Authors: Joylin Namie & Russell Warne
Joylin Namie, Ph.D.
Social Science Department
Truckee Meadows Community College, RDMT 334G
7000 Dandini Boulevard
Reno, NV 89512
Joylin Namie is an instructor in the Social Science Department at Truckee Meadows Community College. Her research centers on issues related to media, gender, culture, and health. Previous publications have addressed athlete representation and public health in sports nutrition marketing, and the dangers of sports nutrition supplements. Her current research focuses on risk management and concussions among female equestrians.
Representations of Female Athletes in Sports Nutrition Advertising
Located at the nexus of sports, media, and food, sports nutrition advertising is a rich site for examining competing discourses of gender representation. Although closely associated with male competitive sports, images of female athletes are increasingly employed in the marketing of these products. This article utilizes a social semiotic approach to analyze portrayals of female athletes in sports nutrition packaging, websites, and commercials. In a marked departure from televised sports coverage, in which this marketing is often embedded, results highlight increased visibility for women, reduced sexualization, and significant variation in the representation of physically active female bodies. Although female athletes exhibit their largest presence on product websites, they are also featured in television commercials aired during major televised sporting events, providing increased exposure of women’s athletics to general sports viewing audiences. At the same time, a number of semiotic devices are employed by marketers to preserve masculine hegemony in the sporting realm. These include the marginalization of female athletes in terms of numbers and, in the case of commercials, time onscreen. Other devices include clothing, setting, the image act and the gaze, power and the visual angle, the absence of voice, and decontextualization, rendering female athletes stereotypes, rather than individuals. It is postulated that increased visibility of female athletes in ways that emphasize their athletic ability over their sexuality may contribute to the normalization of female participation in sport for viewers in the continuing absence of television coverage of women’s athletics.
Keywords: sports, nutrition, women, athletes, gender, advertising
The world of sport has been described as an incredibly conservative domain for the representation of men and women in which essentialist notions of gender continue to be manifested more frequently than in any other aspect of contemporary society (12); with sports media referred to as “an overwhelmingly male and hegemonically masculine domain that produces coverage by men, for men and about men (14) (p. 128).” In spite of greatly increased sports participation by women and girls in the U.S. since the 1972 passage of Title IX (28-29), women’s sports currently receive 3.2% of overall media sports coverage (21), an underrepresentation that has continued for over a quarter century (21,56) in the midst of a global explosion of sports media, including of entirely new sporting categories (12). When women’s sports do appear onscreen, results are often relegated to a running “ticker tape” at the bottom of the screen, literally marginalizing women’s athletic achievements (21). Female athletes are also often presented in ways that emphasize their sexuality (42), physical attractiveness (52), and social roles outside of sport, such as wives and mothers (57). Nor are women allowed to appear other than heterosexual, or they risk negative commentary, if not outright exclusion (20). The language used to describe female athletes is also highly gendered, with many more comments directed at how women look (“easy on the eyes”) and their emotional state (“crying,” “giggling”) than their athletic prowess (9). Sportscasters also often call female athletes by their first names (2), and refer to them as “girls,” rather than women (74), minimizing their accomplishments. Women’s sports most often covered by the media are traditionally ‘feminine’ ones, like gymnastics and figure skating that emphasize aesthetics, as well as athletic ability (24). This is particularly true of Olympic coverage, in which women’s sports are covered significantly more than in other years (7,8), but with 97% of this coverage relegated to ‘socially acceptable’ sports like gymnastics and beach volleyball (24), featuring women in tight fitting clothing like leotards and swimsuits that appeal to male viewers (7). Soccer, which is not associated with masculinity in the U.S. to the degree it is elsewhere (52), is capturing more media attention, but only in relation to major events, such as the Women’s World Cup (17). Tennis, a sport where women have excelled and received increased endorsements and prize money, is also featured, but with coverage often focused on better looking, rather than better performing players (73). Hence, Anna Kournikova, who has never won a major tournament, was one of only six women ranked among the most important people in sports (48). Generally speaking, much of the media discourse involving sport either excludes women or presents them in ways that reinforce gender stereotypes.
Media visibility (or lack thereof) has consequences in the real world. One of the factors identified in the inability of many women’s professional sports leagues to stay afloat is lack of media coverage (5). Further, Bruce (14) argues, “…the opportunity to affirm their place in sport is not as easily available to females because mediasport offers far fewer opportunities for them to see—and potentially identify with—athletes who are like them (p. 132).” The lack of positive sporting role models (53,68) and the sexualization of girls in the media (3), including sports media (42-43), are factors in girls dropping out of sports and physical activity at twice the rate of boys during the teen years (68), something with potential lifetime consequences in terms of health and well-being. Participation in sports builds self-esteem, develops social skills, and allows girls to value their bodies for what they can do, as opposed to what they look like (68). Staying physically active also decreases the likelihood of being overweight or obese (68). At present, it is male sports, and its star athletes, who are far more visible in sports media, normalizing sport for men and leaving women largely out of the picture (53).
