UPDATE: Via Ad Age, CBS has approved the ad's script and accepted the ad for airing. It is worth noting that the ad is not expected to be a "hard sell" or "anti-" anything, at least from FoF's perspective. I don't think this changes any of the analysis below, and -- if anything -- will create even more of a muted response from sports media and fans.
The key here was the spot's low-key delivery. Everyone assumed this would be some raging freak-out spectacle, like so many advocacy ads in the past have tried to be. Not only would that have been rejected, but I'm sure Tebow would not have agreed to do it -- after all, he has always been about high visibility for his values, but he has never been about the "hard sell." Original post follows:
Let's talk about Tim Tebow's Super Bowl ad.
You know: The one produced by Focus on the Family, featuring Tim and his mom Pam, referencing Pam's decision to give birth to Tim. It is, to say the least, controversial.
Start with this:
The ad is not going to run during the Super Bowl. I do not have inside information from CBS; I can only go by historical precedent. And, based on precedent, advocacy ads such as this one are rejected by the network televising the Super Bowl.
[Ed.: Obviously, the preceding statements are wrong, given the new information.]
That said: It will not matter. As we saw during the 2008 Presidential campaign, advocacy groups regularly released "TV advertisements" that would run sparingly in some tiny media market (if at all), only to gain wide attention after the cable news networks endlessly played them. It was very effective.
Similarly, the Tebow commercial will have extended life -- and distribution (if not quite as wide as the Super Bowl) -- by running on YouTube, where it can be obsessed over by everyone from political pundits to sports columnists. (More on that in a sec.)
So whether or not the Tebow ad airs during the Super Bowl broadcast, it will have its intended effect: Raising awareness of the group that commissioned it -- the point of any ad.
But what does it mean for Tebow?
Start with this:
Participating in this ad is entirely in line with Tim Tebow's core system of priorities, which he has outlined consistently throughout his public life: Faith first. Then family. Then football. (Academics used to come between family and football, but that's not in the mix anymore, so I'm condensing it.)
That Tebow would make a TV ad or endorse a viewpoint that supports his faith (and, in the process, showcase his family) should not surprise anyone. In fact, it makes all the sense in the world if you understand Tebow. Even if -- or perhaps ESPECIALLY if -- it is the first "ad" he does as a pro.
A more secularly minded marketing consultant -- and Tim will surely have those, in charge of cutting his deals with the likes of video-game companies or shoe manufacturers or sports-drink companies -- might have cringed at Tebow doing an ad that would be so polarizing.
But to crib a phrase from the past four years: That's just Tim being Tim. (Tim's well-established value system is, in fact, at the core of his marketing appeal, particularly with fans who share his system of values.)
Tebow is a master student of the powers of influence. Does that mean he totally understands the implications of doing the ad? Or is it something that he simply believes in so strongly that he will ignore any potential negative consequences? In fact: ARE there consequences, either positive or negative?
Here is an interesting dynamic to consider:
Sportswriters do NOT like to talk about politics. This is for a couple of reasons: Most sports writers are entirely out of their depth when talking about politics -- or any issue beyond the superficialities of sports. This is why sports columnists who moralize or try to opine on subjects of gravitas -- even related to sports -- more often than not look foolish.
The other reason is that sports fans don't like to see politics and sports mix. Sports is meant to be a haven from politics -- or anything else. They want their sports coverage -- and their sports stars -- to be apolitical. (At least until they are out of sports and turn into politicians.) The exception is for issues that transcend politics, like asking fans to donate to the United Way or relief in Haiti.
Interestingly, Tebow was such a powerful presence that his most public displays of religious faith -- the eye-black -- was, more often than not, accepted and celebrated by sports media. For their part, fans were mostly comfortable with giving Tebow the freedom to express himself as he wanted to. But largely, sports media didn't touch it. And that is for Bible verses -- let alone the complicated issues related to abortion.
