Why One Ad With Female Engineers Flopped, While Another Is Succeeding


This year at the Super Bowl, sweetness beat out sexism when it came to advertising. One spot, though, attracted some negative attention for its portrayal of female engineers at a time when the White House and private organizations are putting on renewed pushes to improve the number of young women in STEM fields. Volkswagon’s big ad featured a father telling his daughter that when the company’s cars hit milestones, Volkswagon engineers get their wings. But the spot only featured male engineers with feathers bursting out of their lab coats:

It’s not much of a concept, in any case: the end joke is more puerile than it is actually funny. But nobody at Volkswagon or in the company’s ad shop appears to have noticed that none of the engineers who get their wings are women. The closest one gets is the experience of being jostled in the elevator when one of her colleagues level up. It’s a subtle omission, but an important one to some viewers.

But I haven’t seen as much reaction to this GE ad, which has been airing with some frequency during the Super Bowl:

In it, a little girl imagines her mother as a kind of science fictional hero, a magician who makes engines runs by moonlight and bridges the communications gap between technology and the natural world. That’s a kind of image that’s all too rare in popular culture anyway. And when women do get the opportunity to play scientists, sometimes they have to take their clothes off, just so we never forget that any on-screen lady has an obligation to be sexually attractive, and potentially sexually available.

Part of what’s clever about the GE ad, too, is that it could have ended with a call to support the little girl’s dream, without grounding her fantasy in reality. The story could have been about the gap between that little girl’s dreams and her realities. Instead, the spot makes clear that the little girl’s interpretations of her mother’s work aren’t so far off the mark. And it sells GE as the source of not just miraculous technology, but of the role models who create it. That’s a smart way to position GE as a company of the future on two levels—and to win itself a lot of credibility with folks who are eager to see positive images of women in science.

And even if that’s not your main concern, the GE spot still does a better job of selling the company as a futuristic enterprise. As a fantasy, moon-powered technology is a much more attractive vision of the future than flying, farting scientists, whatever their gender.