Superbowl morality tales

Even though officially I was rooting for the Indianapolis Colts, that was a very enjoyable Superbowl game. Both teams really deserved to be at the game and it was, overall, very well played.

But wow were many of the commercials I saw awful. (To be fair, I was making Lester LeBlanc's jambalaya and was distracted as well by my children. I missed many ads.)

Anyway, we were midway through the first quarter when my husband and I were aghast at the misogyny and the portrayal of men as bumbling idiots. Now that I'm a mother, I actually worry about the messages some of these advertisements impart. They teach children that woman's only value is sexual and that men can only resent women, not respect them. One ad actually took the position that adult behavior (e.g. picking up after one's self) is so odious and emasculating that it means men can fight back by picking out their own mid-level car. Sad.

To be sure, there were some positive messages in commercials -- this Dove ad portrayed men in a positive light and this Google ad strongly supported marriage and children -- but by and large advertisers seemed to be aiming for an audience of subliterate haters of ladies. But hey, I'm married to a man who values me more than his tires (yep, one company actually tried to sell tires by having a husband choose them over his wife).

I actually think that respect between the sexes is an important topic fraught with religious ghosts. My own views on the respect that should be accorded to men and women are religiously based and my religious tradition encourages strong men and women and encourages the sexes to honor each other. But I doubt we'll see much discussion of whether advertising should aim higher than this year's Superbowl advertisers did, much less whether such a discussion would include religious voices.

The Associated Press wrote up an overview of the commercials with a much more favorable view. Marketing reporter Emily Fredrix said the overall message of the advertisements was humor:

The commercials got off to a funny start Sunday night on CBS, with companies like Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola going straight for chuckles. ... But not every commercial was strictly humorous. Automaker Toyota aired several pregame ads to reassure worried owners after its recalls connected with accelerator problems.

And a commercial by conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, perhaps the most anticipated ad of the night, hinted at a serious subject although it took a humorous tone too. Heisman winner Tim Tebow and his mother talk about her difficult pregnancy with him and how she was advised to end the pregnancy -- implying an antiabortion message -- but ended with Tebow tackling his mom and saying the family must be "tough."

Um. Wrong. You can view the Focus on the Family ad above. Tebow and his mother do not talk about her difficult pregnancy or how she was advised to end it. It didn't end with Tebow tackling his mom but that did happen in the middle of the 30-second spot. Speaking of, how hard is it to correctly report on a 30-second commercial? And you'd think the reporter would be highly incentivized to report accurately, considering that hundreds of millions of people watched the ad. There was also a pre-Superbowl ad featuring the Tebows. But that ad doesn't mention abortion or advice to end a pregnancy either. You can view that one here. Our colleague Brad apparently watched "the rest of the story" at the Focus web site and even there, he said, the discussion was about the special plan God had for Tebow's life.

Here's the actual text of the Superbowl ad, if you're interested.

The New York Times didn't mention the ad in its wrap-up piece but the advertising reporter did write extensively about it in his live-blog of the evening's ads. It's apparent that he comes to his job with a particular angle. He, oddly, praised one ad that suggested pics of hottie Megan Fox could be so steamy as to come between gay lovers (he said it was an example of "inclusion" as opposed to the "exclusion" marked by CBS refusing to sell advertising to gay dating site But I thought this excerpt from his description of the actual Superbowl ad was interesting:

The spot was slick and well done; a casual viewer might not have any idea it was from an organization as opposed to abortion as Focus on the Family. It used a production style and tone that is typical of Oprah Winfrey: upbeat, seemingly free of ideology, including chirpy music.

The appearance of the spot has opened a debate on whether advocacy and issue ads belong on a Super Bowl, which has become an unofficial midwinter American holiday. If the answer is yes, there may come a time when watching the Super Bowl will be like watching TV in a swing state like Ohio or Florida the Sunday before a presidential election, with commercials taking sides showing up every couple of minutes.

Now, I know that other advocacy and issue ads aired during the Superbowl. This political ad for Rick "The Nerd" Snyder ran in Michigan. Here in DC, we got one from the Employment Policies Institute decrying the national debt.

And yet even though actual Superbowl viewers have been treated to actual advocacy ads all the time (even if sold through their local networks), this seems to be the meme that folks are running with. Here, for instance, is Yahoo! Sports' Jay Busbee saying that until yesterday, all Superbowl ads stayed very far away from the "charged worlds of politics, religion and morality." I would argue that all marketing and consumption decisions are moral decisions but even if you don't take such an expansive view, I'm sure we can all agree that Superbowl ads (mini-movies, really) frequently deal with moral issues. This Audi ad that aired yesterday, for instance, took on the environmentalist movement even as it touted a pro-environment message. Moral and political messages, there.

The Yahoo! article raises some interesting questions about whether Tebow can be an effective spokesman in the post-Tiger Woods-scandal world if he only appeals to pro-life consumers. Many of the questions raised would make for good articles:

Certainly, one of America's most fundamental rights is that every organization has the right to speak its piece. And if said organization happens to have the millions necessary to buy airtime during the Super Bowl, there's a valid argument for allowing them to do so. But what about the many millions who look at the Super Bowl as an escape from the thorny political and moral issues of the day, who want nothing more than to watch some football and laugh at a few amusing ads along the way? Should money and political ambition trump the original purpose of the game? Do we need to have moral and ethical discussions involved in every corner of our lives? Or is that exactly what we need?

You know, I'm not sure I see much of a difference between being treated to ads featuring the objectification of women, the emasculation of men, and the glorification of consumerism -- and issue advocacy ads. Fact is, I might prefer the latter, no matter who they're from. Still, it's funny to see so many in the media treat the former advertisements as pure and holy and the latter as somehow corrupt.

What were your favorite ads? Have you seen any good or bad media coverage of the Superbowl ads, paying particular attention to moral or religious issues?

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