With its advertising embedded in the televised sports coverage from which women’s athletics is absent, sports nutrition marketing is a vital part of sports discourse. This is especially true of television commercials for the biggest brands (69), like Gatorade and Powerade, whose spots are aired during sporting events with the largest audiences and highest brand recognition (32), including the Super Bowl, College Football Playoffs (CFP), and the annual ‘March Madness’ of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Men’s Basketball Tournament (1, D. Volner, personal communication, January 10, 2017). In the U.S., 71% of adults follow sports regularly (on average, nearly eight hours per week), 94% of them through television, although the internet is gaining ground (58), especially with younger viewers (22). Up to 37% of these sports viewers are female, depending on sport, age, and income level (25). Sports nutrition marketing is often part of sports coverage, featuring star athletes, celebrities on and off the field, who possess considerable cultural capital in contemporary society (11). Given that women’s sporting events are not often televised, except for the Olympics (7,8,24) and the Women’s World Cup (17), one place viewers may actually catch a glimpse of female athletes at other times is in a sports nutrition commercial. Representations of women in this marketing genre are therefore important to examine, as they stand to influence millions of viewers. Further, as this advertising relies on promoting the illusion of improved athletic performance to sell its products, female athletes are far more likely to be represented in ways that emphasize their athletic talent, increasing their appeal as positive role models in sport (42-43). Yet, with the exception of studies of athlete endorsements of unhealthy foods (33), including sports nutrition products (13), sports nutrition advertising remains largely unexamined with regard to gender. The wealth of research regarding sports nutrition consists of studies of its efficacy, safety, and use among athletes at different levels of competition in different sports (15,51), as well as unfounded performance claims in its advertising (39-40). This research was aimed at partially addressing this gap.
Social semiotics refers to culturally specific “grammar” used in visual communication and text (46). In this case, the imagery is specific to the world of sport and associated with foods and beverages used and advertised in this cultural context. Images of athletes, those with prestige in the world of sport (11), are employed to appeal to viewers. What is challenging in the case of sports nutrition is that female athletes do not have the same prestige in the male-dominated world of sport, yet these products are marketed to everyone. The fastest growing consumer groups for sports nutrition are recreational and “lifestyle users,” meaning those who use these products as part of a healthier lifestyle, rather than to increase sporting success, and many of these new consumers are female (75). This puts manufacturers in the position of wanting to include images of successful female athletes in their advertising, but to do so in ways that do not overtly challenge the status quo of sports media, or they risk losing male customers. Although sports nutrition marketers avoid overtly sexualized imagery that women and female athletes find offensive (43), most choose to play it safe, employing a number of semiotic devices to subtly keep female athletes in their place. These devices include the marginalization of women in terms of numbers and, in the case of commercials, time onscreen. Other devices include clothing, setting, the image act and the gaze, power and the visual angle, the absence of voice, and, in some cases, decontextualization, rendering female athletes generic or “typical,” rather than individuals (46). Each of these is discussed in more detail in connection with examples from the data. The primary objective was to compare representation of female athletes in sports nutrition advertising with televised coverage of women’s sports, with regard to both the degree of visibility and variety of representation, especially variations that may not appear in televised sports coverage in which such advertising is often embedded.
Sports nutrition consists of foods, beverages, and supplements representing a $28 billion a year world market, expected to reach $45 billion by 2022 (75), with the U.S. representing the largest market segment (10). This study was an interpretive analysis (6) of packaging, websites and commercials for 26 of the most commonly available and widely advertised sports foods and beverages in the U.S. (10,34,41). It combined qualitative analysis with quantitative coding and descriptive statistics. The process began with immersion in the different media, which were coded for prominent themes using a grounded theory approach in which codes are created inductively by interpreting and defining what investigators “see” in the data (16). This process generated quantitative instruments used to code visual, auditory, and textual data based on mutually exclusive and exhaustive criteria that signified meaning in the various media (6). These included colors, images, actions, and words, common categories used in the examination of visual culture (70). The resulting instruments were used to code an initial random selection of 25% of each item type to test inter-coder reliability. Differences between coders were clarified and the initial 25% of items recoded with the remainder of the sample, with any further discrepancies resolved in person at the conclusion of coding. Two samples were coded, one in June 2012, another in June 2017. The first included packaging, websites, and 20 commercials from 2010 – 2012. The second included a re-coding of packaging and websites from the earlier sample (if available), along with a new sample of 14 commercials from 2015 – 2016. Twenty-eight variables were coded for packaging, 52 for websites, and 32 for commercials. The resulting data were analyzed using SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Science, Version 19). Frequency tables were generated for each variable within media type and correlations were run for selected variables, such as claims to improved athletic performance in conjunction with particular words and images.
Certain variables were media specific, such as the percentage of time an athlete appeared onscreen in a television commercial, while others, such as the presence or absence of an athlete, and his/her gender, ethnicity, clothing, pose, sport and setting could be compared across media. Packages were coded according to flavor purchased with variations noted across all flavors of the product. Home pages of manufacturers’ websites were coded, including all available tabs and links. These included links to product information, sponsored athletes, teams, events, and research. Television commercials were downloaded from the internet and viewed using QuickTime, where action and verbal content were coded in seconds and recorded as percentages of total length. Variables included the percentage of time an athlete was in view, competing, training, speaking, or doing something else (i.e., eating or drinking the product), as well as the setting, clothing, and actions of the athlete(s). Verbal content was coded according to speaking time, gender, and ethnicity of the speaker. Commercials were transcribed verbatim and coded for qualitative themes using the constant comparative method (67).
