Super Bowl ad featuring quarterback Tebow, mother riles abortion rights groups

CBS responded to complaints over a conservative group's planned Super Bowl ad featuring football star Tim Tebow by saying that it had eased restrictions on advocacy ads.
By Hank Stuever and Emily Yahr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

God and football, together again -- and always. The Super Bowl is getting, in addition to some Saints, a controversial dose of the culture wars: Florida quarterback prodigy Tim Tebow will appear in a 30-second ad purchased by the conservative group Focus on the Family that is scheduled to air during the nation's biggest football game on Feb. 7 on CBS.

Never one to be shy about touting his Christian beliefs (starting with those Bible chapter-verse references inscribed in white letters on black smudges under his eyes during games), Tebow will appear in the commercial with his mother, Pam, who reportedly will tell one of the Tebow family's favorite stories: How, after severe complications arose in her 1987 pregnancy, she declined medical advice to have an abortion. Her fifth child -- Tim -- was born and went on to win the Heisman trophy in 2007 (and is rarin' to go for the 2010 NFL draft).

Although various reports about the ad have not determined to what degree it conveys an antiabortion message, Focus on the Family said in a news release that it's part of a "Celebrate Life, Celebrate Family" campaign. The group's chairman said this is a "meaningful message about family and life [that] comes at the right moment in the culture."

CBS's acceptance of the advocacy ad seems to mark a shift in network policy against airing Super Bowl commercials with divisive political or social content.

The Tebow spot will be a blip in that uniquely American four-hour barrage of beer ads, computer ads, car ads, "Iron Man 2" ads, ads, Pepsi ads, and, almost incidentally, four quarters of the New Orleans Saints versus the Indianapolis Colts (and halftime with the Who), but abortion rights groups aren't having it. Last year, more than 98 million viewers -- the most to date -- watched the game.

After learning of the ad late Monday, Women's Media Center (speaking on behalf of the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation and other organizations) asked CBS to pull the ad. It also questioned how and why the network, which used to forbid "advocacy" advertising, agreed to air Focus on the Family's spot, which is valued at $2.5 million to $3 million.

"An ad that uses sports to divide rather than to unite has no place in the biggest national sports event of the year -- an event designed to bring Americans together," Jehmu Greene, president of the Women's Media Center, said in a statement.

The media center also noted that as recently as 2004, CBS had rejected an ad from the United Church of Christ, which wanted to use the Super Bowl as a chance to tell people it welcomes gay members. The center says CBS also has rejected ads in the past from and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The network says it changed its mind about advocacy ads a while back. "We have for some time moderated our approach to advocacy submissions after it became apparent that our stance did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms," spokesman Dana McClintock told the Associated Press. "In fact, most media outlets have accepted advocacy ads for some time."

"I'm stunned that any of the networks would risk one of the few, last great franchises of broadcast television for an ad that could polarize viewers," said Bob Garfield, ad critic for the magazine Advertising Age. "I'm not expecting America, or even half of America, to throw their large screens out the window. Most years after the Super Bowl, the winning quarterback thanks Jesus . . . but that doesn't seem to depress the appetite for sports championship. I don't think this Tebow situation is going to be that big of a deal."

But, Garfield added, "this is a multi-hundred-million-dollar franchise that networks have historically protected by avoiding controversy, especially in the ads. I'm surprised that anybody's going to take a risk by accepting an ad with an explicit religious message."

Gary Schneeberger, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, told the Associated Press that funds for the Tebow ad were donated by a few "very generous friends. . . . There's nothing political and controversial about it. When the day arrives, and you sit down to watch the game on TV, those who oppose it will be quite surprised at what the ad is all about."

Probably not. No matter its content, the ad's existence is about what it's always about -- a nation split not only over the concepts of abortion and choice, but over all sorts of choices: the red and the blue, Coke and Pepsi, McDonald's and Taco Bell. By announcing its ad-buy in advance, Focus on the Family is reaping the benefit of manufactured controversy and free publicity.

"People are talking about this commercial two weeks prior to the advertising -- it's good for the person buying the ad, good for the networks. I don't believe there's a negative. And that's without having any opinion of the content," said Bob Horowitz, president of Juma Entertainment and executive producer "Super Bowl's Greatest Commercials," which will air on CBS on Feb. 3.

For all their ability to zing, dazzle and impress, Super Bowl ads are an ephemeral cultural experience. "It's 30 seconds, come and gone," Horowitz said. "There will not be water-cooler discussion on Monday morning; you'll have people talking about the hilarious, entertaining spots that took place during the Super Bowl. I don't think there's a lasting effect."

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