By far the most talked-about advertising story in the week leading up to the Super Bowl was the controversial decision by CBS to accept an anti-abortion ad from the conservative lobbying group Focus on the Family. So when the ad itself turned out to be a blink-and-you-missed it bit of feel-good pablum, some people were quick to write it off as a fizzle.Actually, it was a masterstroke. Long before the game started, Focus had already accomplished the first of its goals: Communicating a pro-life message through the vehicle of affable college-football star Tim Tebow and his mother. Everyone who cares about this sort of thing knew that the ad would be about Mother Tebow's decision to carry Fetus Tim to term despite medical risks.
So, instead, the group used its 30 seconds to achieve a different goal: Branding itself in the minds of viewers as a friendly, nonconfrontational organization with a hard-to-argue-with pro-family mission. The subtext was: That fire-breathing right-wing outfit you may have heard about that hates gays and women and is always picking fights? That's not us at all. We're just nice, decent folks who love our kids, like you do.
How accurate or inaccurate that characterization may be is beside the point. By setting up an expectation that it was going to do something controversial, Focus made it easy to come off as moderate and inclusive by comparison.
And it didn't even have to jettison its pro-life agenda. Sure, it's doubtful too many viewers rushed to the web to see the full-length version of the Tebows' story. But the tagline "Celebrate Life" is a clear enough clarion cry to partisans of the abortion debate. It's classic dog-whistle politics: meaningful to those in the know, inoffensive to everyone else.
Focus on the Family's Super Bowl Ad Was Actually Pretty Clever