Super Bowl

Will M.I.A's Flipped Digit Cast Pall Over Super Bowl?

Bridgestone Reaches Out to NFL and NBC Over Gesture in Halftime Show

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Middle finger malfunction
Middle finger malfunction Credit: NBC

Bridgestone Americas, the sponsor of the Super Bowl halftime show since 2008, said it has reached out to the National Football League and NBC over the behavior of rapper M.I.A. during Madonna's performance Sunday night.

Bridgestone has received complaining emails from "multiple different venues" and had reached out to the sports league and the broadcaster to discuss possible solutions, said a spokesman for the tire manufacturer, which pays a substantial fee for rights to the halftime presentation. The spokesman declined to elaborate but suggested a public statement from Bridgestone could be in the offing.

The brewing controversy -- which could lose steam quickly once the Twitterverse moves on -- shows just how much reach an extended middle finger can have in an era of social media and passed-along video. Rapper M.I.A. blurted out an obscenity and raised her middle digit on screen during Madonna's halftime concert, and much of it happened so quickly that a good portion of the audience missed it. But thanks to tweets and Facebook posts and DVR playback, the incident is now commanding at least a portion of the nation's scrutiny.

NBC and the NFL have already issued statements of apology, with the NFL saying the incident was "inappropriate" and NBC acknowledging its delay system for obscuring or blocking out such action failed.

There's reason to give the issue lip service. In 2004, a national snit ensued when Justin Timberlake yanked on Janet Jackson's bustier during the half time show of the CBS broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVIII, revealing a portion of her breast and a pastie cover. The incident, along with several others involving celebrities uttering profanities during TV network broadcasts of awards programs, prompted the Federal Communications Commission to investigate profanity on broadcast TV and even to seek fines in court.

The legal case involving Ms. Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" has largely been neutered, but the brouhaha surrounding the event was enough to put a chill on Super Bowl proceedings for some time. Even Anheuser-Busch, then run by the founding Busch family and typically the largest buyer of ad time during the Super Bowl, quickly acknowledged an impact. "We are taking a more cautious approach to our advertising," said August A. Busch IV, then-president of Anheuser-Busch, in April of 2004, suggesting the Janet Jackson incident had colored consumers' perception of the Budweiser and Bud Light ads that accompanied the evening.

M.I.A.'s flipped finger is the latest of a long list of celebrity outbursts that have plagued TV networks. During a 2003 telecast of the Golden Globes on NBC, Bono of U2 accepted an award and called the honor "fucking brilliant." During a 2003 broadcast of the Billboard Music Awards on Fox, Nicole Richie uttered the words "fucking"and "cowshit." Even as broadcast networks protested that they should not be held liable for celebrity behavior, they have all upgraded their systems for delaying broadcasts so any stray profanity can be bleeped.

In a case stemming partly from Ms. Richie's expletives on the Billboard Music Awards, the Supreme Court heard arguments just last month over whether the government should still regulate cursing and nudity on broadcast TV.

Advocacy groups are likely to seize upon the NBC broadcast as an affront to common sensibilities -- and the broad audience that tunes into the Super Bowl each year. "Most families would agree that the middle finger aimed directly at them is not appropriate, especially during the most-watched television event of the year," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, in a prepared statement.

Even so, M.I.A's outreached digit came among a sea of ads featuring scantily-clad women and men (Kia, H&M and and even an animated chocolate candy exposing himself (M&M's), though he did not display human anatomy. And in recent years, the culture has become more accepting of profanity and outrageous gestures, as anyone who has watched an ongoing drama or comedy on HBO or Showtime can tell you.

Should Bridgestone and other Super Bowl sponsors react strongly, then M.I.A.'s action could have broader ramifications. If not, chances are her finger will be forgotten amidst the sound of hands clapping for one of the few TV events that can still draw the sizable audiences advertisers continue to covet.

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