When I first brought up Tim Tebow's Super Bowl ad with Focus on the Family a month ago, I probably should have staked out that I thought it would become a big deal.
Actually, I thought it would get rejected by CBS as an "advocacy ad" -- in line with Super Bowl precedent -- and that would be that. The ad would get some life on YouTube and that's it.
But I was entirely wrong: CBS accepted the ad, presumably because they wanted the money, but also presumably because Focus on the Family presented them with a muted message. (Anything more provocative would surely have been rejected.)
And since the news of the accepted ad came out, it has become a lot bigger than my original claims that there's really "no controversy" there. Again: I was wrong.
The ad's subject -- implicitly or explicitly, depending on who you ask -- is abortion. And abortion is the most heated issue of our time. It has triggered a lot of heated discussion.
This week, the issue -- tackled up til now by some sports columnists -- has crossed over from sports into mainstream media: Joy Behar talked about it on The View. And, yesterday, Sarah Palin gave the ad a huge profile by talking about it on her much-watched Facebook page, which undercuts the argument from CBS that the ad's topic is apolitical. Regardless, as you will see from my conclusion at the end of this post, that kind of profile you get when everyone (including Sarah Palin) talks about your issues is at the heart of the decision to do the ad.
And so let's revisit a couple of the key issues:
*Participating in the ad should shock no one who knows or has followed Tebow. It is entirely consistent with his values and actions, as Tebow himself re-affirmed yesterday.
*To the extent that an ad essentially about the abortion debate can be non-controversial, the content of the ad will be as toned-down as it can possibly get. Some apparently have this presumption that the ad will show Tim and Pam Tebow marching with posters of baby fetuses. Without having seen the script, I guarantee you that it will be softly spoken (and entirely sincere) treacle, because CBS couldn't approved it any other way.
*Some see the ad as a gateway for some of Focus on the Family's "non-muted" viewpoints. And by appearing on behalf of Focus on the Family, Tim Tebow endorses those viewpoints. Those people obviously haven't followed Tebow throughout his career -- he might not constantly talk about it, but he is doing the ad because he supports FoF's planks. Many Tebow fans who don't agree with or support Focus on the Family's positions on issues came to terms with that a long time ago. People who don't know Tebow (or know him beyond a cariacature) will likely have a less nuanced view, whichever side they support.
*This will not hurt Tim Tebow's endorsement potential in more secular sectors, like sports drinks or video games or sports equipment. There is a huge market of fans who will like Tebow for his off-field values; there is a huge market of fans who like Tebow despite his off-field activity; and there is a huge market of fans who don't care and will buy Gatorade or Nike sneakers or video games featuring Tebow regardless.
*Mostly, there seems to be an overwhelming group in the middle that doesn't care about Tebow's affiliation with Focus on the Family, one way or the other. What they care about is the politicization of an apolitical national event like the Super Bowl -- no matter how soft-sold the ad might be. They don't want their politics and their sports to mix. Some will love seeing the ad. Some will hate seeing the ad. But how about most people?
Most will watch it, take 5 seconds to have an opinion about how it made them feel -- I'm predicting mostly "what was the fuss all about?" -- and then they will either (a) hush the other people in the living room because the next commercial is on, (b) forget about the ad because the game is back on, or (c) hustle out to go to the bathroom or to the snacks table.
CBS has the right to run any ad they want. People have the right to feel how they want about it and about Tebow himself.
And Tebow has the right to make any ad he wants. I'm not even sure he and his marketing team or family made any sort of economic calculus about how this ad might hurt (or help) his larger marketing appeal. In fact, I doubt they even considered it.
I go back to something we heard over and over when Tebow made his decision to come back to Florida for his senior year. It wasn't about winning a championship (although that was part of it). It wasn't about getting better-prepared for the NFL (although that was part of it).
No: The anecdote you heard over and over was about how blown away Tebow and his family were by the Google dominance of "John 3:16" when Tebow wore it on his eyeblack in the 2008 national title game. The revelation -- so to speak -- was that Tebow, coming back as the biggest rock star in college football history, had a massive platform to influence people... far more massive than he would have as an early-entry NFL rookie QB.
The Focus on the Family spot is not an ad during "How I Met Your Mother." This is an ad during the Super Bowl -- the most-watched TV show of the year, and regularly among the most-watched TV shows of all time.
This is -- by many, many multiples -- the biggest single platform Tebow has ever had to share his values and influence people.
Tebow: "It’s a good time and place. There are a lot of people watching. It’s a great opportunity to show something very happy and a special story and my mom fighting for me. There are a lot of great things in that."
(Tebow also seemed generally -- and genuinely -- surprised at the controversy. Again, this shouldn't surprise anyone, and it is part of what makes Tebow simultaneously someone of tremendous clarity -- even simplicity -- yet complexity.)
Given what we know about how important that influence is to Tebow and his family -- and Focus on the Family's recognition that between CBS's desperation for Super Bowl ad money and the softly sold story of the Tebows that would pass corporate muster, they could get their own brand on the biggest stage possible -- Tebow's participation in this ad should come as no surprise.