Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Tebow ad doesn't score with groups rejected for Super Bowl

Dale Roe

Super Bowl? Perhaps we should just call it the Tebow-l.

In an event that gets the largest television audience of the year, with many viewers tuning in just to see the ads, CBS' decision to accept conservative Christian group Focus on the Family's ad featuring the former University of Florida quarterback has generated a lot of controversy.

The ad reportedly shows Tebow and his mother, Pam, who recounts a story of how she — suffering from amoebic dysentery — ignored the advice of a doctor in the Philippines to terminate her pregnancy because continuing it could have resulted in severe medical complications, including birth defects. Instead, she decided to give birth to her fifth child, the future Heisman Trophy winner.

The controversy has stemmed not so much from the content of the ad, although its truthfulness has been called into question. (Attorney Gloria Allred told Radar Online that abortion has been illegal in the Philippines since the 1930s and suggested that no physician would dare to advise it.) It's the spot's acceptance by network television, which has traditionally rejected advocacy-themed Super Bowl ads, that has some people scratching their heads.

In a Jan. 31 opinion piece in The New York Times, the former presidents of Catholics for Choice and NARAL Pro-Choice America wrote: "The United Church of Christ was turned down by CBS in 2004 when it wanted to air a Super Bowl ad that celebrated diversity and welcomed gay and lesbian Christians to the denomination. And last year NBC rejected a spot from an anti-abortion group that tried to use President Obama's life story to convey its message."

Other advocacy groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have seen ads declined. And this year, industry watchers are trying to reconcile CBS' acceptance of the Tebow ad with its rejection of a spot from gay dating Web site Mancrunch.com. The spot — which has gotten about half a million views on YouTube — shows two men watching the game and suddenly discovering (and acting on) mutual passion when they simultaneously reach for a chip.

News service Reuters quoted Mancrunch spokesman Dominic Friesen as labeling CBS anti-gay. "It's blatant discrimination," he said. The rejection letter said the ad was "not within the Network's broadcast standards for Super Bowl Sunday," but CBS also questioned the new company's nonexistent credit history.

Neal Burns, a professor at the University of Texas' College of Communication who specializes in advertising and consumer behavior, says the Tebow ad — and CBS' acceptance of it — is "just rampant with bad stuff."

"Once you open this Pandora's box, I think that you run risks of alienating large chunks of your audience, number one, and I think you run even a greater risk, from a financial point of view, of narrowing those advertisers that are happy and content to work with you," he explains.

"And television, in a sense, legitimizes things," Burns adds. "And so, there are some women who have been advised, probably, to have their pregnancy discontinued who, seeing (the Tebow ad), might decide '... if Mrs. Tebow did it, I'm going to do it,' and it will have adverse medical consequences for them, which (could) include death.

"The other legitimization, which is particularly my concern, is that this particular issue has had various demented people kill physicians and nurses who are working in those centers. And so I think it was a very unusual and not well-thought-out decision on the part of the network."

For its part, Focus on the Family says it doesn't understand all the fuss. "There's nothing political and controversial about it," the organization's spokesman, Gary Schneeberger, has said. "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." And Tim Tebow himself has weighed in, saying, "I know some people won't agree with it, but I think they can at least respect that I stand up for what I believe."

CBS has said that it has become more receptive to accepting advocacy ads, and Burns wonders if this new stance has something to do with the economy. "You know, when times are tough it's hard to walk away from a couple of million bucks," he says. "I guess if I have a choice of saying, do they want to become the evangelical network of America or was it financial, I'd prefer that it's financial."

Burns thinks that by accepting certain advocacy ads and rejecting others, the network has opened itself up to charges of discrimination, but that CBS "sort of covered its rear end by essentially saying that they would be open to looking at other advocacy issues if the ads were professionally produced, so on and so forth."

It remains to be seen how the Tebow ad will be received. Locally, I could not find a religious group poised to take advantage of it, and I've received no letters of complaint. Pam Tebow's very personal story seems to fit in with Burns' expectation that we'll see fewer ads with voices of authority, a popular trend just a few years ago.

In any event, Burns wonders whether advertisers such as Mancrunch and PETA actually have the money to advertise during the Super Bowl (ad rates are down, but it still costs between $2.5 million and $2.8 million for a 30-second spot) or whether they're just interested in the attention generated when the ad gets rejected. The Reuters article quoted Martin Franks, executive vice president of planning, policy and government affairs at CBS Corp., suggesting as much: "A whole cottage industry has grown up out of trying to make use of network turndowns."