Category Archives: sports

Let’s Analyze Super Bowl Commercials!

In 2015, You Tube Super Bowl ads accumulated 133 million views, and many of these views came well in advance of the actual Super Bowl broadcast, offering advertisers a rich (pun intended) opportunity to attract online audiences. The Super Bowl is the largest advertising event of the year, with costs to air a 30 second ad in excess of $3 million. Clearly, planning, design, and execution of Super Bowl commercials requires meticulous persuasive rhetoric.

Source: Super Bowl Commercials 2016

Source: Super Bowl Commercials 2016

As Super Bowl audiences, we enjoy the commercials; they’ve become part of the bigger picture of the Super Bowl as a mega-media event alongside the halftime entertainment spectacle and the actual football competition.  But the Super Bowl commercials also present us with an opportunity to unpack the methods by which we are made to feel a particular way about a product or service.  And, when we step back from the content of a text like Super Bowl commercials, we become reflective. Reflexivity is a developable capacity—the ability to self-reflect is not separate from the process of coming to know and understand. When we recognize the persuasion infused within text structures like Super Bowl commercials, we become better readers of other texts and our world.

So, what language and visual analyses can we apply to Super Bowl commercials?  How can we move from deciding what the Super Bowl commercial topics are to how their composers are crafting their arguments?

Persuasion, Messages, and Assumptions 

Source: Emergent Media

Source: Emergent Media

It helps to understand what “persuasion” is in order to get started with Super Bowl commercial analysis.  Persuasion is communication intended to induce belief or action. If they’re successful, text composers will capture and hold their audiences, and those audiences will be persuaded to think, to know their worlds, and to behave in particular ways based on persuasive appeal.  The messages that are embedded within texts like Super Bowl commercials are part of an information exchange that contains a definite world view. Composers disseminate messages in ways that attempt to persuade their audiences to see the world in particular ways.

Those particular ways of seeing the world are sometimes called “assumptions.”  Assumptions are ideas that are accepted to be true without having much accompanying evidence.  Amateur and professional sports are constantly-evolving spaces, and Super Bowl commercials describe these sports spaces and the larger society in which we live through embedded assumptions.

A Four-Part Process to Analyze Super Bowl Commercials

So much happens during a Super Bowl commercial! A full story is told within 15 or 30 seconds. As the audience, we respond not only to fictionalized characters and conflicts but stylized images made possible through sophisticated digital editing  techniques. Together, a series of elements create effects that cause us to respond in particular ways.  Breaking these elements into parts and synthesizing them afterward can help us to show evidence of measured thought and to digest multiple possible interpretations of Super Bowl commercials as persuasive media texts. 

Content and Context 

Source: Super Bowl Commercials 2016

  • Start by listing objects within the commercial and offering detailed descriptions of these objects.
  • What do people say to each other in this commercial?  How do individuals respond to and build upon others’ language choices? Note the most important conversational exchanges.
  • Consider the structural mechanisms that are used to draw the viewer into the text. For example, how are lighting, sound, music, voice overs, special effects, editing, color symbolism, and/ or casting used to foster audience interest?
  • Is there any specific implied prior knowledge that would be important for a viewer to hold in order to understand the commercial?  If so, name it.
  • Describe the setting: time and place.  Why did the composer choose these instead of other possible times and places?


Source: PBS

Source: PBS

  • Return to the list and descriptions of objects you created.  Now isolate certain objects that seem to stand out as unusual, important, or curious.
  • Explain what these isolated objects often represent in society.  This type of representation is sometimes called “allusion.”  Allusions use one object to remind us of a deep series of meanings through calling to mind popular culture, history, politics, literature, religion, or art.
  • Make a hypothesis for each isolated object:  what might the composer of this commercial be trying to tell us about our own lives through this allusion?

Composer and Target Audience 

Source: Driving

  • Research who commissioned the text.   Since Super Bowl commercials are so expensive, it’s likely that a corporation paid to have the commercial produced.  What do we know about the corporation and its holdings?
  • Who actually designed and produced the commercial?  What is that company’s or individual’s reputation and experience within the world of advertising? For what other advertisements is the designer/ producer known?
  • Who is the target audience for this commercial?  How do you know?  What features of the commercial appeal to a particular age and demographic group?  
  • What are the possible economic consequences of this commercial’s success? How might it lead to new audiences adopting the corporation’s product or service?


Source: Subliminal Messages for Alienation Paulo Zerbato

Source: Subliminal Messages for Alienation Paulo Zerbato

  • What themes or lessons is this commercial telling us about our world and ways that we should behave?
  • What evidence or reasons does the text composer supply to support the theme or lesson? How good are these reasons or evidence? Why do you trust or distrust the reasons and evidence?
  • How might different people interpret these themes or lessons differently?  What are the possible consequences of such themes or lessons for different audiences?

Critical Thought through Analyzing Commercials

Breaking apart Super Bowl commercials like this takes methodical thought and effort. However, such textual analysis through both visual and language deconstruction moves us from being passive recipients of messages to active interpreters of media and society.  Sound bites have less power when we can demonstrate why media messages reproduce certain cultural norms in our society.  

Because we both consume and produce media texts, we can integrate the critical analysis techniques we learn through Super Bowl commercial analysis into our lived media experiences. Super Bowl commercial analysis opens us up to how advertising is played out between corporations and changing objectives of economic and cultural fields. The interplay between corporations and the media can become a bit more apparent when we recognize media’s changing forms and content and its impact on lifestyles, social norms, and belief systems that most people consider “normal.”

When we investigate the pleasure we derive from media consumption and learn how to question it, we achieve a duality of purpose that helps us to weigh the costs and benefits of media messages. Through our social media interactions, we can use media analysis to shift to our own greater community involvement and understand of media’s contributions to our collective culture. 

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s 2015 Grand Prize Award for Technology and Reading.  She teaches English Language Arts at a New England public high school and is an adjunct faculty member at Rhode Island College. If you’d like information about workshops in digital and media literacy and learning, contact Carolyn at


It’s Time to Stop Underestimating the Power of Women’s Sports

On Sunday, July 5, the U.S. Women’s soccer team soundly defeated Japan 5-2 in the 2015 FIFA World Cup Finals, setting “the highest metered market rating ever for a soccer game in the U.S. on a single network,” according to Fox Sports.

The U.S. Women’s win also calls into question the constantly reproduced media message that few spectators actually care about women’s sports.

Why does that perception— that women’s sports aren’t worth watching — persist?  Perhaps it’s due in part, as a recent USC study of TV news media determined, that media coverage of women’s sports has hardly changed in the last 25 years. That gap in coverage is hard to understand if we think about the progress made in women’s sports participation since the implementation of Title IX.  The number of high school girls participating in sports has risen ten-fold, and six times as many women now compete in college sports,

Recently, as reported by ESPN WSports Illustrated‘s Andy Benoit tweeted then deleted posts about women’s sports not being worth watching, igniting controversy across social media. Benoit is not alone.  andy benoit women's sports not worth watchingBarstool Sports agreed with Benoit, saying, “A lot of people feel that way, and it doesn’t make you a sexist.”

Yes, denigrating one half of the population does make you a sexist.  And, when you declare that men’s sports is inherently more interesting, or that male athletes perform at higher levels, you’re endorsing sport as an institution that reaffirms masculine privilege.

What is gender, and how do sports media contribute to gender divisions?  The term “gender” is a set of power relations where men hold and control more power than women.   Gender has culturally dominant, or what’s known as hegemonic, consequences. So, a hegemonic masculine discourse, culture, and organizational structure within sports media promotes coverage of primarily male athletes. And sports media perpetuate economic processes that hinder gender equity, as they endow commercial structures with institutional approval to give preference to male sports.  In doing so, sports media perpetuate athletic-consumer hegemonic masculinity.

Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers, of Saturday Night Live fame, reunited and performed a new “REALLY?” segment.  The segment offers comparisons between the FIFA 2015 Women’s World Cup semi-finals between England and Norway versus a missed USPGA putt. “REALLY?” They critiqued the propensity for prime channel broadcasts of, say, hours of pre-Kentucky Derby hat watching, versus a bunch of “bad-ass bitches” taking down the Columbian women’s soccer team on a secondary sports channel. “REALLY?” They gave a shout-out to Serena Williams and hammered SI for putting out “an entire swimsuit issue dedicated to women who aren’t in sports.” You guessed it:  “REALLY?”

We have to remember that sport reflects, as well as reproduces, the attitudes, beliefs, rituals, and values of the society in which it is developed. Sport as a domain has generally been labeled as masculine and reaffirms a gender hierarchy.  Importantly, sports are a way for a new generation to gain realizations about the social constructions of gender.  Young people  acquire gender sport stereotypes conveyed from the social environment of the media, which can influence their attitudes about equity in sports and life.

But many voices are emerging that may cause people to question commonly accepted viewpoints about the inherent dominance and place of men’s sports.  Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation, recently said, “It’s time to write more about women’s sports and be part of the grassroots struggle to do what the sports networks and sports-radio talking potatoes won’t do, and that’s tell the stories of what is happening in women’s sports.”  Instead of accepting sport injustices within compressed sound bites, we can have conversations in which we celebrate women’s performances with the same enthusiasm that we do men’s.  As we do so, we’ll start reasoned analysis as to why certain social constructions of gender are reproduced generationally.

Maybe Barstool Sports was prescient when it stated, “If it was all equal then we’d just have the World Cup where men and women played together.” Why not? If we disregard the social conventions that preference males, then we’d be looking at individual athletes and at collective team performances.  A combination of the best athletes on one team, regardless of gender, would be fascinating.

And it would be very entertaining.

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. analyzes media messages in our digital world.  She provides workshops for non-profits and schools and helps to illuminate possibilities for social justice through understanding the media.

Blended Learning Conference

Carolyn delivered a presentation at the Blended Learning Conference called “The Art of Digital Challenge and Choice: Curated Collections of Texts for Student Inquiry.”  Participants in this workshop experienced a hands-on, action-based digital curriculum that emphasizes choice and inquiry. After moving through a series of quick tutorials on how students access and utilize materials, participants surveyed thematically-based curated collections and explored how students convert their play-lists into original digital compositions and creations. Highlander Institute, Providence, in conjunction with URI’s Media Education Lab. May, 2014.