So here is where the dynamics of Tebow's Super Bowl ad get interesting: Sports media really doesn't want to -- or cannot -- talk about it. At least, not without a ton of collateral issues coming into play. And I doubt many sports editors or producers want to attempt to navigate that.
So what happens? Do people talk about the ad? Is it referenced in a boring, meta, "we're not talking about abortion, we're talking about an ad talking about abortion" kind of way? Is it not referenced at all? Is it one of those issues that is hot in the blogosphere but all but ignored in mainstream media?
In sports media, that is almost assuredly the case.
And then there is this:
Tebow has a lot of fans -- he is the most high-profile player in college football history. He is the most high-profile entrant in the NFL Draft. He has more endorsement potential than anyone in the NFL besides Peyton Manning.
Some of those fans agree with Tebow's value system. Some of those fans agree with some of Tebow's value system. Some of those fans agree with little of Tebow's value system. (Put more bluntly: Some fans are pro-life, some are pro-choice. Some approve of Focus on the Family; some don't.)
By being so public with his allegiances, does Tebow risk alienating the devoted Tebow fans who disagree with Focus on the Family?
I would argue he doesn't. No Tebow fan doesn't already understand Tebow's system of spiritual values. And those who disagree with any of those values came to terms with that a long time ago. No TV ad -- no matter how prominent -- undermines that.
(For my part, I have long-reconciled any differences between Tebow's value system and my own by instead focusing -- no pun intended -- on the commonalities, many of which transcend purist definitions as spiritual or secular.)
Might fans with nothing but a superficial awareness of Tebow have an out-sized reaction to the ad (or the news of the ad)? Very possibly, but it cuts both ways: People who support FoF will instinctively support Tebow; people who don't will instinctively dismiss him.
Again, I'm not sure there's a calculus involved in this for Tebow -- for him, it's a natural extension of his core belief system. I'm don't think he cares about people he might be offending, even if it might pain him after four years developing a very non-divisive culture of personality.
Much has been made recently about Tebow that "the NFL isn't college" -- for example, he won't be able to wear messages on his eye-black. Professionalism comes with all sorts of new opportunities (marketing deals) and challenges (media scrutiny).
I don't think this ad impacts that, whether or not it ever reaches the Super Bowl broadcast. (Again: Even if it doesn't, it will surely find traction through YouTube.) Everyone already connects Tebow to Christian values, specifically of the kind promoted by Focus on the Family.
Even in the event the ad is not allowed on the broadcast -- even with a media backlash from FoF because of it, to gain even more publicity-- in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, fans will be focused on another showcase for Tebow: His performance in the Senior Bowl.
Again: When fans are thinking about sports, they don't want to think about -- let alone linger -- on politics. If they haven't exiled this storyline to the backs of their minds by the time the game rolls around, they will as quickly afterward as they can. They will go back to thinking about...football.
And at that point, Tebow remains the most intriguing prospect of the NFL Draft. Debating the policies of Focus on the Family? No thanks. Debating Tim Tebow's potential as an NFL QB or his worthiness as a 1st-round pick? Bring it on. Fans can -- and will -- talk about that all day.
(At the same time, Tebow will inevitably be part of an ad campaign for EA's NCAA Football 2011. Or Nike. Or Gatorade. These are three companies that excel at symbolism and myth-making. If you thought a montage on College GameDay was inspiring, wait until Weiden & Kennedy take on Tebow.)
But you won't hear much in sports media about Tim Tebow's Super Bowl ad. And cable news networks know that non-sports fans don't really know or care about Tebow. (The only debate for talk-show hosts will be CBS choosing to reject or accept the ad, no matter who is starring in it.)
On its face, this ad seems "controversial" for an athlete, let alone Tebow. It's not. It is entirely in line with Tebow's value system. People entrenched on either side of the issue aren't changing their mind -- about abortion, about FoF, about Tebow himself -- from it.
And it is enough of a hot-button issue -- unrelated to sports -- that sports fans won't just try to ignore it, they will actively try to avoid it.