Super Bowl ads: What may be missing this year

January 30, 2018

Insights from assistant professor of advertising Rebecca Ortiz

This is a photo of Rebecca Ortiz

Almost as fun as watching the big game, Super Bowl commercials give everyone just as much to talk about at the water cooler the morning after.

Puppies, horses and big celebrities are always sure to draw attention, but what about ones that target sexy? Remember model Cindy Crawford’s Pepsi ad? So popular it’s being redone this year, 26 years after the original? That is pretty tame in comparison to others that have pushed the boundaries of bad taste, into at times vulgarity, for a supposed family friendly viewing event.

Rebecca R. Ortiz, an assistant professor of advertising in the Newhouse School, shares what might just be on the minds of advertisers this year as they tread carefully in this time of intense focus on sexual harassment and assault and gender bias.

Q: What is in a winning formula for a Super Bowl ads?

A: For many, the Super Bowl is just as much about the advertising as it is about the football. Given the expense and efforts that go into producing and purchasing an ad for the Super Bowl, advertisers want to get as much bang for their buck as possible.

In the past, they often turned to sexual appeals as a way to garner audience attention. The use of sexual appeals in advertising has however declined in recent years and may even be nonexistent in this year’s ads. The sexual tropes of yesteryear have lost much of their former luster.

Q: Do sexual appeals in Super Bowl ads add up to better sales or furthering a brand’s image?

A: Empirical research on the effectiveness of sexual appeals in advertising paints a fairly consistent picture that sex does not sell as we anecdotally thought it did. While sexual appeals may catch an audience member’s attention, the ad and associated brand can often be perceived negatively because of its sexualized imagery, particularly among women.

In some cases, sexual appeals may even distract from the brand message entirely, leaving audiences with a memory of the sexual appeal but not of the brand or product the ad was meant to sell.

Q: What about in today’s world of the dramatic recent focus on sexual harassment and sexual assault? Where does that leave advertisers in trying to win customers to their brand with sexualized images?

A: Sexual harassment and sexual assault are also topics at the forefront of many consumers’ minds this year, as a result of the many sexual misconduct allegations made against some of the most powerful men in the United States.

Advertisers would be smart to steer clear of any sexualized imagery that may be interpreted by audiences as offensive or tone deaf to the efforts made and concerns raised by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.