Super Bowl ad controversies have become nearly as interesting as the commercials that get on the air, maybe more so, and that's surely the case with the latest spot rejected by Fox Sports: A 30-second ad aimed at getting viewers to check out the familiar gospel verse, John 3:16.
So far this year, Fox has nixed commercials over issues of bad taste and inappropriate content -- which is a pretty high bar, given the popularity of frat boy humor and double entendres in Super Bowl ads, or the single-entendre spots that focus the attention so intently on sexy women that viewers don't actually know what the sponsor does. (Quick, what does GoDaddy.com sell?)
Still, thanks to Fox's guidelines, viewers of this Sunday's Super Bowl matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers won't see an ad for an online dating service aimed at spouses looking to have affairs. Or the dueling bobbleheads spot from the conservative comedy site JesusHatesObama.com, in which an angry Jesus doll pushes a smiling Obama doll into a fish bowl. And Fox also put the kibosh on an entry into the annual Pepsi-and-Doritos ad competition that envisioned the snack chip and soft drink as the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Not!
So Larry Taunton, head of the Fixed Point Foundation, an Alabama-based organization that seeks to defend Christianity in the public square, figured he was on solid ground with his professionally produced commercial featuring a group of friends drinking beer, eating chips and watching football -- and asking each other what the phrase "John 3:16" written in a player's eye black means. That was it.
"We thought in this case, let's put forward something that is understated, that feels secular," Taunton said. Click play to watch video:
It was not to be. The Fox Broadcasting Company rejected the commercial, which would have brought in $3 million -- the going rate for a half-minute ad this year -- because under company policy, it "does not accept advertising from religious organizations for the purpose of advancing particular beliefs or practices."
"The Fixed Point Foundation was provided with our guidelines prior to their submission of storyboards for our review," the company said in a statement. "Upon examination, the advertising submitted clearly delivers a religious message and as a result has been rejected."
It's hard to argue with Fox's point about the spot's religious content. The verse is one in which Jesus tells his listeners, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
If Fox execs hadn't understood the ad's religious message, then Taunton and Fixed Point would have to go back to the editing suite in order to produce something that would do what any good ad should -- communicate clearly. (The commercial cost Fixed Point just $50,000 to make, about a tenth of what such ads normally cost, and two Fox affiliates, one in Alabama and the Fox station in Washington -- of all places -- said they'll air it during the Super Bowl. Taunton said that if Fox had OK'd the ad for national distribution, he felt sure he could have raised the money to cover the $3 million broadcast fee.)
Of course, as always happens when an ad is rejected, the media coverage generated by the controversy is probably more effective P.R. than anything money could buy.
Taunton was also quick to exonerate Fox Broadcasting from blame for its decision.
"They were very courteous and gracious," Taunton stressed. "Fox Sports isn't the enemy. We aren't out to demonize them. We think this is more of a cultural issue than it is a Fox Sports issue. Their solution was just to run from it because they think this is something that would offend their viewership. I think we have become so utterly sensitive and politically correct that the result is we end up doing absurd things like this."
A more likely explanation is that Fox, like all broadcasters, doesn't want too much controversy, or rather the wrong kind of controversy -- think of Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" from the 2004 Super Bowl. CBS, which broadcast last year's Super Bowl, found itself on the defensive for reversing its policy against advocacy ads and allowing a pro-life spot by Heisman-winning quarterback and born-again Christian Tim Tebow -- though the commercial wound up being so subtle it's hard to know if anyone got the anti-abortion message.
Moreover, in the case of the Fixed Point Foundation's ad, it's hard to see how a commercial whose only religious reference is a brief shot of a player's eye black and "John 3:16" could offend an audience of sports fans.
Evangelical Christians who consider the verse a kind of motto for their faith have been holding up signs displaying the verse at televised sporting events for years, starting in the 1970s with the "Rainbow Man," a.k.a. Rollen Stewart, who wore a distinctive, multi-hued afro wig to draw attention to his placard.
Taunton acknowledged that John 3:16 is by now part of the scenery in sports, and especially football, which has a reputation as a culturally conservative sport. There are on-field prayer circles after games, players thanking Jesus after every score, and big-time, publicly professing Christians like Kurt Warner, Drew Brees and Sam Bradford are commonplace.
But Taunton believes the John 3:16-themed ad was needed for that very reason.
"Our thought was this: We're not trying to import Christianity into a sport or into part of the culture where it isn't," he said. "We're trying to draw people's attention to the fact that it's already there . . . John 3:16 has become so ubiquitous in the game that people sort of become numb to it."
"It's sort of like seeing the Nike swoosh," he added. "How many people know what that means?" (Good question. Answer: it apparently represents the wing of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. But that's not the kind of religious reference to get Michael Jordan ads barred from the airwaves.)
Taunton also noted that commercials airing during NFL games for the new exorcism movie, "The Rite," are loaded with religious imagery, though the intent seems to scare rather than convert viewers.
Indeed, it is religion itself, with its potential to incite furious reactions and its association with political divisions, that really seems to give broadcasters a fright.
Taunton agrees, which is why he said the ad was apolitical by design and "not in your face" with the faith message.
The ad's rejection, he said, sends the message that "religion, and more specifically Christianity, is increasingly being treated like smoking -- you can only do it in designated areas. You may not bring it into the public space."
As a sports fan, Taunton said he'd be happy to have some serious competition for the best religion-themed Super Bowl ad. It would beat another overrated Doritos spot or even race car driver Danica Patrick baring skin for a GoDaddy commercial.
"If the Hindus want to put out an ad, I'm all for it," Taunton said. "Muslims? Bring it on. I'd love to see it. It'd make the Super Bowl a whole lot more interesting."
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