What the Earliest Super Bowl Commercials Tell Us About the Super Bowl

The inaugural title game in 1967 would not have been getting kudos from the media for representing women

The Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in what came to be known as Super Bowl I. (James Flores/Getty Images)
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The earliest commercials aired during the Super Bowl have not aged well.

“This flat tire needs a man,” the Goodyear Tire narrator declared in one spot that aired during that first national championship game between the established National Football League and the up-and-coming American Football League.

It featured a damsel in distress stranded roadside after her car’s tire blows. Because the shadowy cover of night was no place for a single gal to linger, the woman wraps her coat protectively tight and seeks a payphone, presumably to call a burly man to get her out of the situation. “When there’s no man around, Goodyear should be,” the commercial crowed, plugging the company’s Double Edge Tire (“A Tire in a Tire!”).

That the ad was playing for the men in the room is not so surprising. Before the Super Bowl was even officially called the Super Bowl, the AFL-NFL World Championship Game in 1967 hinted at how the game was to be sold to the public going forward.

“They weren’t really expecting women to watch,” says Danielle Sarver Coombs, an associate professor at Kent State University, who specializes in sports fandom. The Goodyear ad, in turn, she believes, can be viewed as a direct appeal toward men’s hypermasculinity, with the subtext being “You don't want to be the one to let your wife or your daughter down because you put her in an unsafe environment with unsafe tires.”

Super Bowl I was the logical follow-up to the announcement of a merger between the leagues. While the game was billed as the faceoff, no one really expected the AFL’s best team, the Kansas City Chiefs, would upset Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. And it didn’t; the Packers beat the Chiefs 35-10 in the reliably temperate Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on that historic January 15 faceoff.

The only known copy of the game remains, frustratingly, in limbo (the NFL, which owns the content, won’t pay the asking price for the tapes, which are held by a private citizen in the Outer Banks, and the league has threatened legal action if the footage is made public), but we do at least know who some of the advertisers were. Details provided by the late marketing expert Bernice Kanner in her book The Super Bowl of Advertising: How the Commercials Won the Game, note that the spots that aired during that warm mid-winter day in L.A. came from Ford, Chrysler, RCA, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, McDonald's, Budweiser, among others.

Four years before Archie Bunker became the stand-in for the white, American working class on “All in the Family,” Kanner contends the commercials aired during Super Bowl I were aimed at reaching that image of a white, blue collar “manly man.”

Cultural historian Bob Batchelor who co-edited We Are What We Sell: How Advertising Shapes American Life. . . And Always Has with Coombs, believes that first Super Bowl also captured advertising itself in a state of flux. “The first Super Bowl is a really interesting time frame,” he says. The medium itself was becoming more sophisticated in the late 1960s—Ad Age called it a "creative revolution," where traditional styles were eschewed in favor of "innovation, sophistication and a growing youth culture." That came, in part, because the agencies themselves were becoming more reflective of their consumer base, becoming younger and even a little more female. While the people making the decisions in the room were still likely to be the type personified by Don Draper in “Mad Men,” Batchelor says the Peggy Olsons were starting to rise, particularly as advertisers came to understand that half the population in the United States was under 25, and they needed to sell to them. “Advertising [had] to stop just talking to men and start understanding that there's a connection between the products that they're trying to sell and the audience that most needs to hear that message,” Batchelor says.

That being said, the Super Bowl still reflected the culture of the time. As Coombs explains, for a hyper masculine sport like football, hyper masculine-focused advertising followed in turn. “What I think is really interesting is how that has carried through,” she says, pointing out how football commercials today continue to cater to the male market despite a documented shift in the demographic tuning in.

Football’s inherent compatibility with television—the built-in pauses, for instance, make for easy commercial transitions—gave the game a special relationship with television from the start. CBS and NBC, who owned air rights to the NFL and AFL, respectively, had agreed to simultaneously broadcast the first championship game. (It wouldn’t be until its third iteration in 1969 that the title game was formally renamed the Super Bowl, the name that Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, was said to have first come up with after watching his daughter play with her Wham-O Super Ball, the “it” toy of Christmas ’66, which was alleged to bounce six-times higher than a mere rubber ball.)

In the lead-up to gameday, both networks made a to-do about the showdown, hoping to capture the larger viewing public. And they did capture a relatively large market. An estimated 56 million watched the first Super Bowl (news outlets were already referring to the game by the more headline-friendly title, despite the NFL's stated distaste toward it).

The majority of viewers would have preferred no television advertising during the programming, says Coombs, referencing a National Association of Broadcasters public opinion survey taken in 1969. Yet even from the earliest Super Bowl, the networks had their eyes on the advertiser first, as best explained by a mishap involving entertainer Bob Hope. During halftime, Hope went long in an interview with an NBC broadcaster, and because of that the network was still running commercials when the gameplay resumed.

That meant while CBS viewers were watching the second-half kickoff, NBC viewers were still stuck on a Winston cigarette commercial. Once the referees realized NBC was still on break, they called the ball dead (while it was apparently still in the air), forcing a second kickoff so that everyone watching at home could witness it. “[The NFL] would re-kick it rather than hold their ground and say, ‘Sorry, you missed it, we’re moving on,’” says Coombs, which shows the sway the networks had on football, and commercials had on networks even then.

Unlike today, few spots made their debut during the first NFL championship, but already they “carried considerable clout,” according to Kanner. Still, it would take until a 1973 commercial starring Super Bowl III MVP Joe Namath and actress Farrah Fawcett for Noxzema Shave Cream that dripped in sexual innuendo for the Super Bowl to establish itself as an event for advertisers.

Even then, says Batchelor, advertisements still had a ways to go before Apple released its famous “1984” spot, which paved the way for making Super Bowl commercials an integral part of the Super Bowl tradition. “I remember watching the Super Bowls in the ’70s, ’80s, the advertising was considered fun or interesting, but it wasn't considered a must-see TV moment, that's for sure,” he says. They weren’t yet dictating “what's in, what's considered creative, how we should be looking at the world, how advertisers should be presenting the world to us.”

Still, the roots of what was to come stretch all way back to that 1967 game. That might be why today, Coombs observes that “there’s still this expectation of [the Super Bowl] being a man’s game—even though it hasn’t actually been that for years.” She points to statistics that show, for instance, nearly half of the modern NFL audience identifies as women.

The recent controversy over the Gillette ad addressing toxic masculinity speaks to that. But while you won’t be seeing it air during this year’s Super Bowl—not because of any backlash, according to Procter & Gamble, but rather because the cost of running the two-minute spot would have been astronomical—you will be seeing more women-facing spots. Ad Age, for instance, led this year’s coverage with the headline “Super Bowl LIII Commercials: The Year of the Woman,” pointing to a shift in brand coverage.

For the Super Bowl faithful, that’s something. “[T]his year's Big Game is far and away the friendliest to its female audience,” journalist Jeanine Poggi points out in the article.

Still, when it comes to representation and diversity in Super Bowl advertising, there's a long road ahead. At least this year, though, rather than watch a woman fail at fixing a flat tire, you can check out Toni Harris, the first woman who does not play a specialist position to earn a college football scholarship, star in a Toyota commercial where she also is featured with a tire, only this time, it's a giant, heavy truck tire that she literally flips in the air.

About Jackie Mansky

Jacqueline Mansky is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She was previously the assistant web editor, humanities, for Smithsonian magazine.

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