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Expect lots of puppies, little cleavage in Super Bowl ads

Super Bowl Ad Anheuser-BuschSuper Bowl Ad Anheuser-Busch
Anheuser-Busch's 2014 Super Bowl commercial entitled“ Puppy Love”. Photograph by Anheuser-Busch/AP

When more than 100 million expected viewers sit down to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday, companies shelling out $4.5 million for every 30-second spot will be playing it safe — really safe.

While companies like GoDaddy and Chrysler have pushed the envelope when it comes to gender in the past, this year most companies are going out of their way to showcase powerful women and nurturing men in ad spots.

Actress Mindy Kaling is starring in an ad for Nationwide Insurance, for example, and Dove For Men’s ad spotlights a series of men acting like caring fathers. T-Mobile, who won’t reveal details of their ad until the big day, told Fortune the spot will feature “two female comedians known for challenging the status quo.”

Even Victoria’s Secret is toning its ad down this year by featuring their models fully clothed in football gear.

Victoria SecretPhotograph by Michael Seto — Victoria Secret

As Americans focus more on how women are portrayed in the media, advertisers are hyper-aware of the nearly 50% female audience that will be watching the big game. “I think we are going to see lots of kitties and puppies and not as many boobies,” says Samantha Skey, the chief revenue officer of SheKnows Media. “It is a tricky and tense moment for advertisers who are jumping in on this huge controversial event.”

The controversy Skey is referring to is the NFL’s ever-evolving response to its domestic violence scandal. It started last year when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punched his then-fiancée unconscious in an elevator. Since then, several others cases of players allegedly abusing women have cropped up, suggesting a systemic problem. The NFL plans to respond directly to the problem by sponsoring the first-ever domestic violence awareness ad during the Super Bowl.

With the possibility that a company’s ad may run back-to-back with a public service announcement spotlighting abuse, most marketing teams probably are trying to steer clear of depicting offensive or stereotypical gender roles, says Patti Williams, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School.

“Companies don’t want to step in the middle of an issue that is very heated and controversial,” Williams says, “but they still want to advertise in the Super Bowl because it’s the biggest mass audience in the U.S.”

To be sure, some brands — Carl’s Jr. for one — will stick with the old tried and true: naked women. The burger purveyor’s ad (which was a regional buy and will mostly be seen by viewers near the west coast) features a busty blonde walking around in what appears to be nothing but her birthday suit.

Yet research suggests that this kind of racy advertising may be losing its effectiveness. Dr. Moran Cerf, a Professor of Neuroscience and Business at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management says his research has found that the way men and women react to advertisements is converging more and more every year. In other words, there really are no “advertisements for men” or “advertisement for women” anymore.

Dove Men + Care “Calls for Dad” Campaign.From YouTube

“Much of the content is appealing to both genders and when they design an ad, they try to find the common ground,” he says. “They no longer think about what can be purchased only by women or men, they try and appeal more generally.”

Outside organizations are encouraging Super Bowl fans to think about gender in advertisements, too. Procter & Gamble’s Always advertising brand will run an add that intends to “spark a social change that redefines the meaning” of the phrase “like a girl.” Also The 3% Conference, a two-day annual conference that showcases the lack of female creative leadership in advertising, and The Representation Project, an organization devoted to limiting stereotypes in media, are telling followers to tweet about ads during the game that are sexist with the hashtag #NotBuyingIt.

Despite a perceived evolution in how most companies depict gender roles in advertisement, Skey from SheKnows cautions reading too much into the Super Bowl spots. Just because a company illustrates a strong woman or a caring father doesn’t mean that their company culture has evolved at the same rate, she adds.

“This has a lot to do with fear and not necessarily with change in values,” she says. “But I do like that advertisers are being held accountable for the messages that they put out and how they are being discussed by viewers.”

To subscribe to Caroline Fairchild’s daily newsletter on the world’s most powerful women, go to www.getbroadsheet.com.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P30yUzwSTKo&w=560&h=315]

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.