Talk about a bait and switch. The Tebow Super Bowl ad left me hyped up for more hype.

February 7, 2010
By | 28 Comments

After weeks of  controversy and speculation, Focus on the Family’s 30-second Super bowl spot featuring Heisman Trophy-winner Tim Tebow was as decidedly uncontroversial as CBS claimed it would be.

In the ad, mom Pam Tebow flashes a baby picture of her quarterback son and calls him her miracle baby.  In one version of the ad, Tim Tebow tackles his mother; another version of the ad has Tim walk calmly into the frame and hug his mother.

Neither ad says anything about abortion, mentions any pro-life or pro-choice buzzwords, or features anything but a mother and a son mugging happily for the camera.  Text at the end of the spots, however, directs viewers to, where we can discover the rest of the Tebow story.

It is here, on the conservative, pro-life, Christian website that abortion and buzzwords abound.  Jim Daly, the organization’s president, begins his interview with Pam and Bob Tebow by arguing that 30 seconds is not enough time to tell the whole Tebow story, and yet the details of Pam Tebow’s fifth pregnancy have been thoroughly rehashed in the weeks leading up to the big game.  Thirty seconds was enough, in this case, because the viewing audience came to the ad knowing the details of Pam’s high-risk pregnancy, her doctor’s urging to abort her pregnancy to save her own life, and Pam’s decision to carry her pregnancy to term.  The Super Bowl ad, then, functioned as an enthymeme, relying upon the audience to provide necessary premises that enabled the spot to make its pro-life argument.

Focus on the Family’s Tebow interview makes standard pro-life arguments. Pam goes over the details of her pregnancy again, sidestepping the pro-choice ideograph “choice” by noting that she had no “decision” to make regarding her pregnancy when her doctor suggested abortion.  Her reproductive decisions, Pam asserts, were made by God.  Neatly conferring personhood on fetuses, Pam and Bob refer to her pregnancy as Tim and “him” throughout their retelling, and they obscure any middle ground pro-choice and pro-life rhetors may have carved by claiming that even the potential loss of a woman’s life does not necessitate abortion.  Near the end of the interview, when asked what he would say to a “girl” carrying an unplanned pregnancy, Bob Tebow looks into the camera and pleads, “Don’t kill your baby.”

This message is reinforced by several links that appear beside and underneath the interview. Viewers can visit the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association or the Tim Tebow Foundation, but it is Focus on the Family’s own links that are most explicit.  A box labeled “Know Your Options” plugs pregnancy help centers that promise to help pregnant women with “pregnancy and abortion related issues,” including The Morning After Pill. Clicking on the hypertext “Morning After Pill” brings up another box that urges readers to avoid taking large doses of hormones and notes that the MAP may in fact cause abortion, if you believe that life begins at fertilization.  Another box labeled “Be a Voice for Life,” reveals that these pregnancy help centers save the lives of “pre-born babies” (to borrow a term from Daly’s Tebow interview) by offering ultrasounds to pregnant women.  The pro-life camp’s most powerful rhetorical weapon has long been images of fetuses, and Focus on the Family is counting on images of flickering heart beats to expose the woeful inadequacy of “choice.”

Yahoo sports blogger Jay Busbee claims that the Tebow spot will revolutionize Super Bowl ads, opening the door for special interest groups to appeal to a captive beer-and-buffalo-wing-addled audience.  I am not sure this is true.  Not only does this ad not contribute anything new to the abortion debate, it asks a little too much of its viewers.  For the ad to be effective, we have to know the backstory, and we have to be willing to visit the website.  Otherwise, we’re left with the bland “Celebrate Family.  Celebrate Life” tag line.  Maybe that’s the banality the organization was trying to peddle in the first place, a slogan that makes us feel warm and fuzzy when pull out our checkbooks.


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28 Responses to “ Talk about a bait and switch. The Tebow Super Bowl ad left me hyped up for more hype. ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on February 7, 2010 at 10:39 PM

    This ad had me baffled too, Sarah. It just didn’t seem to say enough for one to regard it as an honest attempt to change anyone’s mind. So, as you say, it either expects too much of its audience, and is a waste of a lot of money as a result, or perhaps it’s an ad that’s preaching to the converted. Perhaps it’s not really trying to convince anyone not to have an abortion — perhaps instead it’s trying to rally the pro-life troops, give them a talking point or two, and give them a sense of accomplishment and inspiration that might come with landing an ad in the Super Bowl?

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 8, 2010 at 9:58 AM

      I agree with Jonathan’s three points–esp. the last one. How can a liberal object to this ad–its too banal. For us, that is. For the Palin crowd, what a success.

