Super Bowl viewers cheered or cried Sunday as the Saints won the title for the first time in franchise history. However intense the partying was in New Orleans, the commercials stole much of the spotlight between plays.
Two spots in particular – and CBS’ response to them – sparked outcries from the media and interest groups. CBS allowed a Focus on the Family ad, featuring Heisman winner Tim Tebow’s mother and subtly advocating a pro-life position, to run, while banning an ad from a gay dating Web site, Mancrunch.
Regardless of the ads’ content, the indignation was justified. According to the New York Times, CBS’ policy is to “not sell time for the advocacy of viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance.” A commercial is understood to be unacceptable if “it explicitly takes a position on such an issue or if it presents arguments parallel to those made by one side.” The merits of the policy are debatable, but bad policies are made worse if applied arbitrarily.
CBS’ standard should apply to all groups and viewpoints; advocacy is advocacy, regardless of who is behind the message. If a network allows one advocacy group to transmit its message, all advocacy groups should have an equal opportunity, whether they be gay rights activists, pro-choice lobbyists, war protesters or PETA members.
Although the double standard is obvious, CBS’ critics are confusing the issue to some degree. For all the hype, the Tebow ad was incredibly mild. Tim Tebow’s mother looks into the camera and simply states, “I call him my miracle baby. He almost didn’t make it into this world. I remember so many times when I almost lost him. It was so hard.” That’s it as far as any hint of a discussion about abortion. Hardly controversial. The ad then directs viewers to Focus on the Family’s Web site.
In the Mancrunch ad, though, two men wearing jerseys brush hands while reaching for a bowl of chips and then proceed to make out with each other with a third man watching.
A CBS spokesperson said, “After reviewing the ad, which is entirely commercial in nature, our standards and practices department decided not to accept this particular spot.” It is clear the network rejected the Mancrunch ad based on its content, not its advocacy of an issue like gay marriage. “We are always open to working with a client on alternative submissions,” the CBS spokesperson added, implying had Mancrunch created an advertisement similar to eHarmony or other dating sites, they might not have been rejected.
It should be noted CBS announced two weeks before the Super Bowl it was loosening its regulations to allow “responsibly produced” ads – for anyone who could scrape up $2.5 million for the 30-second spot – in part because of the overwhelmingly negative response to its decision to allow the Tebow ad. The fact remains, though, under its policy at the time, CBS should have refused to air both spots, even if the motivation in each case differed.
The debate about advocacy ads is far from over, and complaints about CBS’ and other networks’ policies will likely linger long after the Super Bowl. It probably doesn’t matter, though, because most of us will continue to tune in to auto-tuned commercials for Bud Light and tune out the political controversy.