Sports drinks accounted for the highest overall sports nutrition sales in 2016 (69), and are expected to be the most important contributor to projected growth (75). Gatorade is by far the leading sports drink, with its brand valued at $4.8 billion, the fifth most valuable sports brand in the world (32), and 86th on Forbes’ list of the “World’s Most Powerful Brands” (31). Gatorade’s total sales for the year ending March 2017 were $6.53 billion and it spent $127 million on advertising in the U.S. (65), much of this in the form of commercials embedded in television coverage of major sporting events. Powerade is gaining market share (66), with U.S. sales of $1 billion for 2016 and continuing sponsorship of the Olympic Games. Backed financially by their parent companies, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, the two top selling beverage brands of 2016 (64), Gatorade and Powerade account for the lion’s share of sports nutrition commercials. The two sports drinks also sponsor a number of high profile athletes, including women, and employ them in their advertising, rendering it particularly useful for analyzing visibility and representation of female athletes in the largest commercial market segment for sports nutrition. Television commercials for these brands form a significant component of the data analyzed here.
Under the assumption manufacturers’ intended messaging would be most clearly visible in commercials designed to reach their largest target audiences, commercials released in conjunction with major televised sporting events during the previous two years were preferentially chosen for each sample. There were seven of these in the first sample, including Gatorade’s “Win From Within” from the 2012 National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Stars Game and “You Fuel, You Train, You Push” from the 2012 National Hockey League (NHL) All-Stars Game. Three Powerade spots were included, two (“The Time Out” and “The Dance”) from the 2012 NCAA College Men’s Basketball Tournament, and one (“The Never-Ending Game”), an online spot that ran during the 2010 soccer World Cup. Clif Shot’s “Organized Chaos,” an online commercial from the 2010 Tour de France, and two PowerBar commercials, the “Batzilla” commercial for Energy Blasts featuring snowboarder, Steve Fisher, released during the 2010 Winter Dew Tour, and the “Hypnocat” commercial for the same product (also in 2010) featuring pro-BMX rider, Steve McCann, released during the X Games, rounded out this group. The remaining commercials in the 2012 sample included Clif’s “Shot of: Hunger” (2011), PowerBar’s “Triple Threat” (2010), “You’re Stronger Than You Think” (2012), “Power to Push” (2008) and “Lamar Odom” (2010) commercials, Gatorade’s “Isn’t Enough” (2012), “Seize Every Advantage” (2012), “Own the First Move” (2012) and “Dominate the Fifth Quarter” (2012), and Powerade’s “Game Science” (2011), “Power Through” (2012), and “Keep Sweating” (2011).
Commercials in the 2017 sample included Gatorade’s “All of the Lights” (2016), which aired during the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championships on the NHL Network, the 2017 CFP National Championship on ESPN, and the 2017 NCAA Men’s College Basketball tournament (on TBS, CBS, TNT, and ESPN). Gatorade’s 2016 Super Bowl Snapchat ad filter featuring Serena Williams was also included. Commercials that appeared prior to and during the 2016 Rio Olympic Summer Games were also chosen, including special editions of Powerade’s ‘Just A Kid’ series created for the games, featuring Claressa Shields (boxing), Lopez Lomong (track), and Shakur Stevenson (boxing), as well as Gatorade’s “The Boy Who Learned to Fly” (2016) and “Never Lose the Love” (2015). Other commercials in the 2017 sample included Gatorade’s “Forget Me” (2015), “The Return” (2016), “Coast to Coast” (2016), and “Keep Sweating” (2016), and Powerade’s “Just A Kid’ from Somewhere” (2016), “Up Downs” (2016), and “Shower” (2016).
Given that only two products in 2017 sample featured images of athletes on their packaging, and neither featured females, packaging will not be addressed in detail here. In addition, one product in the original sample, Iron Girl bars by PowerBar, is no longer in production, and Iron Girl triathlon events are now sponsored by Athleta. Likewise, Clif no longer sponsors athletes under the LUNA Chix label, and the LUNA Chix Pro Team has been subsumed into the CLIF Pro Team. LUNA bars also now feature images of ingredients in place of silhouettes of dancing women on product packaging. As such, although both Iron Girl and LUNA bars were marketed using highly feminized imagery and text in the 2012 sample, both will only be used as a point of comparison and not extensively analyzed here.
The wealth of visual and textual data in the samples resulted in an analysis too extensive for a single article. A previous publication from the 2012 data addressed the ways images of successful athletes are used to sell unhealthy food and drink as fuel for athletic competition (60), while another highlighted the dangers of sports nutrition supplements (59). Results and discussion here will use data from both samples and focus solely on differences in feminine representation between sports nutrition advertising and televised sports coverage.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
In the 2012 sample, 30% of packaging, 79% of websites, and 100% of commercials featured images of athletes. Women were visible on one product package, in 30% of commercials and on 38% of websites. In the 2017 sample, female athletes were no longer featured on any product packaging, but appeared in six of 14 commercials (43%), starred solo in three (including the Snapchat filter) (21%), and appeared on 67% of product websites. The increase in the number of websites featuring female athletes occurred in spite of one product in the original sample no longer hosting a web site, another switching to only images of products, and one site having been subsumed into the site of its parent company.
