The ethics of Super Bowl advertising

February 4, 2010

Was there ever really a time when athletes could be considered paragons of morality? Years before Tiger Woods slept with every cocktail waitress in the greater Orlando area, the American public gave up trying to look up to sports stars as role models. And between Janet Jackson’s nipple, Prince’s giant penis-guitar, and any beer commercial ever, the Super Bowlbowl should have even less moral credibility. But according to some evangelical groups and CBS, the Super Bowl is the last bulwark between America as we know it, and a modern Soddom and Gamorrah.

 College football star Tim Tebow and his mother Pam will be talking to the nation about abortion during this year’s Super Bowl. CBS has accepted a commercial, paid for by the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family, wherein the Tebow twosome speak out against abortion. The Tebows make an effective argument against abortion: your child may grow up to be a great football player, too, and then you’ll have lots of money and won’t be burning in the fiery pits of Hell for all eternity—the very definition of a win-win situation.

Before this year, CBS had a policy of not accepting what it termed “issue” ads during the Super Bowl and other event programming. I may not agree with the Tebow ad, but I was glad to see this asinine policy go. CBS or any other television network should never be allowed to act as a cultural gatekeeper, deciding what is and isn’t appropriate for the general public to see during commercial breaks. Like bea uty, inappropriateness is in the eye of the beholder, and I would much rather determine what I find distasteful on my own than have Les Moonves tell me what I should find distasteful.

CBS’s abandonment of this policy should be good news, even if it means hearing about positions I don’t agree with during the Super Bowl or the Grammy’s (which is its own sort of punishment to watch). But CBS’s seeming rejection of censorship and paternalism didn’t last long.

Soon after CBS announced it would air the Tebows’ gross oversimplification of a complex and ambiguous issue, a gay dating website, Mencrunch, submitted an ad to CBS for the Super Bowl. The commercial depicted two male football fans watching the game before starting to make out on the living room couch. Although Mencrunch was prepared to pay the accepted rate for the commercial to air during the Super Bowl, CBS decided once again that it should revert back to its role as moral arbiter—and rejected the ad.

In a statement announcing its decision, CBS declared it is “open to working with the client on alternative submissions.” Like the alternatives that depict heterosexual couples engaged in solely procreational sexual acts.

CBS’s double standard is all the more egregious in light of recent Super Bowl ads that depicted homosexuality. The 2007 Super Bowl broadcast included a Snickers commercial that reinterpreted the famous pasta scene from The Lady and the Tramp. Two automechanics eat from each end of the Snickers bar until their lips accidentally touch. The men are horrified, and yell out to do something manly to rectify the situation—and so thus rip out clumps of their own chest hair. The message is that homosexuality is allowed in Super Bowl commercials as long as it is portayed as either disgusting or a joke (preferably both).

CBS is trying to define “normal”—in this case, as football, religion, and babies—while marginalizing anything that does not fit into its narrative. Allowing a television network to draw this line in the sand is ridiculous, especially when considering other ads airing Sunday night. The majority revolve around binge drinking—advocated by animals and scantily clad young women, with a healthy dose of slapstick violence.

It’s time for CBS to stop rejecting ads that don’t live up to its arbitary vision of American morality. The world is full of ideas I don’t agree with. But I would much rather determine which values I choose to respect than have them dictated to me by the network that airs Ghost Whisperer.

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Comments 1

  • Interesting piece. Branding will always be at play–just compare the commercials when different networks host the event from year to year. Of course, it all stays within a certain range though, given the nature of the Superbowl and the wide audience it attracts.

    I guess this signals movement of the range toward a particular end. I think we might see more of this.