09 February 2010

CBS' Controversial Calls

San Francisco Chronicle

The Standards and Practices Department at CBS has had a busy few weeks trying to decide what will and what will not offend us during commercial breaks in today's Super Bowl. This is no small responsibility. The Super Bowl not only draws an audience of 100 million, but it's also the one televised event in which the commercials have become a much-anticipated part of the show. So when CBS decides that Americans can handle a poignant personal appeal against abortion but would be put off by humorous treatments of homosexuality, the broadcast network is offering a commentary on what it sees as the sensibilities of the times.

Censorship can be a dangerous game in this age of the Internet. A quick Google search of "banned Super Bowl ads" will produce links to everything CBS refused to let you see.

The network's two most controversial decisions - to accept the anti-abortion spot with the mother of quarterback Tim Tebow and to reject the ad for the gay dating service Man Crunch - show a curious inconsistency.

Anyone who thinks that sex is out of bounds on CBS Sports has not watched much football this season. Each week brings an onslaught of advertising for erectile dysfunction drugs, often preceded by close-up shots of NFL cheerleaders accentuating their cleavage.

If the CBS concern is about awkwardness with young children, I think most parents would find it easier to deflect - or laugh off - the slapstick Man Crunch ad than explain a narrator's somber warning to seek medical attention "for an erection lasting more than four hours."

In the Man Crunch ad, two jersey-clad guys inadvertently touch hands while reaching into a bowl of chips, then plunge into a comically frenzied make-out session. If history is a guide, commercials featuring women - aimed at heterosexual men - will be far racier. Past Super Bowls have featured ads with a woman flashing her breasts at a congressional hearing and two women tearing each other's clothes off in a mud-bath fight over whether Miller Lite was "great tasting" or "less filling."

At least the Man Crunch stars had the decency to keep their jerseys on.

CBS also refused to air a gay-themed ad titled "Lola," about a retired football player who becomes a lingerie entrepreneur. The network reportedly objected to the "stereotypical tone" in the portrayal of an ex-player with a penchant for pink and frilly outfits.

"Lola" was offered up by GoDaddy, a company that has built its brand identity on Super Bowl Sundays with giggles and jiggles that have nothing to do with its business of selling domain names. GoDaddy's replacement ad reportedly spoofs its push against the boundaries of taste: It plays a mock interview with race-car driver Danica Patrick about the controversy, and ends with a woman ripping off her top to reveal the GoDaddy logo.

So the message from CBS is: Objectification and misogyny are OK; stereotypes are not. Fights and flashes of flesh are fine; madcap makeouts are not.

Most of the pregame controversy has centered on CBS' acceptance of an anti-abortion ad by the conservative group Focus on the Family. The spot features the mother of Heisman Trophy winner Tebow recalling how she was advised by doctors to terminate her pregnancy after contracting dysentery while serving as a missionary in the Philippines in 1987. Pam Tebow ignored that advice, and gave birth to a son who became a star quarterback. He appears in the spot.

Various women's groups have objected to the CBS decision to run the Tebow ad. Planned Parenthood even produced a rebuttal for the Web featuring athletes Sean James and Al Joyner talking about choice and respect for women.

All this furor assures that the chatter will stop in living rooms across the country when "the Tim Tebow ad!" comes on.

I think Americans can handle a little controversy with their football. I don't think Focus on the Family will change many minds for the $3 million it will be paying for each 30 seconds of air time.

However, the most super deal of all was had by Man Crunch, which got a bounty of attention without shelling out a dime to CBS.

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