A Super Bowl ad we can do without

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Today, there are few corners of our communal life untouched by rancorous political division.

CBS guaranteed that there will be one less when it broke with long-standing tradition and sold an evangelical Christian group time in which to air an antiabortion ad during this year’s Super Bowl. If this were a football game rather than life -- or, at least, commerce -- it’s the kind of ruling you’d want to send up to the box for a review of the call on the field.

The Super Bowl, which is this country’s most-watched television event, also has evolved into the world’s premier showcase for video advertising. Until now, though, the networks always have declined to accept issue-oriented or political spots. In recent years, for example, they’ve turned down ads from the liberal activist group and the United Church of Christ.


This year, after a bit of back and forth, CBS agreed to broadcast a commercial purchased by the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, whose founder -- James Dobson -- is one of the religious right’s most influential personalities. Both Dobson and his organization are longtime opponents of legalized abortion.

The ad reportedly will feature the University of Florida’s superstar quarterback, Tim Tebow, and his mother, Pam. She will describe how, while working as a missionary in the Philippines and seven months pregnant with Tim, she contracted dysentery and fell into a coma. When she awoke, according to her account, doctors said the drugs they’d used to treat her virtually guaranteed a life-threatening stillbirth. They advised an abortion. She declined out of religious conviction.

Asked about the sudden change in direction, CBS spokesman Dana McClintock said the network had “moderated our approach to advocacy submissions” because it “did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms.” He said CBS “will continue to consider responsibly produced ads from all groups for the few remaining spots in Super Bowl XLIV.” Notice that phrase “few remaining”? This year, a 30-second spot is going for about $2.8 million. Perhaps necessity was the mother of moderation here.

Whatever its motives, CBS has made a bad call. There ought to be places in our lives that are free from profound confrontation. Focus on the Family has every right to produce its ad, of course, and CBS -- so long as its policies are evenhanded -- has every right to run issue-oriented spots. It really comes down to a question of taste and civility. You don’t talk politics at the Thanksgiving table, and you really ought to be able to watch a football game without being confronted with another person’s views on abortion, or the treatment of veal calves.

Is there really a difference between this sort of Super Bowl ad and the other 60-odd trying to sell you beer or cars or computers? Yes. One is a pitch; the other is proselytizing. We suffer the former as the price of life in a consumer society; we abhor the latter as a coarse invasion of privacy. There are moments when we open ourselves to moral persuasion, and moments when we’re entitled to simple recreation. It’s the sort of distinction on which civility relies.

Ever wonder how the Tebows’ heartwarming story won nearly $3 million worth of Focus on the Family’s attention? Both Tim and Pam Tebow are active, committed members of an evangelical ministry run by Pam’s Baptist minister husband, Bob, one of the founders of Campus Crusade for Christ. This is hardly their first foray into social activism. Tim was home schooled and played football at a public high school whose athletic programs were opened to students educated at home by a Florida law. In the years since, mother and son have helped promote so-called Tim’s Laws in other states to open public school sports to home-schooled children.


Both mother and son are vocal opponents of abortion, though there’s a curious aspect to the story she’s told in numerous interviews. Pam has repeatedly said that all this happened in the Philippines, where she delivered Tim in 1987. But as a letter to CBS from the Center for Reproductive Rights notes, the Philippines criminalized abortion in 1870. Since 1930, its criminal code governing abortion makes no exception to save the life of the mother and requires prison time for doctors and women involved. It’s remarkable that Pam’s doctors were willing to give advice that put them at such risk.

More than most, the Tebows have benefited from the reverence American society accords the religious consciences of its people and the decisions based on those consciences. The Tebows’ story is a tribute to this country’s respect for choice -- though somebody else will have to pay to get that message across.