Female athletes exhibited their strongest presence on websites. In the original sample, 72% of product websites included images of male athletes, while 38% included female athletes. Of 123 total athletes appearing on 2012 website pages, 71% were male and 29% were female. The most commonly portrayed sport was road cycling (44 males, 6 females), followed by running (8 males, 3 females), with rock climbing, mountain biking, and triathlon represented to a lesser degree. These sports are perceived of as gender-neutral (45) in comparison with football, basketball, and baseball, which arguably allowed more cultural ‘space’ for female athletes to make an appearance. In the 2017 re-coding of these same websites, there were significantly more images of athletes, 363 in total, including 263 males (72%) and 100 females (28%), nearly the same percentages as in the 2012 sample even though there were more than twice the number of athletes. There was, however, a far greater variety of sports represented, 22 in all, including newly popular sports such as stand-up paddle boarding and snowshoe racing. Gender neutrality of sport appeared less important, as sports stereotypically coded as male (i.e., women’s boxing and women’s hockey) were featured prominently. The age range of athletes, most of whom were in their twenties in the 2012 sample, also expanded, as did the range of ability levels. PowerBar highlighted a 90 second video of a woman in her thirties who took up ice hockey on its home page, Gatorade was awash in high school Athletes of the Year, including females in six different sports from all 50 states, and there was a page dedicated to the “Pink Helmet Posse” of skateboarding girls ages five and up on the Clifbar site.
In the original sample of 20 commercials, 95% included males, while only 30% included females. Excluding Powerade’s “The Never-Ending Game,” which featured over 100 male soccer players, there were 51 male athletes across 19 commercials in 2012, but only 13 female athletes in six commercials, meaning females were outnumbered nearly four to one. Both samples of commercials were dominated by Gatorade and Powerade, which, in the 2012 sample, tended to feature male athletes from professional and collegiate basketball (24 of 37 male athletes), as well as pro and college football. There were, however, two Powerade spots created for the 2012 London Summer Olympics that included female track athletes.
In the 2017 sample, there were 195 images of athletes across 13 television commercials, 176 men and 19 women, including Serena Williams’ Gatorade Snapchat “Virtual Dunk” filter for the 2016 Super Bowl. Again, women were underrepresented, this time at a ratio of nearly nine to one. They did, however, appear in some of the most widely televised and shared ads, so their impact was likely more than their numbers suggest, something discussed in more detail below. Although the 2017 sample of commercials consisted only of Gatorade and Powerade spots, there was also a wider representation of sports, in part due to commercials created specifically for the 2016 Rio Olympics featuring female athletes in beach volleyball and women’s boxing, that would likely not have been chosen in other years (18). Commercials in the 2017 sample included female athletes in tennis, soccer, beach volleyball, and boxing, while males were represented by football, basketball, track, boxing, weight training, and calisthenics.
Thus, while female athletes, who represent 40% of sports participants in the U.S. (43), were underrepresented here in comparison with their actual level of participation, the profile of female athletes in sports nutrition marketing far exceeded the 3.2% of televised coverage currently devoted to women’s sport (21). A wider range of women’s sports was also evident, as were female athletes of different ages and ability levels. Most importantly, this increased representation was often highly visible to mass sports audiences, especially in the case of commercials for Gatorade and Powerade, whose ads were embedded in the very televised sports coverage from which women’s sport is excluded. The ways in which female athletes were portrayed was also quite different from what is the case in televised sports coverage.
Bruce (14) revisits several techniques that continue to be employed in televised sports media with regard to its representation of female athletes. These include gender marking, compulsory heterosexuality, appropriate femininity, focusing on non-sport related aspects of athletes’ lives, sexualization, and ambivalence. For the most part, these devices were not a part of sports nutrition advertising. Gender marking, in which the women’s event is highlighted as being specifically for women, while the male event is constructed as the norm (e.g., the Women’s World Cup versus the World Cup) did not apply except in the sense of women’s events not being targeted as sites for expensive television commercials unless they were projected to have large viewing audiences like the Olympic Games. Compulsive heterosexuality was also absent, as female athletes were pictured alone, in competition or training, wearing sport appropriate clothing that was functional, rather than sexy, leaving their sexuality (and relationships) off screen. Two of the four commercials in the sample starring female athletes also featured Abby Wambach, an openly gay women’s soccer player. Likewise, appropriate femininity, while reflected in choosing high profile athletes from ‘gender appropriate’ sports like tennis and beach volleyball, and at times choosing conventionally attractive ones like Maria Sharapova, was not overly emphasized. Being pretty does not sell sports nutrition. Being successful does. Hence, Serena Williams, not Anna Kournikova, was featured more than any other female athlete in the 2017 sample, and other highly successful athletes, including Sharapova, Jessica Ennis and Hope Solo appeared in the earlier sample. The sexualization of female athletes on display in magazine spreads, men’s magazines, or ESPN’s Body Issue (42), was not even hinted here, presumably because it was not likely to increase sales of these products to women and girls (27). In the two ads that garnered the most views of the entire sample, Gatorade’s Snapchat filter for the 2016 Super Bowl and its “All of the Lights” commercial, both featuring Williams, she appeared in a baggy flannel shirt with football eye-black and in sweats leaving the tennis court, respectively, suggesting her fame was on display, not her sex appeal. Lastly, ambivalence towards women’s sporting accomplishments, meaning representations that vacillate between valorizing and trivializing their sporting prowess (14), were also absent, presumably due to the nature of the product itself, which relies on the illusion of improved sports performance, as displayed by a featured athlete’s abilities. In these ways, sports nutrition was unlike televised coverage of women’s athletics. In other ways, it was similar, if more subtle.
