Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

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 — and — 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.