Commentary

Super Bowl ads: Time for a change

Neither the ads nor the people who produced them reflect the nation's diversity

Updated: May 6, 2010, 12:32 AM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

When the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts took the field in Miami on Feb. 7, their Super Bowl wasn't the only game being played. There was a championship at stake for Madison Avenue advertising agencies that evening, too. As the players on the field were fighting for yards and points, corporate America was fighting for consumer dollars. An editorial titled "Bowl Marketers: You Need to Go Big or Go Home," (Advertising Age, Feb. 15, 2010) explained that, "The Super Bowl, despite its cost, provides the rarest of opportunities for marketers -- an environment where the ads are also programming." Companies were willing to put up an average of $2.7 million per ad because of the huge viewership the Super Bowl draws. According to Nielsen ratings, the game was the most-watched program in television history, with an approximate 106.5 million viewers. Obviously, the ads shown during the game can have enormous influence on the viewing audience.

As I watched this year with my wife, Ann, we both remarked how many ads seemed to go way over the line with stereotypical images that could be considered offensive. In the months since they aired, I've looked further into the content of those ads and the people who produced them; and it became apparent that both areas reflected a stunning lack of cultural diversity and sensitivity.

For example:

• Only four of the 67 ads shown during the Super Bowl had an African-American male as a main character; and of those four, only two (Bud Light's "Light House" and Doritos' "House Rules") involved an actor who is not a well-known celebrity. Other minorities, including minority women, did not have a leading role in any of the commercials. (Beyoncé was on the screen for less than 10 percent of her Vizio commercial, so that was not considered a leading role.) The minority actors who were present in the ads had limited speaking roles or received just a few seconds of camera time.

• There was also a lack of depictions of black middle-class families in the ads. The Doritos "House Rules" ad showed an African-American single mom ready to go on a date, reinforcing a stereotypical image of African-American women as single mothers caring for their young children with no father figure present. In the commercials set in professional or office environments, white males always had the dominant role with one exception: Telefora.com's "Rude Flowers" ad, in which white females were the main characters. The only commercial in a professional/office setting that included diverse characters was Intel's "Lunchroom" ad, which depicted a number of Intel employees as Indians and other Asians.

I have been doing media report cards since 2006. In all those years, we have never reported on an industry group that is less diverse.

• Madison Avenue, which has never shied away from using sex to sell products, followed that form in a number of Super Bowl ads this year. Go Daddy's "News" tried to make a sale with the line, "Some say the commercial is too hot for TV" -- to which Go Daddy Girl Danica Patrick replied, "How hot is too hot?" "News" and Go Daddy's other Super Bowl ad, "Spa," both employed attractive women talking in sexual innuendos to promote the company. Actress Megan Fox's celebrity and appearance were put to use in Motorola's spot, which featured Fox in a bubble bath.

• Other commercials featured scantily clad women as nothing more than props in a male-focused advertisement. Monster.com's "Beavers" starred a uniquely talented beaver and his beautiful blond "groupie." Continuing with the trend, Kia Sorento passed on including humans as main characters in its "Joy Ride" commercial in favor of stuffed animals, yet the popular theme of a bikini-clad woman in a hot tub was not missing.

• Then there were ads such as Flo TV's "Injury Report" in which women challenged the manhood of their partners. "Injury Report" portrayed a man whose "spine was removed by his girlfriend" as he shopped for lavender candles instead of watching the game. If he would simply purchase Flo TV's personal television, he could "change out of that skirt," as the narrator (Jim Nantz) passionately bemoaned.

• Bud Light's commercials were the most diverse, with African-American, Middle Eastern, Hispanic and Asian actors and actresses in speaking roles and with considerable camera time.

A few months ago, Cyrus Mehri, a civil rights attorney and a friend, told me he was working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to take action against the Madison Avenue agencies he felt were discriminating in the areas of race and gender. We talked about how ads bearing negative images can reinforce stereotypes and damage race and gender relations. We agreed that neither of us knew the race and gender of the people creating the ads. That conversation started what became, in effect, a Racial and Gender Report Card for Madison Avenue, which I wrote with five of my graduate assistants (Devan J. Dignan, Brian Hoff, Jamile M. Kitnurse, Austin Moss II and Naomi Robinson) at The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida.

The report, titled "WHITE MEN DOMINATE ADVERTISING AGENCIES' CREATIVE DIRECTOR POSITIONS As Exemplified by Ads Aired During the Super Bowl," seeks to depict the current disparity in hiring practices that exists in the advertising industry regarding race and gender. There were 67 advertisements aired during the Super Bowl, 52 of which were produced by major advertising agencies. The other 15 were produced either by the companies themselves or by creative directors who were not professionals. At least one was produced by someone who won a contest. We were able to identify the race and gender of the creative directors for 58 of the 67 commercials that aired during the game.

