Superbowl Ads: Give Us 30 Seconds and We Will Give You Warped Messages About Sex, Gender, and Relationships


I am not a football fan; I couldn’t even follow the game on TV until the advent of the computer-generated yellow line. (Oh, so that’s what they’re trying to do!) Still, I love the Super Bowl. I like the tradition of something that happens at the same time every year. I like the food (we always make chili and have recently added potato skins). Mostly, I like the thought that a significant number of people who I don’t know are doing the exact same thing that I’m doing at the same time–”event television” is rare in this age of DVRs.

Like many of those people, I pay more attention to the commercials than the game itself. In fact, I think it’s the only time I ever really watch commercials (as I mentioned, it is the age of the DVR). The problem is that as a sex educator and commentator, watching them kind of feels like work. I want to just enjoy them for the humor and the cleverness and marvel at how people came up with that idea, or alternatively complain about their lameness and failure to live up to the hype. But I spend so much of the rest of the year commenting on the warped messages society gives young people and adults about sex, gender, and relationships that each year, without fail, the Super Bowl ads serve up a microcosm of all these messages. For four million a pop, advertisers jam generations worth of bad messages into 30 seconds bits.

So as much as I want to sit back, acknowledge that advertisers have a product to sell (and that sex educators—with our insistence on appropriate messaging—would make lousy ad execs), I can’t. Like so many of my colleagues, I feel compelled to comment. The ads that set the sex education world all-a-twitter this year are pretty obvious and I am not the first to call them out.

There’s the Doritos ad where the daughter convinces her father to play “princess” with her instead of football with his friends by offering him a bag of the flavored chips. The gender messages in this one are pretty straight forward; girls like to play princesses while men prefer football (oh, and mom is out grocery shopping). Moreover, the humor in the commercial is based on the idea that men who wear dresses and make-up are inherently funny. To add to the effect, they cast stereotypically “manly” men—with beards and all. Jill McDevitt of thesexologist.orgcalls the ad “trans-phobic” because it suggests that men who put on dresses should “expect to be mocked.”

Go Daddy, the web hosting company that first burst onto the scene in 2005 with a Super Bowl ad featuring a large-busted actress in a very small tank top, had a Janet-Jackson-like wardrobe malfunction while testifying in front of a mock congressional committee about the ad she wants to air during the Super Bowl. The company has used sexy women in their advertisements ever since. Interestingly, race-car driver Danica Patrick serves as the company’s  spokesperson—in another context, she might be seen as a role model for young girls wanting to break into male-dominated arenas.

Patrick is the narrator in this year’s commercial, “A Perfect Match,” in which super-model Bar Rafaeli makes out with a super-nerd. The audio is tweaked so high that the kiss sounds sloppy and gross. Afterwards, Rafaeli gives the camera a quick glance that seems to say: “I’m not pleased that I had to do that but I had to do that.” Put simply the commercial says that kissing anyone who doesn’t meet society’s standards of beauty is gross, and the idea that an ugly guy could get it on with a pretty girl is comically unrealistic.

Then there’s Audi. I really wanted to like the Audi ad. It shows an awkward teenage boy bravely going to the prom alone and getting more confidence when his father lets him the drive the Audi. It’s a great set up, we can all relate to that stage of life. Unfortunately, what the boy does with that added bravado is walk right up to the prom queen and kiss her. Again, it should be cute but it’s not because it seems pretty obvious that she barely knows him and hasn’t consented to kissing him. In fact, at first she seems quite reluctant to do it but like all screen heroines since Scarlett O’Hara, she eventually gets into it. This just reinforces the age-old idea that women really want it, they just don’t know it, and tells young guys to: “keep at it, she’ll come around.” It may seem funny when it’s a kiss but it’s still sexual behavior without consent.

The commercial ends with him driving away with a black eye clearly provided by her date but he’s smiling because he was brave. One friend of a young son said he was upset with the ad because he had to explain to his son that hitting wasn’t okay (he suggested a car chase would have solved that issue and been more appropriate). Jill McDevitt points out that this commercial should be offensive to men as well: “Calling this ‘brave’ and insinuating that reckless and irresponsible behavior, even if it ends in a black eye, is worth it because it restores masculinity is really insulting to men.”

I suppose though, that the one everyone in my line of work is talking about is the Kia ad in which the kid in the backseat asks the dad the dreaded question: “where do babies come from?” The dad comes up with an elaborate explanation of how they come from the planet Babylandia complete with babies, pandas, puppies, and piggies in space suits. When the kid rejects his dad’s fantasy explanation and begins to repeat what his friend said, the dad employs the car radio’s amazing voice controls and starts “Wheels on the Bus” before he can even tell if the friend told his son the truth or something even crazier than a planet full of babies of all species.

This one really rankled my colleagues. Some worried that kids would see it and get confused but thanks in part to the black-out it didn’t play until after 10 p.m. so most kids who don’t already know where babies come from were likely sleeping. Others pointed out that this sends multiple terrible messages to parents. As Kirsten deFur notes in her blog, fearlesssexeducator, it tells parents that it’s okay to make up answers if you don’t know or are uncomfortable with the real one, that sexuality is a topic to be avoided, and that it’s fine to cut off your kid when he’s trying to tell you what he knows.

Leslie Kantor, Vice President of Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, writes that:

“Rather than allowing Super Bowl ads to impart erroneous information to our kids, we can use everyday opportunities to have conversations with them about our values and how to make sense of what they see in the media and hear from friends.”

She points out that talking to your kids about sex isn’t hard and we do it every day: “We can use teachable moments, use humor — it’s okay to own our own discomfort! — and put some thought into the main messages we want to give our children about sex and sexuality.”

The thing that struck me about the ad was how sexual the father’s fantasy explanation of where babies come from was. The dialogue includes the words “shoots off” and “penetrates” and the visuals of the babies on the way to earth look just like sperm swimming toward the egg. I get that this is what makes the ad funny and creative but if someone’s lying because they’re too uncomfortable with the truth wouldn’t they stick to storks and cabbage patches?

And, the kid is sitting next to his little brother. I know kids ask questions at different times but I’d be surprised that the question or some form of it didn’t come up during the nine months their mom was pregnant. That’s when I had to explain it to my older daughter; as I’ve said before, even I didn’t quite get it right. For months she thought her sister was in an egg in my uterus waiting to hatch. Plus when she finally did ask how the sperm from daddy got near the egg in the first place, I couldn’t help but giggle.

But I survived, and I told the truth and now she knows what she needs to know as she gets older. (In fact, one day when my husband pretended he didn’t know her and said “Hey, where did you come from?,” she looked at him like he was an idiot and said “Your wife’s uterus!”) Most importantly, though, she knows that I will answer her questions honestly to the best of my ability and that I’m not going to try to drown out her ideas with bad kid music.

I have to say that overall, I found this year’s commercials pretty dull. There wasn’t a kid-darth-vader in the bunch. Unfortunately, there were tons of bad messages about gender, sex, and relationships, and many reasons for me to work on Super Bowl Sunday. At least I had some chili.

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Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner