CBS's decision to air an anti-abortion ad during Sunday's Super Bowl has kicked off a contentious debate about the process through which the network vets advocacy advertisements, and has left pro-choice activists disagreeing on the best way to respond to this latest high-profile parry in the culture war, which reportedly cost Focus on the Family between $2.4 million and $2.8 million.
The spot has not been made public, but is expected to feature college football star Tim Tebow, winner of the Heisman Trophy, and his mother, Pam. In the ad, Pam will speak about her decision to go through with her 1987 pregnancy with Tim after contracting dysentery in the Philippines, despite advice from a doctor to end her pregnancy in order to protect her own health. According to Focus on the Family, the ad will not feature any explicit political message. Its tagline will be, "Celebrate family, celebrate life."
"When you recall that Focus on the Family wants to overturn Roe v. Wade… this revelation is extremely, extremely disturbing," says NOW President Terry O'Neill.
The major broadcast networks have avoided political advocacy ads for years, so CBS's decision to air the Tebow ad caught abortion rights advocates off guard. But Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based conservative Christian group founded by Dr. James Dobson, says that it has actually been working closely with CBS executives for months on the ad's script.
• The 15 Most Brilliant Super Bowl Ads "There were discussions about the specific wording of the spot," said Gary Schneeberger, spokesperson for Focus on the Family. "And we came to a compromise. To an agreement." Schneeberger declined to comment on exactly how CBS changed the ad's message.
CBS has said that in the last year, in an acknowledgment of "industry norms," it loosened previous restrictions on advocacy advertisements, accepting ads that pushed for health reform and environmental activism.
But pro-choice advocates complain the network didn't publicize the policy change and hasn't applied it consistently, citing a rejected Super Bowl ad from gay dating Web site ManCrunch.com. According to Schneeberger, Focus on the Family was not aware of an explicit policy change inside the network, either. "It was only last week that they indicated that they changed any policy," he said.
"We've worked with [CBS] almost since the beginning," Schneeberger added. "Our senior vice presidents talked to CBS executives throughout the process. It was a very cordial, very professional, fruitful relationship."
CBS declined to comment on the details of its work with Focus on the Family on the Tebow ad, but said such cooperation is not unusual. Abortion rights advocates see it differently. If CBS did vet scripts for the ad, the cooperation is "appalling," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "If true, CBS is not just selling ad time for profit, but has been affirmatively working hand-in-glove—in secret—to promote Focus on the Family's agenda. When you recall that Focus on the Family wants to overturn Roe v. Wade…this revelation is extremely, extremely disturbing."
CSK Strategic Marketing Group, a small Colorado-based consulting company co-founded by former Focus on the Family senior vice president Steven Maegdlin, acted as the intermediary between the television network and the advocacy group. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Maegdlin said Focus had received no special treatment.
"It wouldn't matter if it's Focus or Greenpeace, they apply the same standard," said Maegdlin, whose company has consulted for a diverse group of corporations and non-profits, including Bank of America, United Way, The Body Shop, and a number of telecom companies. "You call CBS up and you say you've got a bunch of money you want to spend and they tell you what the criteria are. CBS has been fantastic in this because even before any price is negotiated, they make it clear they have a process you have to follow."
Super Bowl ads can be purchased as early as the spring upfront meetings the previous May, though some advertisers reserve spots less than a week before the broadcast. According to CBS, the network's involvement in the conception of an ad varies from case-to-case, but its standards and practices department reviews every ad that airs on the network.
Groups like NOW and the Women's Media Center are asking CBS not to air the ad, and urging boycotts of the network. Some feminist movement veterans, though, disagree with that combative strategy. In the Sunday Washington Post, former Catholics for Choice president Frances Kissling and former NARAL president Kate Michelman wrote an op-ed arguing that with the percentage of Americans identifying as "pro-choice" in decline, women's groups should emulate Focus on the Family's media savvy. "Women's and choice groups responding to the Tebow ad should take a page from the Focus on the Family playbook," Kissling and Michelman wrote, suggesting the purchase of a competing 30-second ad.
O'Neill disagrees that an advertising war is the best response. "The fact is, if NOW had an extra $2.5 million lying around, I'd spend it on working for women's equality," she said. "I wouldn't give it to CBS."
The ad's content has also raised hackles among some ob-gyns, who see it as an attack on medical expertise. "I'm about to do an abortion for a woman with a hole in her heart," Dr. Anne Davis, medical director of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and a practicing ob-gyn in New York City, told The Daily Beast. "If she were to stay pregnant, there's a 75 percent chance that she wouldn't make it. When people want to stay pregnant no matter what the risks, we hang in there with them and do whatever we can do for them. But it doesn't always turn out well."
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women's issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.