The power of advertising

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, founder of the nonprofit The Representation Project, tells Quartz that shifts in advertising can correspond, and even encourage, important shifts in cultural attitudes. “Depictions of healthy masculinity and men being their whole, authentic selves are critical for modeling an alternative for consumers, particularly boys and young men,” Newsom says. The  Representation Project, an outgrowth of Newsom’s documentary “Miss Representation,” has acted as a media watchdog for gender stereotypes over the past few years, calling out video games, politicians, brands, and movies for sexism and homophobia.

But while it’s nice to see pro-football superstars lending their support to these types of campaigns rather than, say, a truck ad or Campbell’s soup commercial, it’s hard to ignore the underlying tension that exists between these athletes’ day jobs and their Dove personas.

Nelson, a Pro Bowl athlete and father of two young boys, tells Quartz that he does have to make sure he balances his on-field competitive drive with his home life. “You might worry you will get looked down on if you’re not this rough, tough, don’t show your feelings guy, but being a father opens that up and brings those emotions out,” he explains.

When his kids see men in media, Nelson says he wants them to understand that being a man is about being “comfortable in who you are, not someone that’s just fitting in because that’s the cool thing to do.”

Since joining the NFL as a second-round draft pick in 2008, Nelson has developed his own strategies to manage and compartmentalize his aggression. In his case, the 15-minute drive home from the Packers practice facilities operates as a sort of cooling-down period, allowing him to “flip a switch,” as it were, from football player to husband and father.

Which brings us back to the Super Bowl. Jessica Luther, a reporter who covers the intersection of culture and sport, tells Quartz that brands can play a big role in changing the way we look at professional athletes. (Whether brands can change the way athletes look at themselves, however, is less certain). “It matters as much what viewers are seeing in commercials between plays” as what fans read in player profiles, Luther says.

So far, there have been small shifts in the media’s depictions of masculinity. But viewers are too often left with seemingly contradictory messaging: aggression is good, and so is caring; fearlessness is important, but so is being comfortable with vulnerability. Reconciling these contradictions is not always so simple. But as Luther says, “We live with all kinds of contradictions and so it’s certainly possible to live with that one, too.”

Update Feb 3, 2016: Dove clarified to Quartz that the ads, while timed to the Super Bowl, will not air during the actual event.

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