(as published on Adweek.com)
Imagine the quandary CBS found themselves in pre-Super Bowl: do we approve this anti-abortion commercial from Focus on the Family, whose proponents believe that to chose otherwise sends you straight to hell? After all, we did refuse a spot from the pro-choice United Church of Christ a few Super Bowls ago – a view held by people who are destined for hell, their opponents would have us believe. Somebody might accuse us of being inconsistent, arbitrary. Or worse, biased. Screw it. That was then, this is now. And we get their $2.5 million.
And damn: here’s a spot for Electronic Arts’ new video game, Dante’s Inferno, that tells everybody, plain and simple, “Go to Hell,” right there in the tag line. That one’s easy. No way. We’ll reject that one because it’s, well, “controversial.” But by rejecting this EA spot we’ll be accused of being hypocritical – because we’ve run worse stuff than that already. So we’ll make them run their compromise version, “Hell Awaits.” That’s it; we’ll approve that one – even though people will think we’re arbitrary – or picking sides - and hypocritical. But, we’ll get their $2.5 million, too.
And we’re sure as hell rejecting the ManCrunch ad promoting gay dating. Focus on the Family followers put that right up there with abortion. Besides, we don’t think they really have their $2.5 mill.
Hell fire and damnation. Never have the Super Bowl stakes been so high.
“Go to Hell,” for my money, is a clever and perfectly logical summary of Dante’s Inferno’s theme, taken from Dante Alighieri’s classic 14th century epic poem, “Divine Comedy,” a line EA has been using for several months running up to the video game’s launch this week. And “controversial” to who? Focus on the Family?
Think about it: “Hell Awaits” is much more ominous than what CBS rejected - “Go to Hell” - a cliché wrapped in a vernacular inside colloquial speech, something no worse than what 6th graders say to each other out on the playground. I mean, if indeed hell already awaits me, I’m doomed. But if somebody’s suggesting that I go to hell, well, I’ve still got options. For my money the joke’s on CBS.
Except it’s not. It’s worse than that. CBS is apparently invoking some kind of arbitrary “right” to refuse to air commercials on their programs for reasons variously described as “controversial,” or “not up to CBS broadcast standards” - perhaps in fear of FCC repercussions, again, or some imagined uprising from organized conservatives, again. So they air the Focus on Family spot featuring Tim Tebow and his mother, who is sanctified for her refusal to have an abortion – a “controversial” commercial in its own right given the evangelical views this conservative Christian organization promotes: anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-sex education – views many see as “controversial.” This adds a whole new dimension to CBS’s hypocrisy. The UCC spot they rejected earlier, by contrast, expressed a simple, positive message of inclusion and non-discrimination, saying “we don’t turn anybody away.” Which, now that I think about it, conflicts with CBS’s Super Bowl policy. No wonder they wouldn’t run it.
But the futility of CBS’s hypocritical position is even more evident in the broader context of cable television – which more people watch than broadcast television - where the FCC’s guidelines have never applied. So of course EA is already running the “Go to Hell” version on cable networks like Comedy Central, and SyFy.
Arbitrary and/or biased. Hypocritical. And futile.
But wait, there’s more. Amidst rising controversy over their clearance of the Focus on the Family spot, CBS claimed we have “moderated our approach to advocacy submissions (sure, a CBS Producer told me, “we need the money”) … and that, under (its) new policies, the UCC ad would have been accepted …”. (CBS/AP, cbsnews.com, Jan 27, 2010).
Arbitrary and/or biased. Hypocritical. Futile. And unprincipled.
It was also CBS that co-produced and broadcast the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake act/accident/not just bare breast but nipple/fraction of a mili-second/long shot hardly visible exposure “Wardrobe Malfunction” half-time show in Super Bowl XXXIX and was subsequently fined $500,000 by the FCC (later voided by the US Court of Appeals, ultimately vacated by the US Supreme Court and sent back for reconsideration). It’s still pending – maybe they’re hoping the FCC will see their new light and wave the fine. The incident provoked organized hysteria from the ultra right, including at least one southern senator, the Parents Television Council and Phyllis Schlafly – even though only 18% of adult Americans polled by the Associated Press back then supported the FCC investigation (Wikipedia, “Super Bowl XXIX halftime show controversy”).
And it was CBS who approved and aired commercials in this same Super Bowl that featured a horny, talking monkey hitting on a (human) babe; Cedric the Entertainer getting a bikini wax; painted man tits; a farting Clydesdale; a kid watching a kilt-wearing dude cool his gonads; the comedian Monique calling a guy’s ex-girlfriend a “skinny h(o)” and a 12-yr old kid uttering “holy sh-t” in reaction to his Dad’s new car. And the usual erectile dysfunction commercial. (I can see it now: “Mommy, what’s an erection?”).
Three seasons ago CBS aired a particularly graphic episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” in which the parents of a missing girl are found murdered in a seedy motel room, and the prime suspect is a registered sex offender now working as a church pastor.
The name of the episode? “Go to Hell.”
Maybe now CBS thinks “Go to hell” is “profanity,” and “hell awaits” isn’t. But EA’s Super Bowl spot aired in the 4th quarter, late evening, when guidelines are much less stringent for what the FCC defines as the “safe harbor” … “the time period between 10pm and 6am local time. Fact is you can find all kinds of profanity all over primetime network television these days – and besides, they allow profanity to be aired in the “safe harbor:”
Don’t you wonder if any of this has anything to do with the impact other major advertisers can have on the commercial content of the company they keep? After all, the Supreme Court has just reversed a decades old precedent and unleashed unlimited corporate and union advertising spending to support candidates and issues they advocate. CBS knows what kind of issues garner big-bucks support, and they’re sending a clear signal they’re ready for this kind of money, now.
Arbitrary and/or biased. Plus hypocritical and unprincipled. And sell-outs. All of which surely earns CBS their own special place in advertising hell, anyway.
Tim Arnold is an ad agency veteran and former columnist for Adweek who wrote about his own battles with Fox over clearing GoDaddy.com’s first Super Bowl commercial (“Who’s Your Daddy?” Adweek, Feb 21, 2005).