Diversity Representation During the Big Game Ads

Two football helmets

Super Bowl LV — In a year marked by social justice movements, advertisers still have a ways to go with authentic representation across race, ethnicity and gender.

Advertising has long been the subject of criticism when it comes to diverse representation. As minority groups continue to grow in the United States, these segments are still not proportionally represented or authentically depicted in current advertising. Consumers are demanding inclusion, with 61% of respondents in a recent survey from Adobe saying that diversity in advertising is important. [1] With the advertising industry’s biggest evening last night at the Super Bowl, many big brands did not live up to expectations.

In a single 30 second TV spot during the Super Bowl, companies have the chance to reach almost 100 million consumers. These consumers not only want to see themselves in these ads, 34% of them say they have completely stopped supporting a brand that didn’t represent their identity in its advertising. [2]

While marketers have claimed that diversity and inclusion are top of mind in all of their business efforts, especially following the momentum of social and racial justice movements this past year, do their highest dollar ads truly reflect those initiatives?

Statistic image

We reviewed 68 of the spots from the big game and tracked diverse representation across gender, race, sexual orientation and disabilities in every ad. According to the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing, an arm of the Association of National Advertisers, this year’s Super Bowl ads are nearly identical in terms of representation to 2020’s, with significantly lower representation of Hispanic, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities. While 94% of ads had some sort of representation, many advertisers leaned heavily on celebrity roles and stereotypes and missed the mark on authenticity to diverse consumers.

Many brands played it safe by filling montages and the background of scenes with diverse actors, rather than granting them speaking or leading roles. In one spot from Squarespace, a Black woman is given the ‘lead’ non-speaking role, but she appears to be light-skinned, racially ambiguous and pictured with perfect bouncy curls, which falls into the casting trope of Black women, as other diverse dancers appear in the background. Other diverse representations of Black people were present in Rockstar Energy’s ad, for example a dark-skinned woman with 4c hair as well as a man with albinism, but they were limited to background characters. While these little steps show the effort that brands are making to be more inclusive in their ads, many are still missing the mark.

Statistic image

Out of all diversity segments, the Black community was most highly represented. Black actors were not only present in 75% of all ads, but they also seemed to be cast in lead roles more frequently than any other diverse group. Brands such as Amazon, Michelob Ultra, Logitech, Rocket Mortgage, and T-Mobile all featured primarily Black characters and families. Latinx representation fell short at only 36%, with many Hispanics being shown in stereotypical roles such as a farmer, hot dog vendor, or mechanic unless they had celebrity status like Cardi B or Maluma. McDonald’s was the only ad to include the Spanish language as two Hispanic males are singing J. Balvin on their way through the drive thru. There were zero moments of American Indian representation and Asian Americans were also a rare sighting with only 26% of ads having some form of representation. While mostly consisting of quick appearances, comedian Awkwafina clenched a lead speaking role along with an actress in the Bud Light Lemon spot.

Other diverse groups received little to no recognition in the big game spotlight. Notably, the only disabled person to appear in any Super Bowl commercial was Paralympian swimmer and double-leg amputee, Jessica Long. Toyota originally created the spot for the Summer Olympics but has featured Paralympians in their Super Bowl spots twice prior to this year’s compelling story of hope and determination. The LGBTQ+ audience was mostly represented through celebrities such as Lil Nas X, Dan Levy, and RuPaul in full drag during the Paramount+ streaming ads. The only other ad with LGBTQ+ representation was in Nintendo Switch’s ad featuring Serena Williams and her white gay male trainer. His voice inflection paired the dancing continues to perpetuate stereotypical tropes. Unfortunately, there was no portrayal of the LGBTQ+ audience in any day-to-day activity.

Out of 68 total ads, 68 featured male characters. Ten of these spots featured an all male cast and four from Jimmy Johns, Dr Squatch, Mt. Dew and Doritos featured no diverse representation at all. Several others have already been criticized of their very White casting. When asked about the lack of inclusion in this year’s ad in a recent AdAge article, a representative from Tide said that “At Tide we’ve made an open and intentional commitment to highlight a wide diversity of American families in our advertising. We agree advertising affects our perceptions. We have a responsibility to ensure those perceptions are accurate and respectful. This year’s Super Bowl spot takes you through a day in the life of one teenager’s sweatshirt. In this spot, the hoodie is the star.” [4] It’s important to note that the face of a white male is spread across the front of the hoodie.

Some brands were more guarded when it came to representation in their Super Bowl Spots. In the same AdAge article, Vroom CMO Peter Scherr said they were “particularly watchful this year to make sure we are not coming off as insensitive,” and didn’t think of their Super Bowl ad featuring two white male leads “as a place to make a social statement.” Pringles stated that their ad, where the only three speaking roles were handled by white males, “reflects our fan base, which includes people from all walks of life. With a moment like Big Game that reaches a mass audience, the idea needs to appeal to a broad, diverse audience.” Too bad the diversity was portrayed in the ensemble.

Statistic image

As men were visible (and usually the leading role) in every single advertisement, women were only apparent in 85%. While this may not be surprising, it does stand out as a missed opportunity given the conversation around women over the past year. From Kamala Harris becoming the first female Vice President to Stacey Abrams exemplifying grassroots leadership in Georgia, women are making headlines.

Beyond the political sphere, women involvement in male dominated sports is increasing. Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score a point in a Power 5 college football game as a kicker for Vanderbilt. Nicole Lynn, was named to Sports Illustrated’s ‘The Unrelenting’ list which honors the most powerful, most influential women in sports after she became the first Black woman to represent a top-3 NFL draft pick in 2019. Maybe the most relevant of all was the fact that during Super Bowl LV, women played essential roles. Sarah Thomas became the first female referee to officiate a Super Bowl, while the Buccaneers had two female assistant coaches on the sidelines — Maral “MJ” Javadifar and Lori “Lo” Locust.

Given the historical significance of these moments, one would think a brand or brands would have seen this as an opportunity to uplift women. Even if a woman was leading the spot, i.e. Serena Williams in the Nintendo Switch ad, a male character was brought into the narrative.

As always, the Super Bowl ads were filled with celebrity cameos of a variety of ethnicities and races. In these instances celebrities often play a role that is not too far off from their celebrity persona. For example, in T-Mobile’s ad featuring Gwen Stefani, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, Blake plays the role of a very ‘country’ man. Beyond these cameos, white people were given speaking roles to portray more everyday characters, while Black people were not given the same opportunity. Out of all ads, non-celebrity Black speaking roles were present in six: Bud Light, Hellmans, Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, WeatherTech (American Dream), Microban and Amazon Alexa. Out of these, only three had no celebrity features.

The greatest take away from all of this is that numbers don’t always tell the whole truth. Yes, on paper the ads included very diverse representation and more Black characters appeared on screen than ever before, but overall they may have missed the mark. Going forward, brands should stop seeing diverse characters as simply checking a box. Instead, they should look to use diverse casting as a way to establish a connection with their intended audiences. They can start by listening to the representation pain points of their audiences. Not every ad needs to have a message behind it where a brand shares its take on diversity. In reality, people just want to see themselves represented in all types of roles, not just the roles they always play. During the one time of the year, where all eyes are on ads, brands must do better at increasing positive representation.