Marginalization, segregation, and other semiotic devices
Many commercials featuring women marginalized them in terms of male to female athlete ratio and screen time. Representation in the virtual world signifies social existence, while the absence of representation for women encourages audiences to form a view of sport where women are symbolically absent, even though they are present in large numbers (29,47). Powerade’s “Keep Sweating” (2011) was one example. It featured four athletes, three men and one woman, training in a cube-like indoor gym for 24 seconds of the 30-second commercial, 80% of total screen time. The female athlete, however, only makes it onscreen for 4.5 seconds or 19% of the time. Likewise, in Gatorade’s 2012 “Isn’t Enough,” images of athletes dominate the screen, training or competing for 50 of the 60 seconds. Women and men are shown in equal numbers (four each), with female athletes represented by a runner, a tennis player, and two soccer players. However, images of the female athletes constitute but 17 of the 50 seconds athletes are onscreen, relegating them to 34% of athlete screen time even though they represent 50% of the athletes. This marginalization continued in the later sample, with Gatorade’s “Never Lose The Love” (2016), featuring Serena Williams, April Ross, Paul George, and Usain Bolt (paired with child actors portraying their younger selves). Athletes appear onscreen for 59 seconds of the 60-second ad. Williams garners 16 seconds (27% of athlete screen time), Ross eight seconds (14%), George 19 seconds (32%) and Bolt 21 (36%). Together, the female athletes combine for 41% of screen time versus the 68% garnered by males.
Two other commercials that included women, “Own the First Move” (Gatorade, 2012) and “You’re Stronger Than You Think” (PowerBar, 2012), rectified women’s time deficits, showing female athletes for 56% and 50% of total athlete time onscreen. However, women were at times portrayed in ways that reinforced male dominance in sport, as when two runners, a black female and a white male, are shown running together in the PowerBar ad, the only instance of women and men training together in either sample. The female athlete, however, is shown running behind the male for 15.5 of the 16 seconds they are onscreen. The split second in which she is shown leading him is so brief both coders missed it in real time, only discovering it in later frame-by-frame analysis. Leaving aside the intersectionality (23) of race and gender, her being behind him nearly the entire time normalizes the idea that men are naturally faster than women.
None of the women of sports nutrition were shown in passive poses, as fashion models might be (36,44). Instead, they were actively training, competing, and sweating like the men who appeared in the same commercials, presenting a view of relative gender equality. The two genders, however, rarely inhabited the screen at the same time, reflecting gender segregation in the non-virtual world in which men and women are often spatially separated when they perform the same tasks (49). The two genders are on screen together, but physically separated, in Powerade’s “Keep Sweating,” where they simultaneously train on different levels of the same gym. In PowerBar’s “You’re Stronger Than You Think” women train with other women (swimming), and men with men (road cycling), even though both sports are gender neutral and athletes could be shown training together as many scholastic and amateur teams do.
Other semiotic devices employed to signify women’s athletic achievements as being different from those of their male counterparts were clothing and setting. Competition functions as a master sign in sports, separating ‘real’ athletes from recreational ones (11). Picturing female athletes in a non-competitive setting and/or not in sports clothing thus signals they are not to be taken as seriously. An example of this was one of Gatorade’s 2015 “Keep Sweating” commercials featuring Serena Williams, JJ Watt, and male high school basketball and soccer players. The other 29 athletes are shown engaged in competition, wearing uniforms and playing in front of enthusiastic crowds. In contrast, Williams is depicted practicing her serve, alone, in an empty stadium wearing leggings and a tank top. Cutting between the two presents a stark contrast between someone practicing at being an athlete and those who have already made the cut. She is similarly portrayed in “All of the Lights,” where the other 67 athletes are in uniform and she is shown leaving the tennis court in sweats, and in the Snapchat filter, where she is dressed in street clothes wearing football eye-black.
Three other aspects of visual grammar are germane to this discussion. The first is the image act and the gaze, especially the distinction Kress and van Leeuwen (46) make between representations in which the represented looks directly at the viewer (the “demand”) and those in which no visual contact is made (the “offer”) (pp. 116–119). The first choice establishes a relationship between the viewer and the object of the viewer’s gaze, while the other creates a sense of disengagement in which the viewer gazes upon the represented like items in a display case, while those portrayed operate as if they were not being watched (p. 119). Sports nutrition advertising very much offers up images of athletes for us to gaze upon. The athletes do not look directly at us, but are most often competing or training, their gazes directed at the action on the field or offscreen, while we watch them play.
A second relevant aspect of visual grammar is the relationship between power and the visual angle. If the view is from a high angle, meaning we are gazing down on the action, then we, the viewer, are in a position of power relative to the represented (46). In nearly all of the commercials in the 2012 sample, the reverse was true. The athletes were depicted from a low angle, rendering them “imposing or awesome” (p. 140), while we were made to feel insignificant in comparison.
A third grammatical device employed here was the absence of voice for athletes, replaced by the off-screen voiceover of an anonymous, older, white male. Kress and van Leeuwen (46) argue the absence of a writer, or in this case a speaker, creates a “fundamental lack of reciprocity (you cannot talk back to the writer)” (p. 142). This device was observed on websites in the use of a disembodied voice of science providing product information with no identifiable author or source (60). This same device appears in commercials in which a male voiceover tells us Gatorade is “energy to fuel athletes” or “new, improved Powerade ION4 replenishes fuel and four of the minerals lost in sweat,” and “hydrates better than water.” As masculinity is hegemonic in the world of sport (55), male voices already have an edge of authority in this context. The anonymous nature of the voiceovers only adds to their symbolic position of power over both the athlete and the viewer. Seventeen of the 20 commercials in the 2012 sample featured white, male voiceovers, while none of the Gatorade spots and only three of the Powerade commercials used the device in the 2017 sample, suggesting it was no longer successful. Soundtracks employing popular music were most often the choice instead.
