Monday, February 08, 2010

The Te-Bow Incident: Terrible Ad, Brilliant PR

Over the last couple of weeks a political storm has been brewing over an ad that the pro-life/anti-choice group Focus on the Family was going to air during the Superbowl.  In case you have somehow been blessed enough to not have heard anything about this, here is an excerpt from the FotF press release...

The 30-second spot from the international family-help organization will feature college football star Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. They will share a personal story centered on the theme of "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life."

Jim Daly, president and CEO of Focus on the Family, said the chance to partner with the Tebows and lift up a meaningful message about family and life comes at the right moment in the culture, because "families need to be inspired."

What the press release doesn't mention - and the reason this ad became a lightning rod - was that when Tim Tebow's mother Pam, was pregnant with the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner she was forced to make a choice that no woman wants to have to make.  After getting ill while on a missionary trip to the Philippines, she was told that her pregnancy threatened her life, and was advised to terminate it.  Pam made the difficult choice to move forward with the pregnancy instead, giving birth to her fifth child, the once-and-future quarterback.

Knowing this (and FotF's frequent anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-anything-they-don't-deem-to-be-Christian rhetoric), several pro-choice groups made the assumption that the ad was going to be a politically charged, anti-choice polemic.  They rallied against the ad and FotF, and slammed CBS for allowing such a controversial "advocacy" ad from one political group while denying controversial ads from other organizations.  They cited CBS's denials of an ad for the gay dating site ManCrunch, a gay-football-player ad from GoDaddy, and an ad from the United Church of Christ that welcomed gays into their congregation (hmm, I'm sensing a theme here).

FotF meanwhile stayed mostly silent, refusing to show the spot before the game and pretty much just saying "watch the ad" whenever asked about it.  This, of course, only fanned the speculative flames even further until "the Tebow anti-abortion ad" was pretty much the only commercial anyone was talking about before the game.

And then it aired. And the world said, "What?!"

If you haven't yet seen it, here is a link...

Now, I'm sure there are some out there who would say this ad is "cute," but strictly from an advertising standpoint, this spot is terrible... and I mean TERRIBLE.  Let me count the ways...

1) It's all context and no message - Pam Tebow speaks a lot, without actually saying anything. What is the ad's message? Something about being tough? Parents worry about their kids?  I've seen the ad probably a dozen times now and I still can't honestly tell.

2) It says nothing about the organization it is supposed to be representing - Even if the ad's message was a clear "Families need to stick together," there is no indication about how this relates to FotF.  It could just as easily be a spot for a health insurance company.

3) It has a visual metaphor that is completely antithetical to the words that are spoken - My mom loves me so much... I TACKLE HER! If FotF's message is that we are supposed to love and cherish our families, how does the image of a son throwing his mother violently to the ground support that?

4) It inaccurately features someone famous doing something they're famous for - Ads that show famous people doing things they're not famous for can be wonderfully effective if done correctly (think the ad featuring Betty White playing pick-up football).  However, an ad showing someone doing something inaccurately close to what they're famous for is just confusing.  If Tim Tebow ever has to tackle someone in a game, the rest of his team is doing something really wrong.

5) It breaks the cardinal sin of advertising - It's boring. Other than the inexplicable mom-bashing at the end (which is at least exciting, if disturbing), it's just a big yawn.

You may think I'm just overanalyzing the ad and that no one else would analyze it like this, but you'd be wrong.  Like it or not, advertising is the life-blood of business (virtually all industries live and die by it) and you don't spend $3 million on a 30-second spot and not analyze every single thing about it. Believe me, I'm not the only one looking at these things and coming to the conclusion that the ad sucked.

Without all the hype building up to it, if it were remembered at all, the ad would have only been remembered as "that weird commercial where Tim Tebow tackled his mom as she talked about how much she loves him."

But that's where the PR brilliance comes in.

By allowing such a firestorm over what they knew was going to otherwise be a non-event, FotF managed to use their opponents to turn an otherwise blah ad into exceptional visibility.  If the spot were better, this wouldn't be possible because there would be some element to take exception to.  However, since the ad says virtually nothing, FotF gets to say, "See, we're just a benign organization trying to, what was the line again? Oh yes... Celebrate Family."  In addition, with the opposition groups voicing their protests so loudly, FotF also gets to say, "And look at all those meanies over there who bashed us without ever even having seen the ad."

And they get to do all this without ever saying a word.

The pro-choicers got played on this one - and played but good.  To say, "It was a stupid ad," begs the question then why did you make such a fuss in the first place?  To say, "The ad still shouldn't have run," begs the question if it's so stupid, why not?

The only real ground to stand on in this case is to take the position that CBS (like pretty much all the other networks) has no coherent, open guidelines for what makes an ad controversial enough or offensive enough to be censored.  Which is why it is so easy to believe CBS was playing favorites when they agreed to air an ad from FotF (whatever the content) while denying an ad for a gay dating site or that features a gay football player or that promotes a church open to accepting gays.

At the end of the day and in light of the actual ad, however, even that argument feels forced and it's best to just admit defeat and let the Te-Bow Incident die with the news cycle.

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