STUDENT SAMPLE – The Crisis of Masculinity in Superbowl Commercials

Original Research by Teila (WRTG 3020 – Spring 2011)


The Super Bowl is traditionally seen as a male dominated activity. Males get together once a year and share the camaraderie of drinking beer, eating junk food, and choosing a team to support or oppose. These common rituals are followed with extraordinary Super Bowl commercials, which are known to be highly priced and exclusive. They generate gigantic audiences and leave impressionable messages on viewers. These commercials, according to researcher Bob Holt, average around $1 million dollars for every 10 seconds of live airtime. These numbers simply show how much time and energy is put into the commercial itself, because of the high price tag that follows. Companies that buy each commercial spot target specific audiences for their product.

Their demographic is typically male football enthusiasts, and although only a select group watches football games religiously, the super bowl brings in a larger audience of people who come to super bowl parties or turn on the game simply to watch the commercials. Why do they turn on a football game to watch commercials? These ads have a reputation for being outrageous and over the top, the media can talk about them for weeks to follow, many people watch them to see what will happen next and to be knowledgeable about what is going on in popular culture. Companies know these facts and their goals are simple: to get individuals off the couch and talking about their ad, by creating more stimulation surrounding their product the chances of purchasing merchandise is increased. With so many commercials and that large of an audience, I thought it would be interesting to look at what gender messages were coming through.

Due to the demographics, I assumed that the commercials would target male audiences by showing sexy women because as the saying goes, “sex sells”. By sexy I am referring to women who are sexually attractive and appealing. There was some sexualizing of women. However, I was surprised to find this was not the case in the majority of the sample. I found a common theme of male dominance throughout the commercials. This theme manifested itself in three different ways; the first included males who felt the need to take control in their lives. The second was males who are controlled, mainly by women and must reassert their control. Third, was males who asserted control by controlling other living beings. These prevalent themes expressed throughout the commercials gives important clues into how popular culture pertains to society. I question why these commercials would continue to emphasize male gender control and power and what this says about society.


Selection Method

  • Total number of commercials (2009-2011):   183 commercials (including movie trailers)
  • Target number of episodes to gather (25-35%):   44 Commercials
  • Method: Watching 2nd Quarter commercials from each game except move trailers.

The methods I used to narrow down my category included: counting how many total commercials there were for each year and how many total commercials there were in each of the four quarters per year. A quarter in a football game refers to one of the four equal periods of playing time that the game is divided. My overall category was too large to gather a representative sample from, so to narrow down the sample I chose the three most recent years. My time span included years 2009 through 2011, across those three years, there were 183 total commercials. Within the 183 total, I randomly selected 25% of the commercials, which came out to be around 45 commercials. This made my decision of randomly narrowing down my sample relatively easy because I could choose one of the quarters from the game for each year and use that as my representative sample.

First, I figured out if any of the quarters had themes presented in different quarters through online research. My research online included me trying to find different sources on whether there was a bias or theme per quarter, but because no information could be found on the topic I decided it was a safe enough bet to claim there was no theme projected per quarter. I then counted exactly how many commercials there were in each of the quarters for each year. I also narrowed my sample by eliminating movie trailers because I felt it was not representative of a super bowl commercial. I then continued to add each of the years together, by each quarter, not including movie trailers.
In figuring out exactly how many commercials totaled 2009 to 2011 had for each quarter, I figured out my sample. I simply chose the quarter that had a sufficient amount, for me to reach 25% of the total sample. The quarter I chose was the second, because it had 44 commercials total, which was the highest number compared to other quarters. Below is an illustration to better show you how my sample was chosen randomly.

