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Abortion, a kiss between men, an effeminate former football player selling lingerie, and hell: So many Super Bowl ad controversies, so little time.

The debate over hell has already frozen over, so to speak. The devil was in the details. Responding to the objections that CBS censors raised over language, EA Sports agreed to change the tagline for its spot promoting its new Hades-based game, Dante’s Inferno. The original line, “Go to hell,” was amended to, “Hell awaits.”

Heck, that’s what all the fuss was about?

For advertisers, network approval is obviously a hard-won business and an inexact science, and some of it has to do with the barely perceptible cultural shifts of the moment.

But in the week leading up to the Big Game, two advertisers who’ve had ads rejected — ManCrunch.com and GoDaddy.com — are complaining that the rulings made by CBS’s Standards and Practices department concerning Super Bowl XLIV are not only increasingly conservative, but also homophobic.

The gay-dating service ManCrunch expressed outrage over the rejection of its ad, in light of the fact that CBS had previously accepted a spot from Focus on the Family, a Christian pro-life advocacy group. That spot stars college football player Tim Tebow and his mother. Tim has disclosed to the press that he is “saving” himself for marriage. His mother has already shared the story that she was advised to have an abortion during a very difficult pregnancy with Tim, but refused, and now he’s a happy Heisman Trophy winner.

In the past, CBS banned advocacy ads from Super Bowl broadcasts, but last week, for the record, the network acknowledged it has changed its longtime practice. In a statement, the network said: “We have … moderated our approach to advocacy submissions after it became apparent that our stance did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms on the issue.”

So, CBS normalized the decision, explaining: “Most media outlets have accepted advocacy ads for some time.”

But as with the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing for increased corporate donations for political ads, could the move also signal an increasingly conservative corporate attitude inside the network?

Certainly, the Women’s Media Center thinks so. In protesting the ad, the group said in a letter: “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 damage its reputation, alienate viewers and discourage consumers from supporting its shows and advertisers.”

A CBS source said the acceptance of the ad had nothing to do with a political agenda. “We were not looking for a conservative ad,” he told Adweek. “We would have taken a pro-choice ad if one came our way.”

Kept under wraps, the Tebow ad carries the theme line, “Celebrate family. Celebrate life.” As the tagline implies, the spot is, according to one source who has seen it, “completely celebratory and upbeat.” (And the issue of abortion is not specifically mentioned.) “You wouldn’t even know what it’s for without the logo,” said another source.

The issues surrounding the Focus on the Family’s politics (abortion, gay marriage, etc.) are polarizing and divisive, but people who have seen the ad use words like “mild” and “gentle” to describe it. So, is innocuous the way to go when spending $2.5 million or so on game day?

In purely objective terms, it’s a genius media buy. Even if it doesn’t end up running, just by trying to buy time, Focus on the Family has moved the focus to itself.

In ending its official statement about “moderating” its approach to “advocacy submission,” CBS added: “We will continue to consider responsibly produced ads from all groups for the few remaining spots in Super Bowl XLIV.”

Not so, say the people at ManCrunch, whose attention-getting spot, “Playing for the Other Team,” was rejected. It shows two young male football fans watching a game, when their hands accidentally touch in the chip bowl. That awakens their passion, and one guy climbs on top of the other, and they start madly making out.

The company claims that in rejecting the spot, CBS told them the game was “sold out.” A ManCrunch spokesman called the rejection “discriminatory.”
 
A CBS source told Adweek there are “lots of issues” with the online company, including “lousy credit” and the fact that the site hadn’t secured the rights to the NFL jerseys worn by the actors. Others smelled a publicity stunt, and indeed, without paying the huge freight for the spot to air, the company has already put itself on the map, garnering millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity and thousands of hits on YouTube.

A spokesman for ManCrunch could not be reached, but has been widely quoted saying that the company has the cash on hand and that the ad is not a simple PR ploy.

Considering that they both involve a kiss between men, is the ManCrunch ad any more racy than the Snickers ad that ran three years ago (the last time CBS broadcast the game) and got trashed by protest groups, literally right and left?

In the Snickers ad, two mechanics are shown sharing the candy bar, until their mouths met in the middle and they inadvertently kiss. Freaked out, they pull out some chest hair to assert their proper manliness. It turned out the spot was an equal-opportunity offender: Gay-rights groups protested that such extreme mortification was homophobic; Christian groups objected to showing the man-on-man kiss at all. As a result, Mars yanked the spot after running it just once on the Super Bowl.

ManCrunch says it spent just $100,000 producing its ad, and indeed, it looks like it. The make-out session is a bit over the top, and actually, unnecessary. It would have been a much funnier and more interesting spot had it ended subtly, with the logo over the touch of the hands.

But in terms of playing the network-censorship game for maximum free-media exposure, nobody beats GoDaddy.com. In the past five years, the domain-name company has gone from relative obscurity to a Super Bowl fixture, and along the way has often had trouble getting approval for its raunchy ads. No fewer than 12 spots come up on YouTube under the title of “GoDaddy banned.”

A preview of one GoDaddy spot for this year’s game — with Danica Patrick playing various movie stars, and geeks slobbering over her — seemed to garner little reaction. So, when the media blast came a week later that a second spot had been rejected, and that GoDaddy founder and CEO Bob Parsons felt “blindsided” by the censors, many felt he was back to his old tricks just to get attention.

Parsons insists not. “The ironic thing is this is the one ad where we really behaved ourselves,” he told Adweek.

The ad in question, “Lola,” is unlike the usual GoDaddy fare with men drooling as buxom women rip open their blouses. Instead, it features a (fictional) large, black, very swishy former football player turned Internet entrepreneur. He wears what looks like a Juicy Couture track suit (size XXXXL?) and lots of jewels, and he designs and sells lingerie.

The spot is hardly brilliant, but it is sort of cute. Plenty of the fashion stylists and designers on reality shows also make themselves into gay caricatures.

CBS sources say the censors objected to such a stereotypical image of a gay man. “We work with GLAAD and other organizations,” a source told me, “and that’s not the sort of depiction we want to see.”

“What they said was the commercial has the potential to offend a certain group of viewers,” Parsons told Adweek. “And they never said who that group was. It could be the NFL, or maybe the Focus on the Family viewers. I don’t know. I’m at a loss.”

“Maybe it’s gay football players they have a problem with,” he said, adding: “Somebody’s homophobic, and it’s not us!”

From a media point of view, so far, everybody wins. But what’s easiest to predict is that there will be more controversy to come.

See you in hell!

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