Just after kickoff last night, the Focus on the Family commercial hit the air. Even those who missed the Super Bowl have probably heard the controversy about this infamous and previously unseen commercial featuring Heisman winner Tim Tebow.
In the spot, Tebow, a quarterback who led the Florida Gators to their second national championship in three years, and his mother vaguely refer to his mother’s decision not to get an abortion. Even though the amoebic dysentery she had contracted on a missionary trip to the Philippines could have threatened Tim’s life, Mrs. Tebow decided to risk it.
According to Prof. Sahara Byrne, communications, the effect of the 30-second clip could span well beyond the abortion debate.
Before this year, the big networks rejected issue-oriented advertisements including those from the United Church of Christ, Moveon.org and PETA. By airing the Focus on the Family commercial and avoiding left-leaning ads like one from the gay-dating website Mancruch.com, CBS may face a backlash that lowers ratings and negatively affects the company. This could prompt a “chilling effect” in which networks refuse controversial content altogether, eliminating hot-button topics from public view.
“Controversial ads produce a dialogue that allows us to figure out where we really are on an issue as a country,” Byrne said. “Our first amendment rights are based on the philosophy that more speech is better than less, so the chilling effect means we get less information and are less informed.”
Local TV networks that omit live programming for fear of cursing and other unexpected FCC violations serve as a classic example of the chilling effect. The phenomenon, however, extends beyond professional media. Students often self-censor high school newspapers because what they want to write may get them in trouble or offend a teacher. Although the idea of the chilling effect first emerged decades ago, it has remained the centerpiece of many Supreme Court cases, Byrne said.
Byrne has focused her academic research on the chilling effect, specifically why strategic messages designed with good intentions sometimes have the opposite effect. Her work aims to explain the “boomerang effect,” or how pro-social advertising like health campaigns backfire among groups such as children and adolescents.
“I worked in the media for a long time, and I’m glad I don’t have to make the decisions executives do but can watch it all from an academic position,” Byrne said.
The Tim Tebow commercial provides Byrne with an interesting case study. Byrne first became interested in the subject when one of her college professors introduced her to how psychological rebellion against pro-social messages shapes public policy and the law.
Byrne said CBS might have accepted the polarizing Tebow commercial because of the “new money” appeal of issue-orientated ads. Since big sponsors like FedEx, General Motors, and PepsiCo chose not to run Super Bowl commercials last night, CBS struggled to fill 30-second slots set at $2.5 to $2.8 million apiece, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Although CBS claimed that it recently ran several issue-oriented commercials on health care, this did little to pacify enraged activists. The pro-choice organization Planned Parenthood released an online advertisement several days ago featuring Viking Sean James and Olympic gold-medalist Al Joyner supporting abortion rights. Mancruch.com’s banned Super Bowl ad had garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube when this paper hit the press.
“I didn’t find the ad to be that big a deal regardless of your view,” said Brett Richardson ’13 after watching the game.
Many feminist organizations, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), have nonetheless organized formal protests against the Focus on the Family advertisement. Regardless, Tebow, who wears bible phrases on his eye-black during games, has stood by his view.
“I know some people won’t agree with it,” said Tebow in a press conference last Sunday. “But I think they can at least respect that I stand up for what I believe. I’ve always been very convicted of [his views on abortion] because that’s the reason I’m here, because my mom was a very courageous woman.”
Sports analysts from publications like The Sporting News have noted that NFL teams may now avoid drafting Tebow because of the controversy. Many scouts already had concerns that Tebow’s game does not suit professional play. According to Byrne, though, CBS execs may be more worried.
“Every place I worked, I met people who were supposed to be about the bottom line but were deeply philosophical about what messages they were putting out in the world. I’m sure you have some CBS executives that are still really concerned about what the outcome of this will be,” Byrne said. “I’m sure there were lots of sleepless nights.”
The Supreme Court’s recent decision to liberalize campaign finance laws for private corporations and unions “may pave the road for political and issue ads in the networks because there will be so much money directed towards this type of advertising,” Byrne said. “I would argue that is part of the reason we’re seeing this happen this year.”
Byrne said that ratings and public opinion will ultimately dictate how the networks react in the future. For now, she noted that the age-old mantra “any publicity is good publicity” may have served Focus on the Family well as many people who had never heard of the organization are now talking about it.
“Then again, maybe we’ll all go back to classes and the whole thing will be done,” Byrne said. “It’s been fun to watch how the story developed.”
Original Author: Dan Robbins