  2. Liz Ellcessor on February 7, 2010 at 10:55 PM

    It strikes me that the ad was incidental – that it was the (entirely predictable) hype beforehand that Focus on the Family was counting on. By not releasing the ad, but releasing Pam Tebow’s story in every conceivable outlet, it captured the news cycle, created outrage in the pro-choice camps, and created a sense of left-wing would-be-censorship that probably rallied the troops quite well.

    The ad was never the point – the idea of the ad was all that was ever there, to be exploited however worked best (if CBS had turned it down, this would have been about those nasty networks censoring them, instead).

    • Mabel Rosenheck on February 7, 2010 at 11:29 PM

      I think Liz is exactly right. The whole point was that there was a big to do over how controversial abortion is and then the actual text of the ad was something no one could disagree with. In class, a professor used pro-choice/pro-life as an example of how language and discourse shape the world around us. Who would be against choice? Who could be against life? Who is against a mother and her miracle baby that “almost didn’t make it into this world”? It didn’t sound like an ad about abortion and that was the whole point.

    • Jonathan Gray on February 8, 2010 at 12:05 AM

      agreed, though there still seems to have been very little attempt, therefore, to actually convince those considering abortion not to have one: it was a team-rallying move.

      of course, this is what many ads are — team-rallyers, not necessarily pitches to others to change behavior, as they’re too often considered. Which is fine if the product is Bud Light and you’re happy with your sales, but if your “product” is “not having abortions,” it seems an interesting, and perhaps telling, move to team-rally rather than try to sell that product

  3. Kimberly Chatto on February 7, 2010 at 11:04 PM

    For all the hype that was brought up by the ad, the end result definitely wasn’t what I was expecting. I missed the ad entirely, so I tried looking it up on the youtube’s ad-mania section only to find that it wasn’t there. This got me excited, thinking that the ad was just that controversial that even youtube didn’t want to include it with the others. Then I watched it and had an “aww that’s adorable” moment, only to be a little dismayed thinking that my original idea of this ad was going to rock the ethical world. I also didn’t know the Tebow family story beforehand except that they did mission work in the Philippines, so I followed up on the website only to realize that she was purposely trying to have a baby and despite medical issues, carried on with her pregnancy. I feel like the organization used the Tebow family on the basis that they had a famous son and are religious. The story doesn’t relate to the core of controversial issues circulating abortion, especially on terms of unwanted pregnancies. I feel that (if I remember correctly) the ad saying the “what if’s” President Obama hadn’t been born to a single mother was far more effective than the Focus on the Family ad.

    • Sarah Jedd on February 8, 2010 at 9:39 AM

      An excellent comparison, Kim– that ad was rejected by NBC and CNN, but, like the Tebow ad, said nothing about abortion at all.

  4. Eric Dienstfrey on February 7, 2010 at 11:44 PM

    I assume the ad reassures pro-lifers about their beliefs and perhaps indirectly thanks them for being pro-life, much like the NFL ad thanked its viewers for watching football. It is also an attempt for FotF to paint themselves in a positive light for the ad is simple, warm, and appealing to a certain demographic

    This is a political ad, so cynically speaking it is unrealistic to expect the ad to change anyone’s mind about abortion. FotF may simply want the issue to play a larger role in the current political debate, perhaps in light of the Stupak Ammendment’s surprising success as well as the upcoming midterms.

  5. Sarah Jedd on February 8, 2010 at 6:38 AM

    What’s odd in a rally-the-troops context is that the only time Pam Tebow used the word “choice” in the FotF website interview, she said that she wanted women carrying surprise pregnancies to know that there were resources available to help them carry to term and that they had a choice, as if it was a forgone conclusion that they would have abortions. Usually in the context of the abortion rights debate “choice” is sort of code for abortion. I thought her adoption of the term was fascinating, especially since she referred to abortion as a “decision.”

    I do think that the interview made a stab at convincing pregnant women to carry their pregnancies to term (Pam and Bob both made persona pleas), but more than that Focus on the Family aims their efforts at individual pregnant women through their pregnancy help centers that claim to offer options but seem to be geared toward convincing women that fetuses are babies. If viewers made the effort to click through and watch the online interview, this ad rallied the troops towards action on the front lines of abortion prevention.

  6. Chris on February 8, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    The ad had to be really tame, or else CBS would never have aired it. Surely Focus on the Family would have preferred to show something more propagandistic, but they knew that would never have gotten on the air. This is what bugs me about people who are saying this is ultimately no big deal since the ad itself is so innocuous. As Liz says, the ad is only one small part of this, and Focus on the Family got exactly what they wanted from a network that claimed it wasn’t supporting political advocacy.

