Super Bowl Ad Watch: Olay’s “Make Space for Women”

Fenster writes:

It is noteworthy but not surprising that Olay, a skin care product for women, would choose to advertise during the Super Bowl.  As noted in an earlier post in this series women are not only the main purchasers in domestic settings but they pay more attention than men to advertisements during the game and now comprise almost half its viewership.

It is reasonable, then, that its Super Bowl ad would be targeted to a female demographic and even that it would have an all female cast.  And since social messaging is hardly hidden in ads these days–indeed it is in some ways mandated–it figures, too, that Olay would opt for an explicit empowerment message.  And in that regard Olay does not disappoint.

However I must say I am perplexed by how Olay chose to deliver that empowerment theme.  But let’s look at the ad first.  Check it out–it won’t take long.


Short summary:

A reporter asks ‘Is there enough space in space for women?’ and then asks ‘Who wrote that? Are people really still asking that?’ as a team of women astronauts prepare for a space launch. They enter the Olay rocket and shoot into space to realize they have the opposite of a problem – there is so much space up there. When space is made for women, its made for all.

The reporter is Katie Couric, the astronauts are the actress Busy Philipps, the comedian Lilly Singh, and the real-life astronaut Nicole Stott.  Ground commentary is provided by the actress Tarija Henson.

How does the ad do relative to the basic demographics we have discussed?  First, it is all-female, down to the cheering crowd at Mission Control.  No huge surprise but worth noting that the casting is clearly intended as a statement.  It is relatively diverse, too.  Couric, Philipps and Stott are straight white women.  Henson is black and Singh is a bisexual Canadian of Indian descent.  The women are older than the typical cool kids seen in other ads (ages: 63, 57, 49, 40 and 31), which is understandable given that Olay aims for a somewhat older crowd looking for younger looking skin.

In a very short time the ad hits a couple of key themes.  There is the play on the word “space”, linking outer space with the notion of “making space” for women as astronauts and, more broadly, in the sciences.  Olay offers one dollar for every #MakeSpaceforWomen tweet to the organization Girls Who Code.

Yet the ad also seems to traffic in older female stereotypes that in another context might be deemed–to use that two dollar postmodern term–“problematic.”

While Stott’s one line reveals her to be a solid and experienced professional the celebrity astronauts Philipps and Singh come off as–how do I say this nicely? –a little ditzy.  First, there’s Singh’s revelation that “there is so much space up here!” That has, IMHO, a bit too much of a Valley Girl quality for the main thrust of the plot, which is women and STEM.

But then there’s the ending.  The presumably competent newly minted astronauts do not know that the button right in front of them is the button to eject from the craft.   But it is big and red, more sensual than scientific, and for some unexplained reason is marked “Olay” not “Eject”.  After asking “what does this button do?” one of them impulsively hits it, ejecting both into space and possibly to their deaths.

Why would Olay have developed a message about science, empowerment and STEM and then mix in such an obvious old Lucille Ball-style trope?  I honestly don’t know.  One answer could be that Olay had reason to believe women would like the ad.  Would it not have been focused group tested given the exorbitant Super Bowl advertising rates?

Here’s another theory.  I wonder about the extent to which the ad is a paint-by-numbers exercise, one that looks to sneak otherwise suspect (though effective) female images into an ad that makes it past the folks who give grades on correct social messaging themes.

Here’s an article from AdAge that seems to give the game away.  It is entitled “P&G Hopes Olay’s Super Bowl Space Mission Lands a High Gender Equality Rating“.

The Procter & Gamble Co. brand’s crew, in an ad from female-owned Badger & Winters, hops a rocket into space as Katie Couric says: “Is there enough space in space for women? Who wrote that? Are people really still asking that question?”

Apparently, yes. But the Olay crew includes three female astronauts, plus Couric and Taraji P. Henson on the ground. As part of the campaign the brand will donate $1 to Women Who Code for every tweet directed @OlaySkin with the hashtag #MakeSpaceforWomen. . .

Olay is back for a second year. Last year’s ad from Saatchi & Saatchi, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, scored low at 92 (index 100) for its portrayal of women, per ABX. Bon and Viv fared worse (84). Given the cast and theme, it will be surprising if Olay’s score doesn’t improve this year.

What can we find out about ABX and its rating system?

ABX designed a new methodology to measure gender bias, evaluating thousands of ads for conscious and unconscious gender bias.   The results formed the basis of the ABX Gender Equality Index™, the only syndicated program to measure gender bias across all media in real-time.

This methodology was adopted by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the largest advertising association in the United States.  More than 50,000 ads have now been evaluated by ABX in 14 countries, establishing the first-ever national and global gender norms for men, women, boys and girls.

While I cannot find the full details of the methodology the basics are straightforward.  Each ad is assigned scores relative to several Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  These include straightforward measurables such as male to female ratios.  And they also include softer measures relative to the extent to which the ad includes a call to action.

Having worked for many years in higher education I am all too aware of how colleges game their numbers, and even their behaviors, to move up in the US News & World Report rankings.  This feels quite similar.

Call to action?  Check. Tweet to generate donations.  Couldn’t be clearer!  High score.

Female to male?  Check. An all female cast.  Couldn’t be better! High score.

B-But . . .  LUCY???!!!










About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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1 Response to Super Bowl Ad Watch: Olay’s “Make Space for Women”

  1. Wen says:

    Those gurls are my space doggs. Don’t worry, brother. They’re with me.


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