Focus on the Family's Tim Tebow Super Bowl ad: Protesters inadvertently spread anti-abortion message

The media furor over a Focus on the Family Super Bowl ad starring Florida QB Tim Tebow and his mom prompted complaints from assorted women's organizations about what they assumed would be its anti-abortion message, despite FOTF spokesman Gary Schneeberger's assertion that the ad wasn't anti-anything.

This morning, Schneeberger is having the last laugh. The spot that aired yesterday (see it below) made no explicit mention of "abortion," "choice" or any obvious code word. Instead, it featured Tebow's mom Pam talking about how she almost lost Tim -- after which Tebow, in an unexpected sight gag, appears to tackle her. Then viewers are referred to the Focus on the Family website, where an additional video features Pam talking about having been urged by doctors to get an abortion and her refusal to do so -- with the result of her decision being Tim.

In the end, Focus scored big with the ad thanks to those protest groups, which wound up serving as a megaphone for its pro-life philosophy. This wasn't Focus's concept from the start: "It was definitely an accident," Schneeberger admits. But he's clearly happy with how it turned out.

Schneeberger attended the game, and because he was rooting for the New Orleans Saints, he had plenty of reason to celebrate. But he was up early this morning, "checking out the buzz about the ad," he says. "And it's generally people saying, 'What exactly was all the controversy about? What were those groups who were protesting it actually protesting?'

"I told people that there was nothing political about it, nothing divisive about it -- that it was a simple story celebrating family and life. And lo and behold, it was even humorous. Imagine that! I think that was an important message to get out there -- that Christians have a sense of humor. I think a lot of people don't recognize that. They expect us to be dour and not interested in a good chuckle. And I think it was a good, wholesome chuckle."

Not everyone agrees -- including National Organization for Women president Teri O'Neill, who told the Los Angeles Times, "I am blown away at the celebration of the violence against women in it. That's what comes across to me even more strongly than the anti-abortion message. I myself am a survivor of domestic violence, and I don't find it charming. I think CBS should be ashamed of itself."

Scheeberger is left slack-jawed by this gripe. "My only response to that is, Betty White got tackled right before that, and I didn't see a news release about it," he says, referring to a commercial in which an imaginary version of actress White is driven into a puddle of mud. "I was at the filming of the commercial, and I can tell you without hesitation that no mothers of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks were injured during the making of our commercial."

Did Focus know in advance that protesters would call for CBS not to air its ad, thereby amplifying its anti-abortion approach for weeks rather than a single day? Nope.

"Our initial media plan was to say nothing," he notes. "We were going to sit back and have this Super Bowl ad come up and let people judge it on its own merits. But a couple of things happened. Some details got reported in the media. CBS confirmed some things in an Associated Press story ; at the bottom of the story, they confirmed that we'd bought an ad.

"So we went pro-active. But all we said was that it was an inspiring story celebrating family and life. The details came from media speculation and opponents, who put out details about Pam's pregnancy with Tim, and beyond that, colored the tone and tenor."

Schneeberger concedes that Focus never considered using a hard-sell message in the commercial in part because of rules set up by CBS. "It was their process, and we worked within their parameters. That helped shape the ad."

Still, he believes these limitations proved to be a blessing in disguise.

"In thirty seconds, you can't really explain about dysentery, which was the medical condition Pam had. So we decided to present something that would get people's attention and then tell the second part of the story -- what Pam calls a 'God story of our miracle baby' -- on our website. It was a two-prong strategy -- the thirty-second commercial to get people interested enough to get them to visit our website, where they could see the whole, miraculous story for themselves."

Reviews of the spot from advertising experts polled in the Denver Post were mainly negative, with the experts seeing it as confusing and anticlimactic. But Schneeberger isn't concerned.

"In terms of criticism from, pardon the pun, Monday morning quarterbacks, we didn't do this for entertainment value," he stresses. "I think in the end, months from now, all the connections we've made with people who will contact us for family help, that's what matters most. That's going to last a lot longer than someone's reaction to a commercial with cute horses in it.

"We weren't in the game to play the popularity contest. We were in the game to let people know that Focus on the Family is here to help your family thrive."

The commercial didn't only air during the Super Bowl; variations of it popped up several times during the pre-game show as well. But at this point, anyhow, FOTF isn't planning on broadcasting it on network or cable TV again. Not that it'll go away.

"Lots of places have taken it from YouTube and posted it on their website," he says. "It will continue to have a bit of a viral life of its own."

And in this case, as in others, Focus is very pro-life. Here's the ad:

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts