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Focus on the Family takes on critics of its Super Bowl ad: "This is a simple message celebrating life and family"

tim tebow.jpg
Tim Tebow, in a photo from his Wikipedia page, doesn't pass on Jesus.
This year's Super Bowl matchup between Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts and the feel-good New Orleans Saints promises to be among the most watched events of the year -- and that's wonderful news for Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, which will be running an ad starring University of Florida QB Tim Tebow and his mom during the broadcast.

Even better: A coalition of women's groups, including the Feminist Majority and the National Organization of Women, is urging CBS not to air the spot, which many observers expect to carry an anti-abortion message. (Doctors recommended that Mrs. Tebow have the procedure; instead, she ignored their advice and gave birth to Tim.) After all, the controversy is bringing even more attention to the spot, which will not be previewed in advance of the game.

As for the commercial's content, FOTF spokesman Gary Schneeberger offers few specifics -- but he does say this: "The heated nature of what they're describing, well, that's not the ad I've got on my laptop."

Schneeberger didn't expect NOW and the other critical organizations to champion Focus for entering the advertising big leagues.

"Obviously, the people and organizations who've been protesting, we don't agree ideologically on a lot of things," he allows. "And that's not just in the social policy realm, but also in the Christian realm, and what we do in our Christian help ministry.

"So the fact that they'd be upset and using pretty fiery rhetoric isn't really a surprise. But what is surprising is that there's been so much vitriol coming from them when nobody's seen the ad. The only two groups who've seen the ad are us at Focus on the Family and the folks at CBS -- and CBS has indicated that it has no problem with the ad. It's approved the script, it's seen the spot, and most importantly, they know who Focus on the Family is.

"Yes, a sliver of what we do -- 10 percent or less -- involves social policy," he continues. "But 90 percent of what we do -- nine pennies out of every dime -- is devoted to helping couples raise their kids and helping people walk out their Christian faith with boldness. They've seen our website, they've seen who we are, and they've seen no problem with us. And I think a number of people will feel the same way on Super Bowl Sunday. Because the ad isn't political, it isn't controversial. It's a simple message about celebrating family and celebrating life.

"What we're trying to offer folks is a sort of shingle that says, 'Family help here. If you're having life challenges, if you're struggling with things in your marriage, if you want to take a good marriage to the next level and make it a great marriage, we've got the resources and the counseling and the insight to help you get there.'"

In a November interview with Westword, around the time FOTF was dealing with fallout from founder James Dobson's announcement that he'd be leaving his formal role with the ministry in February, Schneeberger acknowledged the group's financial challenges, albeit with an air of optimism. Still, after significant cuts and layoffs in recent years, how can Focus justify spending millions for a commercial?

"We have been extremely fortunate in that the entire cost of the airtime for the ad was donated by just a handful of very, very generous friends of the ministry," he says. "When this idea for us to team up with the Tebows and offer an aspirational message was presented to a small group of donors, they were extremely excited for the opportunity."

This assertion contradicts some of the information in the first article to report about the ad -- a Colorado Springs Independent piece by columnist Rich Tosches that was published on December 24, weeks before Focus made a formal announcement about the plan. (In the Indy offering, Schneeberger declined comment.) A source told Tosches that about $1 million came from the Focus coffers.

Not so, responds Schneeberger: "No money from our general fund, no money we use to do our ongoing global ministries, none of that was dipped into for this ad."

Many companies that purchase Super Bowl commercials make them available to news outlets and the like in the weeks before the contest. However, Schneeberger says Focus won't be employing this strategy.

"Lots of folks have been calling," he confirms. "If you can arrange three letters into an acronym for a network, I've talked to them, and they're all asking the same question. But our view is, we're going to wait to show the ad until game day. We're not trying to be coy, we're not trying to be cute. We believe the ad is inspirational. And we don't want to dilute from its impact during the game.

"We think it'll stand out, because we're not trying to sell the American people anything -- not a soft drink or a car or a web-domain name. We're trying to celebrate and inspire families, and we think that's going to be best accomplished by letting people see the ad for themselves while watching the game.

"Yes, if somebody who's never heard of Focus on the Family comes to our site, sees the work we do around the globe and helping families thrive, and if they decide to donate, we won't be upset. But we have a different metric for measuring success than most advertisers. We know that for arguably the biggest family TV event of the year, in that audience there are going to be husbands and wives who are struggling in marriage, parents with kids who are rebelling, and people facing life challenges who need a little guidance on the next step to take. So our success is going to be determined by those kinds of folks long after the parties are over and the dip's in the fridge and the lights are out. If they've found a place where they can get help, that's what will be success for us."

And if protesters want to generate a little more publicity along the way, that's fine by him, too.

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