Total Number of Artifacts in Category

  • 2009- 56 Total Commercials

-1st Quarter- 13 Commercials, 3 Movie Trailers
-2nd Quarter- 13 Commercials, 3 Movie Trailers
-3rd Quarter- 16 Commercials, 2 Movie Trailers
-4th Quarter- 14 Commercials, 0 Movie Trailers

  • 2010- 60 total Commercials

-1st Quarter- 15 Commercials, 2 Movie Trailers
-2nd Quarter- 19 Commercials, 2 Movie Trailers
-3rd Quarter- 13 Commercials, 1 Movie Trailers
-4th Quarter- 13 Commercials, 0 Movie Trailers

  • 2011- 67 total Commercials

-1st Quarter- 15 Commercials, 2 Movie Trailers
-2nd Quarter- 21 Commercials, 4 Movie Trailers
-3rd Quarter- 13 Commercials, 1 Movie Trailers
-4th Quarter- 18 Commercials, 4 Movie Trailers

Years Researched Quarter One Quarter Two Quarter Three Quarter Four Movie Trailers
2009 13 13 16 14 8
2010 15 19 13 13 5
2011 15 21 13 18 11
2009+2010+2011 36 44 38 41 24


Throughout the super bowl commercials there was a common theme pertaining to male power and control. The more control the man had in the commercial the more powerful he looked, which changed the way he presented himself to audiences. If he was in control and asserted power, he was shown in a masculine manner. The masculine powerful men wore suits and were conventionally handsome with good physical builds about them, while those who lacked control were portrayed as nerds, did not have very good style and a scrawny physique. They constantly showed emasculate men being taken advantage of or walked all over. I questioned what this says about American popular culture.

These messages expressed in the commercials I observed themes of how the man can be in control, regain control, or control another human to assert his control in his life, as discussed in previous paragraphs. Shown below are examples of some of the commercials that pertain to the themes.

Control in a Man’s Life

The theme of control in a man’s life refers to the loss of masculinity in his life; meaning that he must gain control in his life to reclaim his masculinity. I found two explicit examples of this.

One example came from the Dockers commercial, “Wear No Pants” (2010). There is a group of men singing in a field about wearing no pants, while only wearing t-shirts and undergarments. A dominating masculine voice is heard toward the end of the commercial that states, “Calling all men, it’s time to wear the pants”.

The man’s statement at the end suggests that men should take charge of putting on the pants, “put on your pants, you are a man!” Even something as small as wearing pants in your life should be controlled. This statement is commonly used as a double meaning, referring to the power dynamic in relationships. People usually ask inappropriate questions such as, “so…who wears the pants in this relationship”, meaning which one of you has the power and control. Ultimately meaning who has the power and control over their significant other. This statement made in the commercial suggests an innuendo that men wear the pants and need to take control, not just in the power dynamic within relationships but also in every aspect of their lives. The voice that makes this claim is highly masculine. This refers to, how his voice signifies what masculinity means in American common culture, the underlying messages of what it means to be “manly”. The demeanor is demanding, authoritative and deep, suggesting the other men in the commercial should look up to and aspire to be this individual.

The last image audiences are left with at the end of the commercial is of a well-built muscular man who is wearing pants, when the men who are not wearing pants tend to be less fit and more out of shape. The muscular man with pants on in the end is considered a real man while the men in the field not wearing pants are shown as the opposite, not masculine. This suggests that real men are supposed to be buff and in shape and those who are not, do not have control and power in their lives. This commercial advocate’s a real man will put on his pants literally and figuratively.

The second example of men gaining control in their life is shown in the commercial “ Chimps”. A man pulls into a parking space at his workplace; a second later, another car pulls up next to him. A co-worker and another co-worker are in this vehicle the car however, parks so close to his driver side door that he is unable to get out of the car, when he tries to tell the driver (co-worker) that he is unable to get out of the car the man trapped inside is blown off. He has a meeting to get too so he has to resort to other means of getting out of his car. He begins to move across his seat, to try to climb out the passenger side of the car. As he is climbing across his seat another car pulls up filled with co-workers and side swipes his entire passenger side, blocking him in again. The man is now completely blocked in, he tries to talk to the other co-workers stating how they had blocked him in but this driver and friend ignore him. The drivers and passengers represented in this commercial ignore their co-worker in the car, showing complete disregard for his needs and a lack of respect, while also not being of human origin they are chimpanzees.