Here's what we found:

• None of the 52 ads from Madison Avenue agencies was produced with a person of color as the lead creative director -- 100 percent of them were white.

• Furthermore, 94 percent of the creative directors on those ads were white males; only 6 percent were female.

• When looking at all 67 ads, including the 15 produced outside a Madison Avenue agency, a total of 76 creative/co-creative directors worked on these commercials, and only one was a minority: Joelle De Jesus, a Latino man who won a Doritos "Crash the Super Bowl" contest. His ad, Doritos "House Rules," was considered by many to be a "top five" commercial in terms of popularity. This commercial was one of the few that had noncelebrity minorities in a lead role.

• Seventy of the creative directors were white males (92 percent); five were white women.

I have been doing media report cards since 2006, and I have been authoring report cards on the racial and gender hiring practices in the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS and in college sport for more than two decades. In all those years, we have never reported on an industry group that is less diverse. The Madison Avenue ad agencies we researched are almost all led by white men. The hope in writing this report is that this baseline data will provide a mirror for self-reflection so Madison Avenue can embrace change and move ahead.

The NAACP, the law firm of Mehri & Skalet PLLC and TIDES take the position that the key figures in the Madison Avenue advertising agencies that use the Super Bowl to sell products should mirror the advances made by professional football. These agencies seem to have missed what most of corporate America now understands: Diversity is a business imperative.

You don't have to look any further than the demographics of the Super Bowl viewing audience to figure that out in this context. According to Nielsen data, nearly half of the Super Bowl viewers this year were women, and nearly 20 percent were African-American and Latino; and those numbers are increasing every year. The Nielsen data indicates that 11.2 million African-Americans viewed Super Bowl XLIV, and 48 percent of them were women.

For those on Madison Avenue still in a state of denial, open your eyes. … We will not stop until a New Day is created on Madison Avenue.

-- Civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri

It is ironic that these ads aired during the NFL's biggest event. NFL franchises have worked hard in recent years to become more diverse in their front offices. The Rooney Rule, a provision launched in 2003 that requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head-coaching and senior management positions, has been an overwhelming success. Six of the last eight Super Bowl teams have had minority head coaches or general managers. The NFL recently received its highest overall grade ever, a B, in "The 2009 Racial and Gender Report Card" while also achieving its first A for racial hiring practices. Sixty-seven percent of the players in the NFL were African-American in the last statistics available.

The record of Madison Avenue agencies stands in stark contrast to that of the NFL.

The lack of minority employees who work in executive or creative positions for advertising agencies isn't new. It's been an issue in the advertising industry since it was first brought to light in 1963 by the NAACP and the Urban League of Greater New York. In response to the results of our recent study, Laura Blackburne, NAACP general counsel and a former judge, said, "The NAACP and others have tried in past years to address the exclusion of African-Americans and other racial minorities in upper management, and especially the creative departments, of the advertising industry. This study demonstrates that nothing has changed. This 'old boy' network continues to exclude the creative talents of African-Americans, women and other ethnic groups while perpetuating negative racial and gender stereotypes. We are determined to bring this industry out of the past and into the 21st century."

When ads are produced without input from diverse cultural viewpoints, the probability increases that the commercials will show biases on racial and gender issues; and those issues were apparent in many of the commercials shown during the 2010 Super Bowl broadcast.

Mehri, the civil rights attorney, summed it up this way: "The Institute's Report sheds further light on Madison Avenue's woeful employment record. For those on Madison Avenue still in a state of denial, open your eyes. For those denied fair opportunities, have hope. We will not stop until a New Day is created on Madison Avenue."

Wednesday's news conference at which the results of the study were released was held at the NAACP's New York headquarters. In attendance was Nancy Hill, the president and CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA). She is the first woman to have held that influential position in the history of AAAA, which is considered the advertising industry's national trade association. We were very pleased that she was there, and I spoke by phone with her later in the day and agreed to get together to open a dialogue with her association in the future.

The agencies need to use more diverse talent to create ads that can be popular yet also lift up their viewers rather than put them down. I call on these agencies to take immediate action to open up the hiring process. I call on the companies that hire the agencies to advertise their products to demand that the creative talent better represent America. I also call on the ad sponsors to demand change in how women and people of color are portrayed in their commercials.

Surely we can be entertained and drawn in by ads that are not made at someone else's expense.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

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Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com