Patriarchy, the NFL, and Superbowl Ads


In the three years since The Representation Project has taken on sexism in Superbowl ads, we’ve seen quite a bit of improvement. As Caroline Knorr points out over at Common Sense Media, most families don’t want sex—much less sexism—in the ads they see with their kids during the big game, and advertisers are responding. They’re also responding to the tweets The Representation Project sends out via the #NotBuyingIt and #MediaWeLike campaigns: each year, we see a round of ads and a round of responses.  This year, the discussion started early, as some ads were released pre-game. Among them was a very important public service announcement (PSA):’s reminder about the realities of intimate partner violence (IPV). So—what does all this say about our culture? Are we making headway against sexism as the foundation for our entertainment and economy? Yes—and no.’s spot is very powerful.  We never see a person, and the woman’s voice on the phone is calm. But we see the aftermath of what has happened, the destruction her abuser has wrought. It’s not hard to fill in the gaps, to imagine the woman on the phone and what she’s been through. This one-minute spot in the midst of the Superbowl gives us pause, as it should: it serves as a moment of silence in honor of victims, and hopefully as motivation to begin a conversation. I was glad to see the NFL referencing, however obliquely, the problem of violence at its core. However, as Mychal Denzel Smith points out in an article for Feministing, the PSA simply asks us to consider the victim, to address her wounds—it doesn’t ask us to examine the underpinnings of the violence against her. And it certainly doesn’t make any connection between the version of masculinity that the NFL promotes and violence against women.

The NFL is well aware of this connection. They are listed among the clients of Joe Ehrmann’s Coach for America program, which has a Coaching to End Gender Violence handout that teaches, among other things, that coaches should instruct players “…how to be men in ways that don’t involve degrading or abusing girls and women.”  The program also includes an NFL-endorsed Call to Coaches, which discusses why and how IPV and sexual assault are preventable.  Imagine how powerful it would be if, alongside the spot, a spot about masculinity and violence from Coach for America aired–and was followed by a list of policy changes within the NFL.

Instead, we get a typical Carl’s Jr. ad, which ignores the connections between the objectification of women, violence, and our current definition of masculinity (all of which are the underpinnings of patriarchy). Carl’s Jr. is well-known for their promotion of sexism and objectification of women.  This year’s ad is no exception, with the same old metaphors of tomatoes and melons, hardy-har-har.  The franchise’s messages are predictable—and so is the fact that at least one ad like this will still get airtime during the Superbowl.

It’s clear we’ve made some headway against sexism in advertising, and it’s clear that the NFL is aware that we have a major violence against women problem.  Roger Goodell made some promises about change in the NFL’s approach to IPV last year, and the organization has launched some anti-violence initiatives.  However, as Diana Moskovitz explains in an article for Deadspin, the NFL is talking the talk, but they aren’t really walking the walk: “The NFL has changed, but mainly in ways that promote its image, allow it to work with brands, and don’t really do much to help anyone on the front lines of working with domestic-violence victims.”  Moskovitz goes on to list the NFL’s intiatives (including financial donations to anti-violence groups and anti-violence workshops for the teams)—and the ways in which they are ineffective at creating real change.

That’s the takeaway we have from this year’s Superbowl as well—yes, sexism in ads was way down from previous years, but far from gone.  For Carl’s Jr., as well as Fiat and Victoria’s Secret, it was the same old sexism—and nothing that aired during the game gave us any indication that sexism and objectification are connected to violence, and to the NFL itself.  We’ll know we’ve made real progress in teaching our boys how to be men without “degrading and abusing girls and women” when the biggest show in sports looks us in the eye and says No More—and then walks the walk.



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