Monday, February 01, 2010

If you throw a tantrum and nobody notices, does it count?

There is a lively and worthwhile discussion going on this week about CBS's decision to accept a Super Bowl advertisement from Focus on the Family that is reputed to carry a strong anti-abortion message. The issue isn't over the actual message of the ad so much as it is that networks have, in the past, rejected advocacy ads for the Super Bowl.

Specifically, CBS turned down an advertisement from the United Church of Christ in 2004 that showed minorities and gay couples being turned away at some churches but being welcomed to services at a UCC church.  According to this article, the reason given was a policy against any advertisement which "touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue."

CBS apparently has admitted to loosening the restrictions in light of the current economy, but still rejected an advertisement for a gay dating site, reportedly because the ad showed a gay couple celebrating a touchdown by kissing.

So the question is, has CBS decided to accept controversial ads, or just the ones somebody in their power structure doesn't consider controversial?

And, to be fair, the other question is, does the Focus on the Family ad say the things its critics claim? I add all the "reportedlys" to this because I happened to be working at an NBC affiliate when Donald Wildmon, a conservative clergyman noted for protesting indecency and blasphemy in the media, launched a campaign against a planned miniseries on the life of Christ, threatening sponsors with a boycott because the story was blasphemous, based on wild and baseless rumors of what the script contained. Today, Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" is a staple of Christian broadcasting around Easter.

But let's assume the advertisement is what it is said to be: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother saying how glad they are that she didn't choose to have an abortion when she was pregnant with him. I don't see how this ad is less controversial than an ad from the UCC saying, "All people are welcome here" or an ad for a dating service that suggests that gay couples kiss when they are happy. No more controversial, but also no less. And thus the question of why CBS is airing the ad deserves to be asked, and the question of fairness answered.

I would go farther and say that I approve of boycotts as a way of expressing displeasure, and, if people want to write to other Super Bowl sponsors and express their anger, individually or collectively, I would encourage them to do so.


The comments section of the above-linked article on HuffPost contains threats by a number of outraged readers to not watch the game. I strongly dislike reading these comments because I kind of like to cherish the notion that  liberals enjoy some intellectual advantage over conservatives. This "that'll show'em" response makes it impossible for me to hold onto an attractive idea which I already knew wasn't true.

Yeah, don't watch their damn Super Bowl. That'll show'em!

But ... that'll show who?

Small gestures matter, even if they are only personal ones. But they have to carry some weight, however light. I carry on my own personal boycott of Arizona Iced Tea and its affiliated products, because they had proposed bringing out "Crazy Horse Malt Liquor" over the protests of his family, who asked them not to use the name, noting the damage alcohol has done to Indians, and, in particular, the staunch temperance views that their famous ancestor had held. The proposal fizzled anyway, but I'm not buying their damned drinks. Now, I don't think that's going to cause any comment in the board room at Arizona Iced Tea because (A) I haven't told them and (B) my dollar a month canned beverage habit isn't going to nudge their P/L by a whole lot one way or t'other. Still, it's money they aren't getting from me and to hell with'em.

That said, how on earth does not watching the Super Bowl show anybody anything? There is, in these outraged statements, a sense that, if we don't watch, their ratings will fall. Now, unless you happen to be a Neilsen family this week and are keeping a ratings diary, the only way this will happen will be if it turns out that television ratings are the result of magical spy satellites that track all our viewing habits.

Let me just say that nobody who believes that is in any position to make jokes about tin foil hats.

If you don't want to watch the game, don't watch. But don't claim you're making a statement, because you are not costing CBS a single ratings point or a single penny of revenue. You are not having an impact on Focus on the Family. You are not advancing the cause of women's right to privacy or to control of their bodies.

You are simply having a very private, very quiet hissy fit that will have no possible effect on anyone except, perhaps, those who have to hear about it at the office. Either do something or do nothing, but don't be silly.

And, finally, for those who wonder where God stands on all this, I submit this Owen Dunne cartoon, which ran in January, 2000, after the Rams won the Super Bowl over the Titans in a squeaker. (Click on it for a more readable size.) Of course, we all know that, if God doesn't give the New Orleans Saints a victory, it means He really did strike down the city as divine punishment for the pro-choice policies of America, just like Pat Robertson said.


Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

This is just the greatest group of illustrations.

I see CBS is pulling out the excuse that the gay dating ad they nixed was a, heaven forbid, commercial venture while the Focus on the Family thing is non-profit. It really makes me wish UCC would grab this opportunity to try again, since CBS's double standard would be harder to hide if these two ads were decided on at the same time.

Anyway, i've been a Neilsen diarist 3 times, but could this Superbowl weekend be one of 'em? No-o-o-o. Actual communication is called for.

Vt Teacher said...

One important aspect that you've missed though is that they're not just "not watching" the Superbowl but commenting and blogging about this. I think there's a big difference. Especially because I know of all this without having seen the ad or clicked on an article about it. So those comments have more of an affect than whether or not those people actually watch the Superbowl.

Personally, I would guess they mostly fall into two groups: Football fans who will end up watching it anyway and non-football fans who wouldn't have watched it anyway.

So here are the important questions:
Should we boycott meaningless boycotts? How will you measure if this blog is having an impact on preventing boycotts that have no measurable impact? :p

ronnie said...

Very well said, Mike. Every word of it.

Meanwhile, here in New Brunswick, a bunch of tantrum-throwers are threatening to boycott a local candy company, of all things, because the chair of the company also led a committee which yesterday endorsed a very unpopular deal to sell part of our electrical utility to Hydro Quebec.

Punishing a local company with deep roots in the province and threatening the 300 jobs it provides in a rural New Brunswick community is clearly a sane response.

Inanity abounds.