The Politicization of the Super Bowl

I may be the world’s best fair-weather fan — Vikings? The Saints are the better underdog! — but there’s still reason to watch the Super Bowl, via an emerging sideshow involving CBS’s decision to accept a sponsor for one of its $2.5 million-plus ad spots.

The sale was made to conservative org Focus on the Family, which has an issue-oirented ad with the theme “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life,” featuring the the story of Pam Tebow and how she ignored doctors orders in 1987 and instead decided not to abort her fifth child. That son, Tim, won the Heisman in 2007.

The decision to show the spot has riled a number of pro-choice groups, including the Women’s Media Center, which has launched a campaign to get the network to cancel the ad.

The problem is that CBS has rejected certain issue ads before, with the explanation that it doesn’t accept certain types of advocacy spots. The prime example is a United Church of Christ spot that showed its welcoming stance toward gays, an ad the network rejected in 2004. ”We have a longstanding policy of not accepting advocacy advertising,” network spokesman Dana McClintock said at the time.

So why the reversal?

It’s hard to see how the spot could be characterized as anything other than an advocacy spot, for the mere reason of considering the source.

While Focus on the Family argues that its spot is not controversial — it is a heartwarming tale about families — that’s a hard argument to make given the org’s long history of being engaged in so many politically polarizing issues. They are a political hot potato. They could run a spot just showing a bunch of trees for 30 seconds are still generate a certain degree of blowback.

The long and the short of it is, you can’t really make sense of what will go and what will not. The networks have shown anti-smoking and anti-drug PSAs during the Super Bowl, but have rejected marriage equality spots. My sense is that, with paying sponsors, they base their judgment on what is least likely to offend, meaning that they’ll absorb any criticism about the Focus on the Family spot knowing pretty well that it’s not going to be laden with images of abortion clinics.

So the problem for all the networks is probably in claiming that they have a policy, or have had a policy, when they really do not.

Alex Jones of Harvard University probably summed it up best: “The rules are exactly what the owner of the news medium wants them to be, and they are not rules, they are simply choices. For many news organizations, the rules are governed by such things as taste and accuracy. In the case of some, the question of taste slips over into finding the message disagreeable or believing that the audience would find that message disagreeable. The long and short of it is they don’t have to run any advertisement they don’t want to.”

A whole other question is whether the ad will resonate in the inevitable clutter of talking frogs, dufus dads and Clydesdale horses.


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