The Curious Cultural Battleground of Super Bowl Ads
A funny thing happened last year on the way to Super Bowl XLIV. While most Americans were tending to last minute Christmas details, a reporter for the Colorado Springs Independent, a local weekly, got wind of a menacing plan across town. “I’m not kidding about this –” began Rich Tosches in the story dated December 24th, 2009. “During the telecast, mixed in among all the hilarious, watch-my-wife-Susie-blow-beer-our-of-her-nose commercials, there may be a 30-second, anti-abortion ad from our very own Focus on the Family.”
Perish the thought! There “may be” an ad featuring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. Tosches went on to give the essential details about the Tebows’ story. Pam and her husband Bob had been missionaries in the Philippines when Pam became ill during pregnancy. Doctors advised her to terminate the pregnancy, but she declined and Tim was born. Tosches had called Focus for confirmation, but media relations director Gary Schneeberger had opted not to comment. That would turn out to be a brilliant decision.
A week later, the Huffington Post picked up the scoop, and cyberspace lit up like a New Year’s Eve fireworks display. “Word on the street is that the intended ad will feature Tebow and his mother telling the story about how she chose to continue her pregnancy despite a doctor’s advice that her life was endangered,” wrote Alex DiBranco in an article titled, “Anti-Choice Tim Tebow Super Bowl Ad Must Go.” An increasingly shrill chorus of women’s groups urged CBS not to air the ad. Gloria Allred, a prominent feminist attorney, threatened to lodge a complaint with the FCC and the FTC if the ad failed to meet her requirements concerning abortion law disclosures.
When it became clear that CBS was maintaining course, Planned Parenthood released an advance counter-ad featuring athletes Sean James and Al Joyner. “There’s a lot of talk leading up to this Super Bowl about an ad,” James warned, and went on to discuss yet again the Tebows’ “difficult medical decision.” The spot concluded with the athletes affirming their celebration of families by trusting women to make their own decisions. NARAL Pro-Choice America also issued a counter ad and created a webpage for Super Bowl viewers to visit during the Tebow ad. “Plan to focus on … something else when the ad airs,” advised president Nancy Keenan.
Focus remained largely silent throughout the drama until mid January, when the organization announced a planned ad centered on the theme of “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life.” Several days later, CBS quoted Schneeberger, musing that he was “a little surprised” at the furor over the story. “The heated nature of what they’re describing, well, that’s not the ad I’ve got on my laptop,” he said. “There’s nothing political and controversial about it.”
Well, yes and no. Schneeberger was speaking in all honesty, but wherever abortion is condoned, “Life” will inevitably be controversial. It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and it only took a hint of a rumor (“There may be an ad …”) to set off an explosion of spring-loaded opposition.
Three Driving Motives
The jump-the-gun reaction is telling. It was a chaotic mix, some of it nearly violent with emotion, but a careful listening reveals three driving motives:
(1) Blatantly intolerant political correctness suppressing dissent. Tosches’s original leak dripped with Saturday Night Live-style mockery, making it clear he didn’t know what to make of Focus on the Family. Slate columnist Jason Fagone admitted to “some queasiness” over the idea that the Tebows actually believe what they say they do. Sports writer Jeff Pearlman dispensed with any pretense of civility. “I don’t care how nice Tim Tebow is. If he’s in an ad for Focus on the Family … to hell with him.” “Tim Tebow scares me, … and he should scare you, too.” Responses like these can be summed up as, These people are weird. They should be silenced.
(2) Abortion interests guarding their turf. Early on, the abortion industry mobilized backers by framing legalized abortion as an emblem, rather than a desecration, of women’s rights. And prominent feminists leaped to service. “This personal story with such meaning to their own family should not be misused for a Focus on the Family agenda to take away women’s right to access a safe abortion,” opined Alex DiBranco. Twelve days later, with CBS still planning to air the 30-second spot, DiBranco’s tone accelerated, to the point where basic rules of grammar went out the window. “Focus on the Family doesn’t support women’s choices. It supports depriving women of control over their own bodies. … Mrs. Tebow [has] every right to choose not to have an abortion, a personal decision between a woman and her doctor — not something you should drop five million dollars on, to show an ad geared toward gaining influence and power over depriving other women of that right to make the same, or a different choice.” Terry O’Neil, president of NOW, maintained sufficient composure to make a point, “NOW respects every woman’s right to plan her own family and insists our laws do the same,” but the gist of her objection was the same. They want to take away rights. They should be silenced.
(3) Post-abortion grief, aggravated by guilt. Here we move into more delicate territory. A discerning listener can hear between the lines of protest, Your stance hurts me. Please stop saying that. NOW vice president Erin Matson said, “This ad is frankly offensive. It is hate masquerading as love. It sends a message that abortion is always a mistake.” O’Neil condemned the planned ad as “extraordinarily offensive and demeaning.” “That’s not being respectful of other people’s lives,” she said. The readers’ comments following some of the articles were even more revealing. “If [this] situation didn’t cause harm then … we could afford to simply ignore it. But unfortunately, it causes a great deal of harm.” No one asked the commenter exactly what that harm might be, but another commenter answered the question succinctly. “It’s grievously offensive to those women who have had an abortion.”
Now we have unveiled the black hole at the center of this storm. And she’s right. “Life” is grievously painful to women who have had an abortion. But the reality is, it’s the abortion that’s grievous. It’s just that the opposite of abortion – a pregnancy carried to term and developed into visible human life – exposes the horror of abortion for what it is. The pain is already there. The life just makes it impossible to suppress.
But all of the protesters are wrong about what should be done to remedy the pain. The only remedy for abortion pain is the forgiveness to be found through the cross of Jesus Christ – the exact central mission of both Focus on the Family and the Tebows. What a sad irony that their enemies work so hard to silence them as messengers.
Light Shines in the Darkness
Fortunately, they were unsuccessful. The thirty-second ad aired as scheduled…
“Celebrate Life, Celebrate Families.” That was it. Nothing “anti-abortion” about it, leaving a lot of people wondering what all the brouhaha was about. We can’t do much about those who scoff and just think we’re weird except keep doing what we do. But for those in deep pain because of abortion, we can offer them something far, far better than our silence. We can tell them where to find forgiveness.
Ironically, it was the preemptive protesters who actually told the story they so desperately wanted suppressed. While they were at it, they exposed the cold insensibility of those who purport to be defenders and helpers of women. The Monday-morning commentaries added up to a super-sized score for Focus:
- ‘Miracle’ Tim Tebow Super Bowl ad puts hit on critics
- Focus on the Family got Super Bowl buzz it wanted
- What Was All the Fuss about that Tebow Ad, Again?
This article first appeared in American Life League’s Celebrate Life Magazine, January/February, 2011