  7. Lindsay H. Garrison on February 8, 2010 at 9:08 AM

    Great analysis, Sarah, and some great points raised in these comments. You’re right that maybe it asked too much of its audience to really be effective as a pro-life sales tool in and of itself, but like Liz says, the ad received so much attention in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl – both from the blogosphere AND the sports world (ESPN reported on it several times, on TV, radio, and online) – it didn’t necessarily *need* to be a sales tool itself; it let its intertextuality do the heavy lifting. Speaking of intertextuality, someone over at Salon captured the tone of it perfectly, I thought – “it was the creepiest e-Harmony ad ever.”

  8. Misty on February 8, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    Across the board, last night’s ads defined new boundaries for mainstream misogyny. I’m looking at you Dodge, Motorola, GoDaddy, hand-held TV… I could go on. I guess it’s no wonder FotF’s effort seemed like a non-issue to CBS.

    Amid all the controversy in the run-up to the game, I was shocked at how blithely most commentators ignored the message’s unstated premise: Women are baby-vessels, pure and simple. Got a life-threatening condition? Too bad. “Good” mothers are willing to give their lives for their fetuses.

    FotF thus advocates nothing short of violence against women, both our bodies and our autonomy.

    • Sarah Jedd on February 8, 2010 at 10:16 AM

      Awesome point, Misty (and I really enjoyed your commercial tweets throughout– totally agree). I read a blog before the ad that said that, too, (RHR Reality Check) but you two are the only people I’ve seen make that direct argument.

      • Anne Helen Petersen on February 8, 2010 at 11:07 AM

        This is a popular (and salient) idea right now, as demonstrated by the portrayal of child birth (and the duty of the mother to her unborn child) in the fourth book of Twilight. I’m not spoiling anything to say that Bella, pregnant with a half-vampire baby, has her body torn apart by the rapidly growing fetus — it breaks her spin, cracks her ribs, and basically starts to eat its way out of her. NO JOKE. But she refuses any attempt at even getting the baby out early, as it’s her duty to have this child. No matter the cost, women are made to have babies….

    • sarah on February 10, 2010 at 10:57 PM

      I could not agree w/ this more, Misty! I was mortified by the misogyny in the ads in general, and this idea that a woman should have no “decision to make” when her life is at risk when pregnant was just mind-blowing to me.

  9. Myles McNutt on February 8, 2010 at 9:57 AM

    I think we’ve officially reached the stage where the coverage of the commercials has superseded the actual commercials in terms of the Super Bowl’s actual importance (beating out “Lead-in to another TV show” and “The Football game” in the process). And while this coverage has always existed after the game, the idea that it has become an important part of the pre-game process makes a commercial’s impact that much more separated from the actual commercial: its context within the game itself is lost in the internet-age (where more people watch it during the game, but more people pay attention to it online), and now the abstract idea of the commercial had a longer shelf life than the actual ad will.

    I’m with Lindsay in that the ads are shifting from text to intertextuality, and I don’t think this in itself is new: rather, it’s shifting from post-game to pre-game, and in the process further differentiating an ad’s impact from the text itself.

    • Jonathan Gray on February 8, 2010 at 10:25 AM

      Great point, Myles: what the advertisers are really buying isn’t 15-30 secs in the Super Bowl — they’re buying all the hoopla that surrounds it … which connects really well with Liz’s point that ad was just a stub, the real work being done elsewhere. The paratexts swallow the text once more

    • Misty on February 8, 2010 at 6:10 PM

      I completely agree, Myles. We might have seen this coming a few years back, when another advocacy group (MoveOn, maybe?) submitted an ad that was rejected as too controversial. I bring up that example to further illustrate your point. Even when an ad doesn’t run, like the ManCrunch spot from this year, the “earned” media results in far more brand awareness than the actual 30 seconds.

      • Jonathan Gray on February 8, 2010 at 7:27 PM

        yeah, it was MoveOn, with an anti-Bush ad. CBS said it was too controversial, so it played on CNN instead … and meanwhile, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake provided WAY more controversy than CBS would’ve had to worry about with the MoveOn ad. Ah, sweet karma 🙂

      • Myles McNutt on February 8, 2010 at 7:52 PM

        This is especially clear with the ManCrunch ad they were proposing to air, which is just horribly made – at first I found it confounding that the two guys in the commercial were clearly fake kissing, until I realized that of course they weren’t actually kissing, because the commercial was clearly never intended to be seriously considered for the Super Bowl. They knew precisely what they were doing, and the ad was entirely irrelevant to their plans.

