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The Super Bowl as Culture-War Battleground

5 years ago
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So here's American culture in 2010: A controversy about whether TV ads shown during the Super Bowl are "fair." Is that an argument that anybody really wants to start?

The ads in question are about abortion -- starring just-former college football star Tim Tebow -- and gay dating -- for a company called ManCrunch.
But a lot of ads shown during the Super Bowl (or any other time on TV) are morally fraught, without any noticeable disagreement about whether they should be shown. Consider the evidence that we're in an obesity epidemic in this country, particularly affecting ad-impressionable kids. If there have been widespread complaints about the corn chip or soda ads slated to run on Super Bowl Sunday, I've missed them.

On the other hand, we have the Tebow ad, created and paid for by the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family. The 30-second spot is not yet available for viewing. But it reportedly will showcase his mom, Pam, who has said she was advised to abort Tim because of the high risk of genetic abnormalities from an antibiotic she had to take when he was pregnant.
At the time, the Tebows were missionaries in the Philippines, a nation where abortion is and has been illegal. Questions have been raised in recent days about the likelihood of a doctor there even suggesting an abortion two decades ago. The Tebows have not responded. But perhaps a doctor might have assumed that an American patient had options not as easily open to Philippine citizens.

When the news got out last week about the ad, abortion rights advocates had to figure out how to react. Did they:

1) Ignore the news, figuring that there was not a soul on the planet who didn't know where they stood on the topic?

2) Point out the enormous disconnect between CBS's decision to broadcast this ad and the network's previous policy of not airing so-called "advocacy ads," and announce they intended to buy their own ad?

3) Praise CBS for finally agreeing to air advocacy ads, along with a demand that other networks follow suit -- plus announce they would buy their own ad?

4) Write a letter demanding that CBS reverse itself and refuse to broadcast the Tebow ad?

If you live in 2010, you know the answer. Their letter says:
"By offering one of the most coveted advertising spots of the year to an anti-equality, anti-choice, homophobic organization, CBS is aligning itself with a political stance that will alienate viewers and discourage consumers from supporting its shows and advertisers. The decision to air this ad would be ethically, economically and politically disastrous for CBS."

The letter also describes the Big Game as a sort of sacred moment that the Tebow ad would sully: "The Super Bowl is an entertainment event that brings people together regardless of background, faith, ideology or political affiliation."

CBS basically told the letter-signers to go pound sand. A network spokesman told the Associated Press: "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."

I wondered why the abortion-rights side chose to challenge the ad in this way, and I pinged several of the groups that signed the letter, asking for an explanation. I was put in touch with Jodi Jacobson, editor of the popular Web site RH Reality Check. ("RH" stands for "reproductive health.")

Boiling down an interesting conversation to a few words, she had these complaints (aside from her obvious disagreements with Focus on the Family's position on abortion):

CBS (and other networks) have created an uneven playing field, refusing to show ads with a political slant from the left while being willing, as in this case, to take ad money from the political right. The history of such ads includes an attempt by the United Church of Christ in 2004 to buy ads demonstrating that denomination's acceptance of gays and lesbians – rejected by CBS. (Watch that ad here.)

And whatever has changed now, she said, it is not as if CBS has made it clear exactly what is and is not acceptable -- leaving lots of room for network executives to make arbitrary political decisions about which ads to take, and leaving organizations unsure about what the rules are.

Why not spin up your own ad and test the new rules, I asked her. Not so easy, she responded.

Since nobody from her side knew the rules had shifted until the Tebow ad was announced, they would have had very little time to create an effective ad, much less raise the millions of dollars to pay for it. Perhaps, she said, we might see a series of ads (for a lot less per spot) show up over the course of the next year to build a case. But she didn't seem hugely enthusiastic about any ads on this topic.

A 30-second spot, she said, is a "superficial representation of a complex issue."

True, that. (However, a couple of Old Lions of the abortion-rights movement used a column in the Washington Post this past weekend to call upon their current counterparts to come up with an ad that would operate on the same effective and emotional level as the Tebow spot.)

After I talked to Jacobson, the next shoe dropped in this news cycle's ad wars: the ManCrunch ad. ManCrunch is a Canadian-based gay dating service. Its proposed commercial shows a couple of standard-issue guy football fans whooping it up while watching the game. Then their hands accidentally touch in a bowl of potato chips. They look into each other's eyes. And some pretty intense snogging commences. Watch the ad here. (And don't miss the disbelieving reaction from their friend.)

CBS turned it down, saying the ad "is not within the Network's Broadcast Standards for Super Bowl Sunday."

And yet pretty much every network is showing this funny ad these days from the discount travel Web site Kayak, where the level of ardent snoggery is pretty much the same as in the ManCrunch spot -- but is hetero. Not to mention an older ad I can't find online for Netflix, in which a man and woman representing "romantic comedy" are likewise enmeshed in passionate kissing.

So is CBS being "fair"? I asked Edward Wasserman. He's a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee University, on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, and in a previous life was business editor for the Miami Herald.

He all but scoffed at the question. "Fair" isn't the point, he said. Whether moral or not from some higher perspective, what we're seeing is simply a series of perfectly legal and unsurprising business decisions.

"CBS has determined that the 'family values' ad will be viewed almost as if it were a public service announcement, rather than advocating unwanted pregnancies," he said. "The commercial media are in the business of making money. If it will expose them to controversy and opposition and get people angry with them, they will turn ads down."

But people are getting mad about the Tebow spot, yes? Wasserman said the network assessed the potential anger over running the ad with the potential of anger from the other side if they turned the ad down.

"This is a matter of: Who can make the most trouble for us? Who can make the biggest fuss? And who is going to play nice," Wasserman said. "The abortion rights people are less likely to cause trouble."

And why not run the ManCrunch ad?

"They didn't want to put up with the heat," he said.

Unless the CBS executives have miscalculated the public response -- and the effect on their bottom line -- they don't have to. Unless there's a change in the law, a TV network is a business and not a public utility. And that, as a former CBS star used to say, is the way it is.

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