February 07, 2010
At about 6:43 p.m. ET, one simple ad changed the Super Bowl forever.
It's now an accepted truism that the Super Bowl is as much about the advertising as the on-field action; of the estimated 100 million people who will view this year's game, a significant number can't identify anyone outside of Peyton Manning(notes). But almost everyone will remember the commercials –- in particular, one entitled "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life."
It appears simple enough: Pam Tebow telling a heartwarming story about her rather famous son, former University of Florida star quarterback Tim Tebow, punctuated with a little CGI'd violence. Indeed, given all the hype that had built up about the commercial -- the rumor that it would be a strident anti-abortion screed, for instance -- many viewers were left with an "is that it?" feeling afterward. (A slightly different version of the ad aired before the game.) But it's what's implied, what the ad represents, that could fundamentally alter the Super Bowl commercial landscape.
Over the past 43 Super Bowls, commercials have grown from simple product pitches into pop-art touchstones as companies spend millions for 30 seconds of the nation's undivided attention. They've run the gamut from provocative to subversive, ridiculous to sentimental. They've employed celebrities and ordinary people; they've praised and mocked their subjects. But until Sunday, they all had one thing in common: They stayed away from the charged worlds of politics, religion and morality.
With one gently pitched 30-second ad, however, all that has changed. A door previously closed has now been cracked open. The ad isn't simply an advocacy of a particular moral position; it has the potential to be a watershed moment in our national discourse if we allow real-world concerns to impact our entertainment.
For most of its 44-year existence, the Super Bowl has advocated only one form of morality: worship of the Super Bowl itself and its sponsors. Certainly, some companies have pushed the bounds of good taste, and the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake wardrobe malfunction of 2004 caused ripples throughout popular culture that are still being felt. But for the most part, the Super Bowl advocated and promoted a mainstream, middle-of-the-road existence that steered clear of divisive or controversial subjects.
Some ads make news because they were rejected. Indeed, GoDaddy.com has built an entire cottage industry on promoting its banned Super Bowl ads. This year, GoDaddy's ad featuring driver Danica Patrick and an effeminate football player didn't pass muster with CBS, nor did an ad for a male dating site called ManCrunch.com. Both had provocative, potentially controversial themes.
Which, in turn, makes the approval of Focus on the Family's ad an interesting case study. Certainly, there's no mistaking Focus on the Family's intent or the magnitude of its controversial message, even if this particular ad's content doesn't incite any fiery emotions. The ad is the first chapter of a story, not the story itself.
The ad campaign also serves as a stake in the ground for Tebow himself. Tebow embodies unimpeachable, almost unbelievable moral fortitude. He's gone on record as saying he is still a virgin and will remain so until marriage, and in a post-Tiger Woods world, he makes for an attractive corporate spokesman.
Ironically, his willingness to appeal to only a segment of the population may bolster his public image. We're in polarizing times, where public figures are more than willing to trade mass appeal for targeted devotion. (Think Sarah Palin, for instance, who's phenomenally popular now with right-leaning crowds despite having deeply unfavorable ratings with other segments of the American public.) If Tebow is willing to make that trade, it puts him in stark opposition to the tradition of megapopular athlete pitchmen like Michael Jordan, who famously declined to take political stands under the rationale that those who might be in opposition to the message buy shoes, too.
On a larger scale, though, the Tebow ad has the potential to change the landscape of Super Bowl advertising, and, in turn, the national post-Super Bowl conversation. Advocacy groups tend to follow the approach of siblings appealing to their parents: they did it, so why can't we? The Tebow ad now serves as precedent; from now on, a network that turns down an advocacy ad is inviting a lawsuit, or at the very least wide-scale protests. The result could be that networks give equal time to opposing points of view, leading to a can-you-top-this cycle of advocacy messaging.
Certainly, one of America's most fundamental rights is that every organization has the right to speak its piece. And if said organization happens to have the millions necessary to buy airtime during the Super Bowl, there's a valid argument for allowing them to do so. But what about the many millions who look at the Super Bowl as an escape from the thorny political and moral issues of the day, who want nothing more than to watch some football and laugh at a few amusing ads along the way? Should money and political ambition trump the original purpose of the game? Do we need to have moral and ethical discussions involved in every corner of our lives? Or is that exactly what we need?
Years from now, as we sit through Super Bowls stuffed with ad after preachy, chastising ad, we just might long for the simpler times of burping frogs.
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