  10. Kyra Glass von der Osten on February 8, 2010 at 10:14 AM

    I think this is a wonderful post but disagree a little with many of you about how effective this ad is in serving pro-life goals other than rallying the troops. First of all the use of the word “choice” is brilliant and part of a concerted effort in pro-life camps to re-claim this term. A lot of contemporary youth-oriented pro-life groups like to talk about women who have abortions being pushed into it or doing it because they “feel they have no choice.” The whole premise of the Crisis Pregnancy Centers that have grown over the last decade is that they provide “better” choices. Sometimes they talk about abortion an the morning after pill in order to emphasize how these are “bad” even “dangerous” choices and sometimes spread misinformation.
    Secondly much of the work of issues ads is not to make argument but to create an audience that is primed to hear an argument. This ads strange mix of Gerber and e-Harmony commercial is actually very effective in creating an ambiance of babies are miracles, having a child was the most wonderful thing in my life, and look how happy I am that I had my baby which is the crucial first step in the pro-life argument. Convincing people that they really really want to be parents and emphasizing the miracle of life is crucial work that accompanies efforts to prevent abortions.
    What I think is interesting was that the equally uncontroversial Planned Parenthood response: did not get aired. Like the Focus on the Family ad its focus is not abortion or even choice as much as it is respecting women. (Although “choice” does make a more frequent appearance then “abortion” did in the Focus on the Family Ad)

    • Sarah Jedd on February 8, 2010 at 10:19 AM

      Kyra– an excellent point. I am also fascinated with Pam Tebow’s use of “choice” (see my comment above). I am also baffled because pro-choice rhetors have long bemoaned the ineffectiveness of choice as it compares to life and to images of fetuses. Seems odd (but really smart) that the pro-life contingent would want this word, too.

    • Liz Ellcessor on February 8, 2010 at 2:59 PM

      Kyra, to be fair, I don’t think the Planned Parenthood ad was ever submitted to air on CBS – it would have been too late in the process to get a spot, and as an organization with actual services and operating costs, they couldn’t afford it.

      Otherwise, though, I agree – I remember the “Women Deserve Better” ads from a few years back that were designed to suggest that abortion is always a last resort and direct women to pregnancy care centers. The message is that these people care about you and your future baby and will help, while abortion will only cause more problems. The goal is to get people to the point seen so often in 16 and Pregnant – “I could never do that” – regardless of their actual circumstances and desires.

      • Kyra Glass on February 8, 2010 at 5:34 PM

        Liz, thanks for the heads up on the timing of the Planned Parenthood ad. I had received mis-information from a radio program claiming that it was rejected by CBS, something that appears to be false after double-checking further. Yet the circulation of this mis-information in itself is interesting.However while I find the tone of the planned parenthood ad interesting I apologize for my false assumptions about why it was or was not aired.

  11. Sarah Jedd on February 8, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    Some of you might be interested in the above link to more analysis.

  12. Eric Dienstfrey on February 8, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    I think we are ignoring an equally problematic ad last night from Audi in the form of a “green police” satire. Even though the ad promoted a fuel efficient automobile, it made environmentalists out to be liberal fascists through both police state imagery and the tagline “Green has never felt so right.” Buy an Audi to avoid the wrath of those obnoxious liberals. Perhaps I am baffled that the political statements of this ad is getting virtually no attention, whereas an innocuous ad from FotF is galvanizing–in my opinion exhausted–rhetorical analysis.

  13. Evan Davis on February 11, 2010 at 1:05 AM

    It seems that part of the reason for taking a look at the FotF ad is to uncover its peculiarities: genuinely innocuous on the outside, potentially pernicious on the inside. One could say the same thing about the Audi commercial (that tagline does hit hard), but after watching it again, it seems as though Audi is parodying the authoritarian fervor many environmentalists unleash on others. We laugh at the Audi ad because we recognize the absurdity of equating a thrown-away battery with murder. Does that make the ad more insidious? I suppose an argument could be made that yes, since we are laughing, the hidden message can be communicated more completely. However, its layers of meaning still appear to be less damning than the FotF piece. Less weird, perhaps, but also less damning.

    • Eric Dienstfrey on February 11, 2010 at 8:10 AM

      You bring up a decent point, but I think we are justifying one ad’s rhetoric at a higher standard merely because we disagree with its political message. Everyone writing on this page appears to be both ‘pro-choice’ (if we can move past the conceit of those terms) and environmentally progressive, if not in practice than in ideology. But perhaps there’s nothing wrong with this approach.