Upon further review, our lawyers simply do not want to go there.”
I am on the phone with Roland McFarland, Fox Networks’ senior executive for broadcast standards and practices, and the “there” he’s referring to is a TV commercial that we are in preproduction on for GoDaddy.com, The Ad Store’s newest client and one that has committed millions of dollars for a national brand launch set to debut on Super Bowl XXXIX—all based on Fox’s earlier approval of the very same storyboard they are now having second thoughts about.
It is Dec. 22, and it looks like the damned Grinch is about to steal Christmas. And New Year’s.
In its broadest context, the commercial in question is a decidedly irreverent look at the growing controversy surrounding what airs on television and the attendant hypocrisy suggested by much of the current network programming and promotions and even some of the commercials that run on these programs. With a not-so-subtle nod to the seminal “wardrobe malfunction,” I’m thinking this ad has the potential to provoke debate over issues as mundane as commercial programming content and as significant as the First Amendment. Hell, for all I know, the reactions to this single spot could reach right through the Fox Television Network to the FCC and all the way to the White House.
Well, maybe not.
(On the other hand, I never though my partner and creative director, Paul Cappelli, would end up being quoted in the same article as my country’s president, George W. Bush.)
At one point, in response to my suspicion that Fox’s reversal, at its core, is one more example of a reaction to the “chilling” effect the Bush administration is having on the media, McFarland tells me, “That’s good enough for us!”
I’m also thinking that Fox is at the very epicenter of this hypocrisy. But most of all I’m thinking we’re way into preproduction of a TV commercial that they now want to reject.
And now they are saying the “content of the commercial” is “inappropriate for air on Fox.”
Fox’s reversal is “utterly, unequivocally unacceptable!” is what I hear myself saying, wondering if I sound as authoritative and uncompromising as I hope I do. “This commercial was approved more than two weeks ago by you and your network, and based on that approval we have committed millions of dollars of our client’s good money to produce and air it. You’re about to seriously jeopardize our client’s national launch and the revenues he’ll get from it.”
“Well,” McFarland says, “our legal department has decided that, given everything that’s going on with the FCC and the NFL, we’re not going to allow this commercial to go forward as boarded.”
I remind him again that we’ve had their official approval on this very storyboard since Dec. 3, that we’re well into producing the spot, and at this late date their second thoughts, and potential rejection, are seriously problematic. “I consider Fox absolutely culpable in all this,” I say. “So we’re going to have to understand the specific issues, and I’m going to expect some workable suggestions from Fox for satisfying your objections.”
He promises to go back to his legal department for immediate and further clarification.
Trouble is, we are already at work with arguably the best commercial director in the business, Bryan Buckley. We’ve lined up Colby Parker Jr. to edit. His latest feature film was Friday Night Lights. This is set to be the biggest thing ever for both The Ad Store and GoDaddy.com. But first we have to get past Fox.
My cell phone rings less than two hours after the first call. Now I’m on the train home, and tell I McFarland I am only going to listen, and not respond, and that I’d like him to confirm our conversation in an e-mail.
“We have a further response to the GoDaddy storyboard,” he says.
If we satisfy their caveats, he says, they will reconsider the spot, and we might qualify for favorable judgment. First—from the network that promotes and broadcasts Paris Hilton’s and Nicole Richie’s overexposed body parts in The Simple Life—comes a warning about excess “décolletage” and “revealing cleavage” and—from the network that trots bikini-clad babes up and down the beach on North Shore, a show it promotes by promising “sun, surf, sand and sex”—a caution that our principal should “not be too buxom.”
Then he says they simply want it to be “in good taste.” And I have to react to that. “No problem,” I say to the standards and practices guy for the network that brings us Trading Spouses and Temptation Island. “I can assure you this commercial will be consistent with the levels of good taste established by your own network’s programming.”
His response? “Actually, it’s going to have to be better than that.”
Finally, says Fox—the first network to broadcast a Super Bowl following the “unfortunate events from last year’s Super Bowl, events that many Americans found deeply offensive,” as Fox later described it to me—”we are not going to accept it” if it includes the following two words in the copy: “Wardrobe malfunction.”
We do not recreate a wardrobe malfunction in this commercial. In fact, what we say in the spot is “we don’t want one” to occur, and then we take overplayed steps to prevent it. It is simple parody—no more, no less. Creatively, and given its context, we certainly haven’t left much room for ambivalent viewer reaction—and isn’t that the way it should be? Regardless, it simply attempts to infer a notorious and by now overwrought situation, put it into a broader context and then hoist it by its own petard.
Anyway, we acknowledge Fox’s caveats and go off to Hollywood and shoot 16 and a half versions of every possible alternative scenario Fox has demanded and submit the first rough cut.
They reject it again. They say, “It is a conceptual issue for the network that cannot be addressed by editing. Beyond that, there is no other information I can provide.”
Now it’s Groundhog Day. Back we go, this time to convince them that we can indeed eliminate any literal references to “last year’s unfortunate Super Bowl events,” and what the hell else is it that’s bothering them this time?
And so finally, in a belated and backhanded acknowledgment of something akin to freedom of advertising speech, they tell us that if we eliminate two specific scenes they describe as including “excess cleavage” and a closing voiceover wisecrack, GoDaddy just might be allowed to spend their $2 million for 30 seconds of airtime and present their near-million-dollar commercial to the unsuspecting public.
Plus, we have to agree to air it in the middle of a commercial break, sandwiched between two other advertisers (generating marginally less exposure)—Fox’s final attempt, I suppose, at prevailing over something related to managing their viewers’ vulnerabilities. There’s an inconsistency here.
“Take it or leave it” is Fox’s final position.
So once more we pick up the proverbial pieces off the editing-room floor, reassemble yet another cut—this one “in good taste,” without “excess cleavage,” with no specific references to “last year’s unfortunate Super Bowl events,” without any reference to a “wardrobe malfunction”—and hope against hope that the Fox execs will no longer view our spokeswoman as “too buxom,” even though a significant number of their own programs’ stars have decidedly bigger and more exposed breasts presented weekly for public scrutiny, as do most of the NFL cheerleaders that will show up on the Super Bowl, and we submit rough cut number whatever.
And it’s approved for Super Bowl XXXIX! To air not once but twice!
It airs the first time.
Sitting there watching it from The Ad Store, surrounded by everybody who worked on it at the agency, it feels great. And when the two-minute warning rolls around in the fourth quarter—it’s a great game, so no doubt millions of viewers are still with us—we can’t wait to see it a second time, as scheduled, in the second position of the break.
But instead it’s a promo for The Simpsons! No GoDaddy spot. The client calls before the promo ends. Must be a mistake. They screwed up, and they’ll air it the very next break. But after four more time-outs on the field and absolutely no more commercial breaks, it’s clear.
It’s been yanked, allegedly by some combination of the NFL and Fox. This commercial that parodies broadcast censorship is censored by the very broadcasters it lampoons. Somehow, after being previewed on NBC’s Today show the Friday before the game and on many cable networks, including Fox’s own news channel, throughout the weekend, Fox and the NFL have finally discovered this “inappropriate” commercial right there on its biggest broadcast of the year. And killed it, as if that would make it go away.
An apologetic call from a Fox exec to GoDaddy, even though it comes before the game ends, does nothing but underscore our suspicions. We have been censored.
Meanwhile, Fox’s Super Bowl broadcast continues to feature close-ups of the sideline cheerleaders, each one revealing much more cleavage than we do.
Fact is, this spot ain’t about cleavage. Never was. And these censors had their noses pressed so close to the keyhole in the locker-room door that they missed the entire point. It’s about the hypocrisy of censorship—and they validated it for time immemorial by censoring its second airing. In the process, they actually extended its life beyond anything we could have hoped for.
We may never know where the real pressure came from to cancel our commercial, but the debates surrounding the related and growing forms of political, moral and broadcast hypocrisy promise to continue.
In the meantime, as soon as the Super Bowl is over, one of Fox’s own Web sites, Fox Funhouse, posts a running poll for Funhouse Fox of the week. The featured candidate—the GoDaddy girl, with a frame from our commercial right there on their site, along with Alicia Keys, Amanda Byram, Bridgetta Tomarchio and the Playboy Bunnies. The winner? Yep, the GoDaddy girl, in a landslide.
You simply cannot make this stuff up.
Who’s Your Daddy?
Upon further review, our lawyers simply do not want to go there.”