Americans like values, but they don't know which values they like best. The hype over Tim Tebow’s pro-life ad—sponsored by the conservative faith-and-values group Focus on the Family and scheduled to air during Sunday's Super Bowl—is a case in point. When a corporation uses a television ad to sell us a product (car, gadget, hamburger) that we don't want or need, or that harms our health, we don't seem to mind very much. In fact, if that ad promises luscious seminudity or novel ways to crack wise, we tune in eagerly. We analyze, dissect, enjoy. We rehash at the water cooler.
But when an interest group—say, representatives of a religious faith or ideological point of view—engages in such salesmanship, we recoil. "It is offensive to hold one way out as being a superior way," Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, told reporters.
Is it really? Isn't promoting one idea over another the foundation of free debate—and, more crassly, the business of advertising? Doesn't Coke employ ads to prove that it's better than Pepsi? My husband and I spend more hours than we want to explaining to our daughter the differences between the stuff she wants and the stuff she needs—and the failure of television advertising to help her know the difference. We try to teach her, in other words, to think for herself. Can't Super Bowl watchers do the same thing for abortion? Does Tim Tebow—because of his aw-shucks charm and his physical gifts—hold some secret power of persuasion that trumps an individual's lifetime of experience and decision making on moral questions? What's so scary here?
Certainly, Tebow's broad shoulders don't bear the whole burden of advertising's latent perniciousness. Remember when cigarette ads on TV used to equate smoking with a long, satisfying gallop through the tumbleweeds? And some of the worst offenders continue to be regulars on the Super Bowl broadcast. Twenty-two thousand people die each year from alcoholism, not including alcohol-induced homicides and accidents. Men (that is, Super Bowl viewers) are three times more likely to die from alcohol abuse than women. Yet Anheuser-Busch (together with its caveat, "Please drink responsibly") is a Super Bowl sponsor—and no one is hollering about infringements on rights or abuse of the airwaves.
Sunday's Super Bowl will also show ads by Denny's, Taco Bell, Coke, Snickers, and Doritos—uncontroversial spots on a day when melted cheese tops household menus nationwide. But in a generation, rates of obesity among adults have doubled. In the 1960s, 13 percent of Americans were obese; now the number is more than a third. Among children, obesity rates have tripled. Medical journals say that more than 300,000 people die each year from obesity-related illnesses. Isn't this a values question? Don't these ads glorify and romanticize the consumption of junk food to the detriment of our children's health—and our own? Aren't they, in some way, influencing impressionable minds to take a position that isn't "right" or "good for them"?
What's the difference, then, between "selling" an ideology on TV and selling a hamburger? In a working democracy, with a capitalist economy and protected free speech, there is none. (Except, perhaps, that the commercial-product ads are more fun to watch.) "If an ad is in good taste and contributes appropriately to the public discourse, I don't see why a network would not run it," writes Quentin Schultze, communications professor at Calvin College, in an e-mail. Just because Tim Tebow is selling something doesn't mean viewers have to buy it.
The more cynical question, then, is what does CBS stand to gain from the Tebow ad, beyond the $2 million-plus it allegedly cost? Controversy, obviously. And controversy begets news stories, which beget publicity, which begets more viewers. In this embattled media environment, such a tactic is understandable if somewhat underhanded. What's worse is that CBS seems to see itself as defining for Americans—through its Super Bowl ads—the reddest, whitest, and bluest of American values. The Super Bowl, after all, is the ultimate American bonding experience—and as the purveyor of this macho lovefest, CBS gets to signal what it thinks Americans really stand for. By denying airtime to a gay dating service but allowing Focus to advertise, CBS is implicitly saying that American football fans are beer-loving, car-loving, fast-food-loving pro-lifers who aren't gay and don't know any lonely gay people. That's a cartoon, made by a television company—not a picture of a nation.