Feb. 2, 2010 — -- Entertaining Super Bowl commercials often attract more attention than the big game itself, but this year it's the controversial nature of certain ads, not the creativity behind them, that's prompting double takes.
CBS, which is airing this year's Super Bowl match-up between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints, has rejected at least two ads, one for the Internet domain company GoDaddy.com and another for a dating site for gay men, Man Crunch. The network, meanwhile, has accepted a controversial commercial by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.
The rejected GoDaddy.com ad features an effeminate former football player-turned lingerie designer, while the Man Crunch commercial shows two male football fans kissing.
The Focus on the Family ad tells the story of a woman who contracted amoebic dysentery and, despite doctor's advice, chose not to terminate her pregnancy. The son she gave birth to grew up to be college football star Tim Tebow.
Bob Garfield, an advertising critic for the magazine Advertising Age, said that it's up to a network's standards and practices division to determine which ads are suitable for air. When a network decides whether to air an ad, he said, it's not about making moral judgments but rather determining whether an ad is "going to be offensive to large swaths of the audience."
Garfield and others say that sometimes advertisers will submit a commercial knowing full well that it will be rejected; being rejected, they say, comes with its own benefit: free publicity.
"There's a separate cottage industry based on getting your Super Bowl spot banned," said Barbara Lippert, an ad critic for Adweek. "You get all the free publicity and you never have to actually pay the media cost."
As Focus on the Family's ad has shown, however, a commercial doesn't need to actually be rejected to draw an unusual amount of attention -- and that's a good thing for Focus on the Family, said Larry Woodard, the CEO of the ad agency Vigilante and an advertising columnist for ABCNews.com.
From Lola to Tebow: Super Bowl Ad Imbroglios Generate Publicity
"I think the controversy that it garners is something that they're looking for just to have the dialogue out there," he said.
Given how expensive a Super Bowl commercial is -- CBS initially priced its 30 second spots at $3 million apiece -- companies are looking to get more bang for their buck out of their ads, Woodard said. Sometimes, that means provoking controversy, he said.
"In this economy, it seems that everyone is going for the gold: They're looking for the great spot and the wardrobe malfunction all in one," he said.
Here's a rundown of this year's three ad dust-ups:
In an ad dubbed "Lola," the titular main character retires from his football career to become a lingerie designer and, with the help of GoDaddy.com, launches his business online. Lola, a heavy-set man, is shown during various points of the advertisement wearing flamboyant outfits, pressing his fingers to his lips and making high-pitched sounds while admiring his designs on lingerie models.
A CBS source told ABCNews.com the ad was rejected because of its "stereotypical tone." The source said that CBS did accept other ads by GoDaddy.
GoDaddy.com, meanwhile, defended the ad, noting that it achieved a 94 percent approval rating from viewers who watched it on the GoDaddy site.
The company dismissed concerns that gays and lesbians might not appreciate the commercial, which some could argue exploits stereotypes about gay men or, specifically, gay male fashion designers.
"I know people that are gay -- they just thought it was funny as hell," GoDaddy.com CEO Bob Parsons told ABCNews.com.
GoDaddy.com has a track record of getting ads rejected from the Super Bowl. In 2008, Fox banned a GoDaddy.com ad that featured attractive women accompanied by pet beavers -- the fact that the animal's name was a double entendre for a part of the female anatomy was apparently what forced the network's hand.
In 2006, Parsons said, ABC rejected some eight GoDaddy.com Super Bowl ads before finally accepting one.
Critics say GoDaddy has made a habit of creating over-the-line commercials for the sake of the free publicity that floods in when the ads get banned, but Parsons denies that.
"We never make an ad to have it rejected purposely, because I think people would be able to spot that for being disingenous," he said.
A commercial by Man Crunch, a dating site for gay men, shows two men wearing football jerseys sitting on a couch, watching a game. When both men reach for a bowl of chips and their hands touch, suddenly the two are locked in an embrace and begin kissing. (Watch the Man Crunch ad here.)
CBS was vague on its explanation of why it rejected the ad.
"After reviewing the ad -- which is entirely commercial in nature -- our Standards and Practices department decided not to accept this particular spot," the network said in a statement.
Man Crunch's spokesman said that the rejection constituted discrimination.
"Our feeling is that if this was an ad for a straight dating service where you had a guy and a girl kissing, the way we have them kissing on it, there would have been no issue," Dominic Friesen said.
But was CBS's rejection about money, not content? Advertising Age reported that the network may have been concerned that Man Crunch couldn't actually afford the ad.
"A lot of people believe Man Crunch never had the money to buy the spot, they were just looking for the controversy," Woodard said.
Friesen conceded that CBS rejected a credit application by Man Crunch, but he added that the company had been willing to pay in advance for the ad, in cash, and had also submited a new credit application by its parent company. He told ABCNews.com that Man Crunch, which was launched in January, was prepared to put down between $2.2 and $2.5 million for a Super Bowl spot.
The company plans on launching a "huge" advertising campaign in two to three months, he said.
"That money is still going to be spent," he said, "It's just going to be spent another way."
Focus on the Family, which opposes abortion rights, hasn't made any previews available of its Tim Tebow commercial, but it has nonetheless drawn fire from women's groups.
The commercial inserts "an exceedingly controversial issue into a place where we all hope Americans will be united, not divided, in terms of watching America's most-watched sporting event," Jehmu Greene, president of the Women's Media Center, told ABC News last week.
Tebow Ad Not Political?
Focus on the Family, meanwhile, argued that the spot is neither political nor controversial.
"It's a personal story about the love between a mother and son," spokesman Gary Schneeberger said.
The ad, which stars Tebow and his mother, Pam, recounts Her decision not to terminate her pregnancy despite having had medical treatment for amoebic dysentery. Doctors had advised her to end the pregnancy because the medications threatened the fetus. She ignored their advice and gave birth to Tim Tebow in 1987.
"I know some people won't agree with it," said Tebow of the 30-second ad at a press conference in Mobile, Ala., last month. "But I think they can at least respect that I stand up for what I believe. I've always been very convicted of [his views on abortion] because that's the reason I'm here, because my mom was a very courageous woman."
Television networks have traditionally shied away from ads advocating positions on a controversial issue, and ads on abortion, Advertising Age's Garfield said, are "right at the top of the list."
So why would this particular ad make the cut?
A source at CBS told ABC News last week that the the words "abortion" and "pro-life" did not appear anywhere in the ad.
"My best guess is they looked at the text of the ad and not the overall context and said 'The ad itself is quite benign, so let's use it," Garfield said.
CBS released an official statement about the ad last week.
"We have for some time moderated our approach to advocacy submissions after it became apparent that our stance did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms on the issue. In fact, most media outlets have accepted advocacy ads for some time," the company said. "At CBS, our standards and practices process continues to adhere to a process that ensures all ads -- on all sides of an issue -- are appropriate for air."