Variety in Physical Representation
Two products in the 2012 sample stood out in terms of their highly feminized marketing, which bears mentioning here for the stark contrast it presents to what was the case in the later sample. Iron Girl was launched in 2011 with a series of women’s sporting events, including half-marathons, duathlons, and triathlons. The idea that ‘Iron Girl’ would be training for an Ironman©, however, is humorous given the imagery associated with the product. The bars came in bright yellow wrappers with a hot pink logo that simultaneously suggested a woman and a butterfly. The events awarded finishers medals in the shape of the logo bedazzled in magenta glitter, and the bibs runners wore were similarly festooned with pink flowery swirls. Online, ‘Iron Girl’ was presented as an attractive young woman dressed in lycra shorts and a jog bra, wearing make-up, not sweating, jogging past out of focus greenery. For comparison, the product marketed to men produced by the same company, PowerBar, featured a male runner sprinting across a mountain ridge, sweating, shirt and hair whipping in the wind. The male clearly represented an athlete, while ‘Iron Girl’ appeared to be posing as one (37). The out of focus background also decontextualized her, rendering her a stereotype or ‘typical example’ of a sporting female (46, p. 161), rather than an identifiable athlete like Serena Williams, further taking away from the product’s believability as fuel for sport. ‘Iron Girl’ presented an image of femininity over athletic competence, negating her use as a positive sporting role model (42).
Clif LUNA bar was the product in the 2012 sample that most actively promoted women’s athletics, sponsoring the LUNA Pro Team, “the longest running, most successful, single-sponsor team in the history of professional sport, regardless of gender (www.lunabar.com).” An elite competitive cycling team, we are told “LUNA Chix Pros have been in the Olympics, won world championships in mountain biking (MTB) and XTERRA; the overall Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) MTB World Cup title three times; five U.S. National XTERRA Championships; and countless national MTB and cyclo-cross championships in the U.S., Canada, and the Czech Republic.” This suggests LUNA bar is marketed as a product for competitive athletes. Yet, its website’s main page featured a photo of team members, off of their bikes, laughing at something off camera, laid atop a blue background with flower petal edges, again decontextualizing the women from competitive athletics. They are also called “chix,” similar to “girls,” which further minimizes their achievements (74).
The language used to describe LUNA bars was also unusual in that there were virtually no references to improved athletic performance. Instead, the label read:
“As women we know the way we eat makes a difference in how we feel. Food feeds our souls, lifts our spirits, nourishes and sustains us. So, why does finding the right thing to eat sometimes seem so complicated? With 70% organic ingredients, vitamins to meet the special needs of our bodies and flavors we love, LUNA makes finding nourishment a bit simpler.”
Contrast this with verbiage for PowerBar Energy Gels, a product targeted at competitive endurance athletes, including cyclists like those pictured on the LUNA site:
“PowerBar Energy Gel is the first gel to provide the carbs and electrolytes of a high end sports drink, and contains 4 times the sodium of leading competitors. Sodium is the key electrolyte lost in sweat and is the only electrolyte recommended to be replaced during endurance exercise. PowerBar Energy Gel is formulated with PowerBar® C2MAX dual source energy blend, a 2:1 glucose to fructose blend found to deliver 20–50% more energy to muscles than glucose alone and improve endurance performance by 8%. PowerBar Energy gels contain 200mg sodium — a key electrolyte lost in sweat that is associated with muscle cramping in some athletes.”
There is little overlap between them. The first maps onto research showing women not only buy products based on use-related aspects, but because they symbolize emotional attachment and interpersonal relations (26,44). Men are more often concerned with product function, mapping onto Energy Gel’s emphasis on improved sports performance. Reflecting evidence that traditional femininity is no longer popular in modern western cultures (35), product marketing in the 2017 sample moved towards androgynous, and at times masculine, representations of female athletes.
It was pointed out over two decades ago (50) that in order for women to become involved in a wider variety of athletic activities, sport needed to be coded as neither male, nor female, meaning its behavior and artifacts must be largely gender neutral. This is occurring to a greater degree in sports nutrition marketing for products aimed at endurance athletes. These brands lack the television advertising budgets of Gatorade and Powerade, meaning this quiet revolution is taking place largely online. On web pages for Bonk Breaker bars, official sponsor of Ironman© triathlons, Clif and Powerbar products, female cyclists, runners, and triathletes, although marginalized numerically, were portrayed androgynously, different bodies wearing the same clothing and engaged in the same activities as the men. In the case of the track cyclists on the Bonk Breaker site, both genders (although never shown cycling together) are wearing sunglasses and aerodynamic helmets that obscure facial features and hairstyles. They also wear nearly identical tight fitting cycling apparel in similar colors and are engaged in cycling competition. Given that both genders have shaved legs, similar musculature, attire, and bicycles, one would be hard pressed to notice the female athletes were women at all if the captions did not tell us “Sarah Hammer is Turbo Charged” or “Bonk Breaker Fuels Gold” for “Bausch, Hammer, and Reed, the Fastest Women in the World.” Gender is obscured to such a degree on these sites that when shown the Clif Pro Team home page, featuring nothing but an image of a female mountain biker riding outdoors, during a presentation of this research at an academic conference, the audience was hard pressed to identify the athlete as female.
Part of what allows for such gender-neutral representations is arguably the sports themselves, as well as the context in which the athletes are portrayed. Competitive cycling requires equipment and clothing that does not vary much between genders, as is the case with triathlon and running. Contrast this with figure skating, where costumes are highly stylized and gender specific, or beach volleyball, where female Olympians wear bikinis. Level of competition may also neutralize gender associations for these sports, especially with regard to clothing. Competitors at the elite level in cycling wear either the colors of their team sponsor(s) or of their country, depending on the event, overriding gender associations with any particular color. Thus, Hammer, Bausch, and Reed are dressed in red, white, and blue, the colors of the U.S. Olympic team, rather than the pink or blue associated with gender differentiation in contemporary American culture (62).
One of the Boys?
Two commercials in the sample depicted female athletes in ways that could be read as ‘masculine’ as masculinity has been culturally constructed in sport (54-55). The first, “Seize Every Advantage” (Gatorade, 2012), featured U.S. Women’s National Team soccer star Abby Wambach. Given that soccer is more often associated with women in the U.S. (52), and is especially popular among middle and high school girls (30), a growing market demographic for Gatorade (34), it is not surprising the company chose to feature Wambach in the ad. Only female athletes are shown, an anomaly in the sample. Wambach occupies 52% of the total screen time, higher than any other female athlete, but the lowest percentage of any “star” male athlete in the sample. She was also allowed to speak for herself throughout the commercial, also highly unusual in the sample. Wambach, however, portrayed the masculinity typical of the “Televised Sports Manhood Formula” (55), including the display of physical dominance over and aggression towards a weaker opponent, in this case the goalie from the opposing team, who, Wambach’s inner voice tells us, is “easy to spot” and “easy to break.” Wambach is shown sweating heavily, racing around the field, monopolizing the ball, physically clashing with opponents, and scoring the winning goal, at which point she celebrates while projected on the large screen stadium monitor, much as any star male soccer player might do. The commercial stands out in terms of representation in that it provided viewers an image of a successful female athlete competing aggressively, not sexualized, not being outnumbered by male athletes, or given less time onscreen. Gatorade was purportedly very proud of the ad, its then Senior Communications Manager, Lauren Burns, writing, “Abby is a fierce competitor that has achieved success on all levels of play. Her portrayal in the ad isn’t any different from what you’d see during a game (27).” This may be true, but it is quite different from what we most often see in coverage of female athletics, including of women’s soccer itself (17).
The other commercial employing a masculinized portrayal of a successful female athlete featured Claressa (“T-Rex”) Shields, two time Olympic gold medalist in women’s boxing, a sport still very much viewed as stereotypically male. This was Powerade’s “Just a Kid from Flint,” created especially for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The 15-second commercial begins with an actress portraying Shields as a little girl sitting on a porch punching birthday balloons. It then cuts to the adult Shields training alone with a speed bag in a boxing gym. She is only on view from the waist up, heavily muscled, punching the bag, sweating, wearing a tank top and no make up, with her hair pulled back, all signaling that she is to be taken seriously as an athlete. Shields appears onscreen for eight seconds, during which an older, white, male voice asks us,
“If the boxing gym is no place for a girl, then what does a girl’s place look like?”
The voiceover literally argues for a woman’s place in the male world of boxing. It does so, however, using a white, male voice of authority, rather than allowing Shields to speak for herself. It also refers to Shields, the only boxer in U.S. history, male or female, to win repeat Olympic gold medals, as a “girl,” a device that serves to diminish her accomplishments (74). Shields was the most competitively successful of the three athletes chosen for this series, and she was competing in a gender atypical sport (8), providing Powerade the opportunity to break new ground, which it did to a degree with the explicitly feminist content of its voiceover. However, it limited Shields’ spot to online only, instead airing a 30-second commercial featuring male boxer Shakur Stevenson during coverage of the Games.
Pushing Boundaries: New Media
In a highly successful example of new media blurring the boundaries of production, consumption and representation (47), Gatorade produced a Snapchat ad filter for the 2016 Super Bowl featuring Serena Williams in football style eye-black being virtually “dunked” under a bath of orange Gatorade. Snapchat users could save the animation and share it, personalizing it by taking a ‘selfie’ in front of the Snapchat camera and reproducing the filter with themselves as the star athlete, complete with eye-black, being dunked (38). It was a huge marketing success, generating 160 million “impressions” (swipes and downloads), significantly more than the 115 million people who tuned in to view the actual game (71). Kenny Mitchell, head of consumer engagement at Gatorade, called it “marketing in real time, marketing at the speed of sport,” while Chris Gomersall, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Atomized, a digital management company, remarked “Friends were sharing them over and over, and that’s the most powerful marketing, when you get someone to play with your brand ten times (71).”
The Gatorade dunk is already an iconic feature of the Super Bowl, with 20 of the last 30 winning teams performing it, generating more than $17 million in equivalent advertising value for Gatorade (4). The dunk was also easily recognizable and reproducible in the small sizes necessary for use on mobile phones. Most important, from a Gatorade marketing standpoint, are Snapchat’s user demographics. As of December 2016, the social media platform had over 82 million users, 23% in the 13-17 age group and 37% in the 18-24 group, making Snapchat the most important social network of teens and young adults in the U.S., ahead of Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook (72). Creating a Snapchat filter was a better investment for Gatorade than an actual Super Bowl commercial in terms of reaching Millennials, 46% of whom drink sports drinks even when they are not working out (34).
Given that the Super Bowl is the most valuable sports event brand (61), it says something about women’s place in sport that Gatorade chose Williams for its first ever Super Bowl Snapchat endeavor, over other sponsored athletes, like JJ Watt, who are National Football League (NFL) players. Interestingly, Williams was not photographed in tennis clothing, but with her hair pinned up, wearing a baggy flannel shirt, suggesting her fame was sufficient to identify her as an athlete. Her filter, however, was confined to the small screens of mobile phones, rather than the television screens of most Super Bowl advertising, meaning its largest impact was likely exposure to Generation Y, along with its (re)presentations from user to user, with millions of women and girls creating and sharing photos of themselves as NFL players being dunked, just like Williams.
Repetition and Impact
Commercials stand to have a major impact in terms of increasing the visibility of female athletes simply due to their sheer repetition. Gatorade’s “All of the Lights” illustrates this point. A 30-second commercial featuring Serena Williams and 67 other actors posing as athletes, the ad portrays imaginary high school and college teams (plus, a marching band), singing the lyrics to “All of the Lights” by Kanye West while eating Gatorade bars. Released in December 2016, this commercial aired nationally 7,948 times as of June 2017, and had been viewed over 9.8 million times online, making it one of the most recognizable ads of the year. It was shown multiple times during the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championships, the 2017 CFP National Championship, and throughout the 2017 NCAA Men’s Collegiate Basketball Tournament. The latter were two of the most watched sporting events of the year, with 26 million (75) and 9.8 million viewers, respectively, and an additional 88 million live streams (1). These events also rank sixth and seventh on Forbes’ list of most valuable sports event brands (61).
The commercial features athletes in every frame except for 1.5 seconds devoted to the marching band. Sixty-eight athletes are pictured in total, 62 males in four sports: weight training, baseball, football, and basketball. The remaining six are female, Serena Williams and five girls portraying a high school soccer team. Of 28.5 seconds of athlete screen time, four seconds (14%) is devoted to females, two seconds for Serena (who is mentioned as “starring” in the ad in news stories about the commercial), and two seconds for the girls’ soccer team. The anonymous members of the marching band get nearly as much screen time as Williams. As the spot is advertising Gatorade’s Prime Fuel and Whey Protein Recovery bars, which are to be eaten before and after competition, none of the athletes are shown engaged in competition, but are instead singing with their mouths full as they ride the bus to the game, ready themselves in the locker room, etc. With the exception of Williams, however, all of the athletes are wearing uniforms, symbolically suggesting she is not a ‘real’ athlete, although she is the only professional athlete in the commercial.
Hence, there is female representation in the most widely viewed sports nutrition advertisement of 2016, but women are still quite marginalized in terms of numbers of athletes and screen time. In addition, the two women’s sports depicted, tennis and soccer, are acceptably ‘feminine,’ while the men’s teams are depicted as playing baseball, basketball, and football, the “Big Three” of televised sports coverage (54), in which this ad was embedded. What, then, does this commercial “tell” viewers about the current place of women and girls in sport? Women are included, which is a step forward in a commercial with this type of placement and such high viewership, and 14% of screen time in a highly televised commercial is significantly more than 3.2% of overall sports coverage. In fact, four seconds of screen time shown 7,948 times adds up to nearly 530 hours of exposure for female athletes they would not have had otherwise, in the very context of male dominated sporting events from which they are typically absent. At the very least, it serves to normalize the inclusion of women’s athletics in primetime televised sporting events in a way cheerleaders do not (19).
CONCLUSIONS AND APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
The continued absence of equal representation of females and males in sports media means that audiences form a view of the world in which women are symbolically absent from athletics (47). The emphasis lies in symbolic, as actual women are present in large numbers in the world of sport, representing 40% of all sports participants in the U.S. (28). Nevertheless, what results is a situation where “regardless of what is actually happening, it is the media’s interpretation that shapes our attitudes, values, and perceptions about the world and about our culture (63).” Given that the lack of coverage of women’s athletics has continued unabated for over 25 years (21), advertising featuring female athletes that is embedded in televised sports coverage may be one avenue by which changes in attitudes and perceptions can take place.
The female athletes of sports nutrition are not only visible, but are presented in ways that highlight their athletic ability over their sexuality, increasing their appeal as sporting role models for girls (42-43). Further, the greatest gains in degree and variety of representation among these athletes appeared on websites, online commercials, and in social media, which may differentially impact younger viewers as Millennials’ time online overtakes television viewing, and a growing majority access content through mobile phones (22). Female athletes appeared in some of the most visible sports nutrition ads of the year, including a Snapchat filter aimed at Millennials that was shared 160 million times during the Super Bowl, and the most widely viewed sports nutrition commercial of the past year, Gatorade’s “All of the Lights,” which aired nearly 8,000 times, and garnered 9.8 million views online. Although the effects of media representation on viewers is the subject of ongoing debate (35,42-43,47), the high degree of repetitive exposure that female athletes receive in sports nutrition marketing has the potential to further normalize female participation in sport for mass sports audiences.
Although sports fans and athletes are the primary targets of sports nutrition marketing, it would behoove scholars of sports media, especially those advocating for a greater degree and variety of representation for women (8-9,14,18,21,24,42-43,54-56), to take note of the more positive portrayals of female athletes in sports nutrition advertising. Although advertising should not take the place of actual coverage of women’s athletics, this media genre presents female athletes as athletes, rather than sex objects, wives, or mothers. Further, this message is literally repeated thousands of times during televised sports coverage. Millions more viewers are going online to watch these commercials on purpose, simultaneously receiving the message that women and girls belong on the screen and in the game. In some small way, this increased exposure may lead to greater acceptance of women and girls as athletes on and off the field of play.
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