Super Bowl 2010

How Focus on the Family Bought a Super Bowl Spot

Advocacy Groups Usually Struggle to Get in the Big Game

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As the Super Bowl draws near each year, news outlets usually light up with word that one advocacy group or another has been "banned" from advertising in the big event. This year, one such organization has taken steps to make sure its message will be welcomed by the network airing the gridiron classic.

Focus on the Family's spot will feature college football star Tim Tebow.
Focus on the Family's spot will feature college football star Tim Tebow. Credit: AP
Focus on the Family, a Christian family-help organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., has purchased one 30-second ad that will run in the game, and anticipates no frowns from CBS, which is slated to broadcast Super Bowl XLIV from South Florida on Feb. 7.

The buy may come as a surprise to veteran Super Bowl watchers who recall headlines about sexy vegetables cropping up last year after NBC turned down an ad from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that showed women in lingerie placed in suggestive positions with pumpkins and asparagus. CBS earlier turned down a similar ad for its 2004 Super Bowl broadcast as well as one from MoveOn.org that bashed President Bush. The network and its rivals have espoused a policy of not accepting ads that are inflammatory.

Focus on the Family is known for taking a pro-life stance and valuing marriage as an institution for opposite-sex couples.

Approved script
CBS knows what Focus on the Family stands for and has approved the script, said Gary Schneeberger, a Focus on the Family spokesman. CBS understood "there are folks who ideologically disagree with Focus on the Family in some areas," Mr. Schneeberger said, but "we don't anticipate any trouble." A CBS spokesman confirmed that the network has accepted the organization's ad buy.

Its Super Bowl commercial is not polarizing and does not take an "anti" stance against any issue, according to a person familiar with the situation. The organization's ad will feature college football star Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam, sharing a personal story centered on the theme of "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life," according to a news release from Focus on the Family.

TV networks have traditionally tried to keep the Super Bowl free from commercials that could cause outsized controversy. But that hasn't stopped many advocacy groups from devising commercials that deliberately flout TV-network decency standards, then using a network's refusal to air the ad as a means of generating publicity. And it hasn't protected everyone in the very broad Super Bowl audience, which last year averaged 98.7 million people, from getting offended anyway by the commercials that do get in.

A 2007 Super Bowl ad from Mars Inc. sparked complaints from gay organizations for showing two men accidentally kissing over a Snickers bar and recoiling in disgust. Mars subsequently pulled the ad from rotation. Likewise, Anheuser-Busch took a public pause in 2004 after running ads in the big game spotlighting a flatulent horse or, in another scenario, a talking monkey putting the moves on a pretty woman. While speaking at a conference held by the American Association of Advertising Agencies a few months later, August A. Busch IV, then-president of Anheuser-Busch, said the company would take a "more cautious approach" to its advertising.

Even the non-commercial content can create trouble; CBS's 2004 broadcast of the Super Bowl, of course, drew notoriety for a halftime show featuring singer Janet Jackson baring her breast.

Focus on the Family will try to stand out this year by dressing plainly, so to speak. The ad is not expected to have any whiff of hard-sell. Mr. Schneeberger, the group's spokesman, said the organization is not trying to sell the American people a car. "We're not trying to sell them a soft drink," he said. "We're not trying to sell an internet domain name."

Instead, the message is likely to act more as an offer of help, with the hope the commercial will generate awareness for the organization and its family services, Mr. Schneeberger said.

While the Super Bowl has long stood as a haven for ads from makers of beverages, movies and dot-com sites, new entrants not normally thought of as the perfect advertisers for broadcast TV's biggest event have sprung forth in the midst of the nation's economic turmoil.

Other unusual Super Bowl advertisers
Last year, NBC sold a spot to direct-response marketer Cash4Gold, which used rapper M.C. Hammer and the now-deceased talk-show sidekick Ed McMahon to play up the company's trade-in services.

This year, Time Warner's TruTV has purchased a spot to talk about a new reality show focused on the NFL. TV networks typically avoid giving prominent ad time to rival channels -- though it's likely that ratings for individual TruTV programs would not give CBS much pause. CBS has said that it has nearly sold out of ad inventory for the Super Bowl and its sales have paced steadily since it went to market for the event.

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