For the millions of viewers who tune into the Super Bowl each year, the commercials are often just as popular as the actual game. Most watch for the jokes, but far fewer take note of the actors’ body types.
A recent Yale study found that past Super Bowl advertisements have featured a surprising proportion of actors who are overweight or obese, though the commercials still vastly misrepresented the actual proportion of overweight Americans.
“In media, actors are usually very thin,” said Janet Lydecker, lead author of the study and assistant research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. “When we looked at the Super Bowl commercials and found that there were actually actors with obesity, that in itself was surprising.”
Researchers examined 241 ads that aired from Super Bowl XLVI to XLIX, for the first time exploring the weights and races of actors in the commercials. While the study authors expected to see mostly thin actors in the ads, they found that about 15 percent of commercials included overweight actors.
The study was published on Sept. 22 in The International Journal of Clinical Practice.
According to Lydecker, the researchers took interest in the subject around the time of Super Bowl XLIX, as they were curious about how commercials would represent the U.S. population. They created a list of variables to consider in the commercials, such as the race of the actors and the type of product advertised. Over three weeks, research assistants refined the variables to create coding standards. For example, a commercial was coded with “overweight/obesity” if an actor in the ad had “observable excess weight in the abdomen or face,” according to the study.
Determining whether a commercial included overweight or obese actors or whether it included humor were the two hardest factors to judge, said Gail Spielberger, a co-author of the study. Spielberger said developing the coding standards was the part of the study that took the most time and effort.
Two researchers evaluated each commercial according to the list of variables, and a third was randomly assigned to resolve any differences between the primary coders.
Researchers predicted that ads with overweight or obese actors would use humor, rather than a serious tone, and that food and beverage advertisements would be more likely to feature Hispanic and black actors since obesity rates are higher among these two groups. Instead, Lydecker said, the team encountered “so many surprises,” as the findings contradicted both hypotheses.
The results showed a small but insignificant increase in the use of humor in ads with overweight or obese actors compared to other commercials.
In addition, overweight actors in the commercials were more likely to be white. Lydecker said this trend may result from the general scarcity of Latino and black actors in TV commercials, but she said she was still surprised given the high obesity rates among these demographics. While obesity rates are highest in the Latino population, there was not a single overweight Latino actor in four years’ worth of commercials.
According to Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova University, the study results may reflect a shift away from exclusively thin actors in media, as the Super Bowl tends to lead larger trends in advertising. However, Taylor added that the “jury is still out” on whether advertisements with more representative actors are effective for increasing sales.
“We need more research on whether consumer response to more realistic models is a net positive or not,” he said.
Spielberger said that, with more research on other Super Bowl commercials and advertisements in general, a clearer trend of how advertisers are representing body types will emerge. Lydecker also expressed interest in comparing the Super Bowl to other viewing events to determine whether its advertising trends are unique. She added that the Super Bowl’s immense popularity presents an opportunity to promote public health to a diverse audience and combat weight stigmatization through realistic portrayals of body sizes.
Over 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, according to a 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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