing Super Bowl ads.

And as JinJa Birkenbeuel, CEO of Birk Creative, pointed out in the comments, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of a conversation about female or BIPOC-owned agencies getting a chance to play in the big game.

Of course, this is merely a microcosm of Twitter and not scientific evidence. But, to me, it’s still a sign that we haven’t made enough progress.

When we exclude women and people of color from directing Super Bowl ads or taking on important positions on set, we get creative that is not just one-dimensional, but can often also spark backlash from the very consumers brands are trying to connect with.

Given that half of the U.S. population are women, and women make 85% of all purchasing decisions, including more women behind the scenes will lead to more authentic perspectives for the people you’re actually selling to. And given the growth and rising purchasing power of Hispanic and Black consumers, including them in the mix is also crucial.

Super Bowl planning and strategy start months in advance, before the final cuts are delivered in time for the Big Game. So efforts to increase diversity next year need to start now.

I have no doubt this year’s Super Bowl ads will ooze humor and creative excellence. But I’ve got a sneaky feeling they’ll be disappointingly, well, white and male again.

Please, prove me wrong if you can.

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