If you think the Super Bowl is just a big football game featuring large, sweaty men repeatedly colliding with one another, consider this: last year’s game drew 111.3 million viewers, making it the most watched event in U.S. television history vi— for the third year in a row. According to Nielsen, the audience is getting more diverse: Hispanic and African-American viewership is increasing, and, in 2012, an astounding 46% of the audience was women.
More than a game, the Super Bowl has become America’s largest cultural stage.
And it is, of course, for this reason that each year the titans of industry mobilize their resources trying to devise clever and visually appealing messages promoting their products in compact 30-second blasts. Indeed, it is the only time I can think of when people make a point of watching the commercials just to see what they are about.
If, however, the packaging of the products changes from year to year, the products themselves do not. They’re mostly about beer, automobiles and potato chips. As a consequence, the commercials are often inane. And that got me thinking:
If I had thirty seconds to say anything I wanted to an audience numbering more than 100 million, what would I say?
I put this question to my friends, family and staff. As we considered the question thoughtfully, we concluded that we would want to deliver a message of hope. As the executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to promoting a Christian perspective on the ideas that shape culture, this appealed to me. What if we could actually do it?
Calling our local Fox affiliate, I asked how much it would cost. “It’s $20,000,” he said.
“Only $20,000? I get all of America for that?”
“Oh, you mean a network spot? Wow. You need Atlanta.” Atlanta directed me to Philadelphia, and Philadelphia directed me to New York. Soon I was speaking to the secretary for the vice president for sales of Fox Sports.
“May I speak to the VP?”
“And who, may I ask, is calling?”
“Larry Taunton, executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation, and I’d like to do a Super Bowl commercial.”
I momentarily speculated that Budweiser and Doritos didn’t get this response. I repeated myself.
“I’m sorry, but he’s about to board a plane. Perhaps he will call you tomorrow.” A phalanx unto herself, I was not going to get past her and he was never going to call me.
Then I had an idea.
“No, tomorrow won’t work,” I said casually. “I’ll be in a meeting with the President of the United States.” At that moment, I was on my way to Washington, D.C. to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, so technically speaking I was telling the truth. (Of course, some 3,000 others would be in attendance as well.)
“Now what is your name and number again?”
Five minutes later he called me. “So you want to do a Super Bowl commercial? What’s your product?”
“Uh, we don’t actually have a product. Instead, we just want to put a Bible verse on TV.”
As expected, silence.
“But you know the verse,” I explained. “It’s a part of the sport.” I was gambling here that he wasn’t just a sports executive, but a sports fan.
“You mean John 3:16, don’t you?” He said. “You see it on signs during extra point and field goal attempts.”
“That’s right, and we just want to ask people if they have ever thought about what it means.”
He was dumbfounded. “That’s it? No product?”
“That’s it,” I replied. “We just want to direct people to LookUp316.com, a website that explains what the verse means in very simple terms. No product, no politics and no requests for money.”
“I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before …” he said thoughtfully before asking me the dreaded question: “What’s your organization’s budget?”
Involuntarily, my response came out as a whisper.
“You do know we’re talking $3.5 million, don’t you? That’s more than seven times your budget.”
He was right, but he still hadn’t told me no.
“An ad like that would be controversial,” he said.
“A little controversy never hurt ratings, did it?” I pleaded.
He seemed to be mulling the consequences. “Okay, put your storyboards together, and we’ll think about it.” He was, I think, sincere.
Thrilled, I then called someone who actually knew something about making a commercial. Sean Doyle is an ad exec with a habit of liking my crackpot ideas. I also knew that he was tired of making commercials about trivial things. Having only the kind of money the big boys spend on office supplies, Sean assembled a team of actors, semi-pro football players, and production crews, most of whom participated on a pro bono basis. The result was brilliant.
In the meantime, Fox Sports tried to figure out how to deal with us. In truth, I had always hoped we would be able to raise the money and air the ad. What happened instead was much better. Fox Sports sent us a carefully worded email stating they had rejected our commercial on the basis of its “religious doctrine.” A scantily clad Kardashian or Danica tottering around in stilettos? No problem. Taking Jesus’ name not in vain, however, was going too far.
In all fairness, I do not believe that Fox Sports rejected us because they are anti-Christian bigots. More likely, they feared a public backlash and so dealt with our proposed commercial the best way the lawyers knew how: reject it.
We resorted to Plan B. The week before the Super Bowl we fired-off a press release. The spot went viral within days and, ironically, aired in every major market as a news story. Go figure. This generated a national discussion on John 3:16 and the place of religion within media and culture. Mission accomplished.
In an effort to follow-up on that success, we called NBC Sports who had the rights to the 2012 Super Bowl. This time, the conversation was much different:
“We’ve heard of you,” the suit on the other end of the line said.
Indeed, they had. The rules had changed. No longer was a $3.5 million buy enough. Now the network was requiring an $8 million purchase and proof of the advertiser’s financial means. There would be no free rides.
But we had never wanted a free ride. Our commercial wasn’t Ashley Madison or “Jesus Hates Obama,” outrageous spots that were crafted to get a rejection from the network.LookUp316.com was benign and inoffensive to all but those who are looking for something to be offended about. No, all we wanted was an opportunity to get people to think about something that actually matters: