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National NOW Times >> Spring 2003 >> Article

TV Commercials Exploit, Ridicule or Sideline Women

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

Despite the fact that 44% of this year's Super Bowl audience was women, no female athletes (like soccer star Julie Foudy, pictured here) appeared in any ads.  At least six male athletes were featured.
Despite the fact that 44% of this year's Super Bowl audience was women, no female athletes (like soccer star Julie Foudy, pictured here) appeared in any ads. At least six male athletes were featured.

Images of models in push-up bras with "please ravage me" eyes have become the wallpaper of our lives. The exploitation of women in the media has become so commonplace, particularly in advertising, that most people fail to get outraged or even notice it anymore. But many women do care about these images and understand their true power.

In fact, numerous women and men contacted NOW to complain about the sexist beer ads that ran last football season—specifically Miller Lite's "Catfight" ad, where two women rip each other's clothes off while wrestling in a fountain, and the Coors Light series featuring things men love, like sexy, blonde twins. So, we thought it was time to tune in, with a feminist eye, to this year's Super Bowl commercials.

The Super Bowl ads have become almost as important in our popular culture as the game itself. Newspapers and TV stations dedicate significant time and space to previewing the ads before the game and rating them the morning after. A successful commercial that creates a lot of "buzz" can earn a spot in media history.

More viewers watch the Super Bowl each year than any other television event, and the shocker is that nearly half of that audience is female! Companies like Pepsi and Anheuser-Bush were willing to pay $2.2 million for 30 seconds of airtime during this year's game because they believe that advertising has the power to influence people. If commercials are so effective at selling products, they also must be capable of selling stereotypes.

In January, the NOW Foundation released its first-ever Feminist Super Bowl AdWatch. Our Watch Out, Listen Up! campaign, which has issued reports on the TV networks' primetime shows over the last three years, recruited volunteers to grade the ads and choose the best and worst based on their portrayal of women, people of color and other groups that are often used as easy punchlines.

After averaging the scores, we ranked the best 15 ads and the worst 15 ads (the full report is available at www.nowfoundation.org/watchout3/superbowl.html). The top ads, for products like Sierra Mist and Pepsi Twist, created humorous situations without degrading entire groups of people. Other positive ads, like Yahoo's HotJobs and George Foreman Grills, included great diversity in their casts.

The bottom of the barrel were almost exclusively brought to us by Anheuser-Busch. These commercials included the sight of a three-armed man grabbing a woman's behind; a guy's dream come true of dating both his girlfriend and her roommate; an upside-down clown drinking beer through its rear end; and two men ogling women's crotches in yoga class.

The ad voted the absolute worst featured a young man whose friend tells him to check out his girlfriend's mom to see how well the girlfried will age. To his dismay, the mom has a youthful, attractive face, but a gigantic butt, which fills the screen as she bends over. The ad is "misogyny and fat-hatred defined," as one of our monitors put it.

The report generated mail both pro and con, with the strongest comments coming from men determined to discourage the NOW Foundation from any further criticism of the advertising industry. They employed two simple methods that have been used against feminists for decades:

  1. Name-calling. Foes of feminism labeled NOW women as "a bunch of humorless, shrieking harpies," "fat, ugly lesbian types," and "bitter old women who couldn't find a husband," in an attempt to humiliate and intimidate us.

  2. Accusations of overreacting. Some writers—attempting to belittle and discredit NOW's concerns—provided this advice: "Maybe you should stop fighting everything and go along with the flow, ride it out, life is too short," and "Try directing your energy to more worthwhile causes like third-world hunger, or your city's homeless population."
Feminists often face insults and patronizing comments when we question the status quo. By analyzing the Super Bowl commercials, however, the NOW Foundation remained true to perhaps the most important principle of feminism—that many, many factors work together to limit women's status in society.

In a world that is now being rocked by war, where women are stoned to death for being raped, it might seem frivolous—at least on the surface—to spotlight the U.S. media's obsession with sexy women. Should feminists limit their focus to only the most heinous and obvious forms of oppression?

NOW and the NOW Foundation have always worked on issues that represent an immediate threat to women's lives, such as the war in Iraq and (long before Bush invaded Afghanistan) the plight of women living under the Taliban.

But feminists also know that she/he who controls the media controls the flow of information and the power of perception. The media's manipulation of women's sexuality also serves as further proof that women's bodies are still not their own in any arena.

On Super Bowl day, and pretty much every day of the year, the mainstream media promote women as eye candy, valued for little more than their desirability and eagerness to please. Until the media and the advertising industry develop a newfound respect for women, the struggle to be taken seriously and viewed as equals will continue. Feminists can lead them toward that respect.

If you see an offensive commercial, write to the network, your local TV station, and the maker of the product. Visit www.now.org/media to find addresses for local TV stations. Use a search engine to find makers of certain products—big companies usually require that you send comments directly through their own web sites.

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