The fact that co-workers are ignoring him is one thing but the fact that not even a chimp acknowledges his presence shows how the man has no authority and control over what is going on in his life. The chimps represent inferiority, the reality that he cannot even get respect from an animal that is said to be inferior to humans, signifies the lack of power he has as a man. This commercial shows his lack of masculinity through lack of control. The relationship in the commercial between man and chimp portrays a relationship similar to men who have power in their lives compared to men who do not have control and power. The chimp has the upper hand, therefore has power while the man sitting in his car is an average looking guy who does not have control in his life. It is inferred that anyone could push him around because if he is inferior to the chimp, than he must be weak. This commercial suggests that he must assert power and control to be taken seriously. His masculinity is diminished and a real man would take control of this situation by getting a new job. By having a good job where he is respected, the man can reassert his masculinity, otherwise he will remain inferior, to even a chimp.

Regaining Control

The theme regaining control particularly means to regain control from the women in their lives, who have been bossing them around. The men in these commercials use material objects to reassert their control back from the women. These objects hold masculine value; they are typical signifiers in American popular culture of what real masculine men would possess.

In the 2010 Super Bowl, Flo TV presented the commercial “Spineless”. This commercial shows a man standing in a lingerie shop with his girlfriend; he has a bra hanging over his shoulder and has a look on his face that claims his misery in the situation. It seems as though he is having a shopping day with his girl friend at some sort of large department store. Another man then enters the shot and begins to narrate the scene. He is wearing a nice suit holding a microphone as if he is an announcer at a football game. The “announcer” claims that Jason has been injured as an announcer would announce at a football game, but in Jason’s case, he is injured because his spine has been removed. The commercial follows Jason around the shopping experience with his girlfriend and viewers watch as he is pulled away from the big screen television section (masculine/manly section) of the store into the candle section (feminine/girly section). The ultimately message left for viewers is that the man needs to buy a handheld television so he can regain control over his life by watching masculine sports.

This commercial suggests that a man who lets his girlfriend drag him around is not a real man. Masculine real men do not allow this to happen and the man who does must regain control in his life. This is shown being done through the portable television, where the man is able to watch the football game. Football in American culture is a male dominated sport where men watch as other men hit each other and even hurt one another; this is considered a masculine sport. This commercial intentionally mentioned him being able to turn the portable television to a football game because then he get his “spine” back and reclaim his masculinity and.  This commercial suggests that the man who has the spine, the announcer, is powerful and in control of his life. The announcer represents a masculine male figure and through telling Jason to regain control by buying a product that is also masculine, he is representing someone Jason should want to become and something Jason can be through the masculine product. This commercial is ultimately a play on common cultural gender stereotypes that society maintains through images such as these commercials. It stereotypes the fact that women like to shop while stereotyping that men do not like to shop and if he does then he will become emasculated and feminine. Men should not allow women to boss them around, they must reassert their masculine control so they do not become “spineless”.
This may seem like an extreme example of the man having no called spineless unless he asserts his control, however, there were other commercials aired in the super bowl that supported my same findings.

This is a second example of men regaining control in their lives because the women were too controlling and they had to reassert their masculinity.

Dodge Charger produced a commercial called, “Mans Last Stand”. This shows different images of different men who have lost their excitement in life. The men in the commercial do not talk and the entire commercial is narrated. It is implied that the narrator is stating what is going on inside each of the men’s minds. The background narrating makes a claim during the commercial that all of these men have done everything that they have been told to do in life and to illustrate this more clearly I will give an example, “I took out the trash like you asked me to”. This is something the commercial is suggesting that has made the man miserable. The commercial continues to narrate the many things that these men have been told to do by the women in their lives. The “chores” the men in the commercial have been forced to do everyday are however not unusual tasks but they are jobs “normal” responsible individuals would normally do in their daily routine. The commercial does not physically show the women telling the men what to do but it is implied in such a way that viewers get the hint without needing the image. The end of this commercial claims, “this car is a man’s last stand” and that these men need to reassert their control and ultimately regain happiness by, buying a Dodge Charger.

This commercial shows different gender stereotypes. One stereotype is portrayed of the women being a typical nagging girlfriend/wife. Another stereotype is how men typically would rather reassert their masculinity through buying a masculine product than tell his partner how he is feeling.

The fact that the men in this ad are regular looking and average, puts forward the idea that a majority of men may feel this way and that you are not alone as a man watching this commercial. This is a good advertising technique to connect with different audiences. However, what about the message conveyed here? The men must keep to themselves and not communicate that something is wrong with their life. That the man’s only stand left is to buy a car that makes him feel in control again. These messages are sending messages to all viewers, but this commercial is directed mainly towards men. These suggestions are ones with strong underlying messages of how men lack communication and women are overbearing. This is a disturbing thought to think of, if someone internalized these messages and applied them to their everyday life.

What one could take from both of these commercials is that women are controlling and men must own or be doing something masculine to have control over his life, in turn recognizing he is a real man.

Asserting Control through Control Over Another Being

The theme of asserting control through controlling another being means that the men in these commercials used their assertion of control over something else in order to feel masculine and in control of his life.

The “Shower” commercial marketed from shows a man sitting at the computer and he has two friends around him. He shows his friends how he can make the girl on the computer screen do pretty much anything he wants. The girl on the screen says that she has taken an unusual amount of showers but has no idea why. The men sitting at the computer also make another girl appear into the screen to take a shower with the other girl. The main meaning behind this commercial is that because the men sitting at the computer screen has a domain name, he is in control of his life, inferring every man should have  domain name through

This commercial demonstrates how the male has complete and utter power over the women on the computer. This commercial has major sexual overtones of eroticized male fantasies. The men control the woman in the shower and even add another woman to the shower scene, making it that much more erotic and fantasy oriented. This fantasy of having two women sexually involved together is a typical gendered fantasy. Men love the thought of having two women together at once however; most males cannot make this fantasy come true in reality. The males in the commercial are average looking men, meaning the option of this fantasy becoming reality would be even farther from possible. This strategy can attract more average viewers because they can relate to their desires feeling unachievable. Therefore, they must control the women into doing want they wish, so they can assert their masculinity. The fact that this average male has the power to make this fantasy occur through control gives him ultimate masculinity and power.

This commercial suggests that males who have power over women have power in their lives and are recognized as being “cool” and masculine. Even the guys friends in the commercial act as though his friend is a “god” because he can control these women. The fact that there is so much pleasure about controlling these women is disturbing.

Another interesting angle this commercial took is how the woman in the shower does not know she is being watched, yet she talks to herself in the shower saying things such as, how she has taken a bunch of shower today but does not know why. This suggests that she does have some clue of what is going on and is okay with the situation. This is important to consider how women are thought of in this regard.


In this sample, I found that male masculinity was conveyed through control and power. The males that signified being a “real” man had a particular image; they wore nice clothes, had a defined physic and were handsome. Those who were not in control of their lives were shown as the opposite of masculine; they usually were out of shape and did not wear nice clothing. These representations in the commercials show how society views men and women. Women are considered overbearing and controlling and men must reassert control to become a man when in a relationship.

This research found some disturbing representations of gender. I feel that this trend is something that should be researched more with a broader range of popular culture artifacts. I would also suggest further research would look into exploring the underlying causes of what is happening in society today that is influencing a change in focus. By not showing as many sexy women and replacing images with more male assertion of control, says something about societies changing gender portrayals and may also claim something about Americas larger society. I Hope my observations are taken and explored deeper, to establish a broader study. Determining whether these findings were a three-year phenomenon in Super Bowl commercials or whether my findings can be observed throughout American popular culture.


“Super Bowl Commercials 2011: Ads Are the Show.” Web. 25 Apr. 2011. <>.

Artifact Bibliography