Pocketing $3 million for 30 seconds of time sounds pretty good, no? Yet every year, it seems, you hear that the network broadcasting the Super Bowl has rejected one or more commercials. As the most-watched television event of the year — 2010's game drew 106 million viewers, making it the top-rated telecast ever — the broadcaster of the Super Bowl can command the highest advertising rates (this year estimated at $2.8 million to $3 million per spot).
This year, there have already been two such rejections. Fox, which is airing the Feb. 6 contest between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, turned down a spot advertising AshleyMadison.com, a dating site for married people looking to commit adultery. It also turned away another web-based company, JesusHatesObama.com, a satirical site that caters to conservatives and sells novelty merchandise.
Little-known companies sometimes devote their entire marketing budgets to buying one Super Bowl spot in the hopes of making a big splash. But for every one that does that, there's another that submits a blatantly over-the-top piece of creative for review with no real expectation of getting it accepted. Rejection in hand, they can then craft a quick — and cheap — publicity campaign around "the commercial CBS/Fox/ABC doesn't want you to see!"
It's such a well-worn tactic, Advertising Age, the persuasion industry's magazine of record, this year declared a moratorium on coverage. "It's an annual tradition that companies, who likely don't even have the money to spend on an actual Super Bowl spot, find willing suckers in the media who give them some free PR," Ad Age wrote. "Not going to happen here."
Earnest or calculated, rejected Super Bowl ads tend to fall into a few categories. Often they come from advocacy groups, who know that the big networks tend to be skittish about anything that might come off as too politically inflammatory. In 2009 a Catholic group called Fidelis attempted to purchase time for an ad showing a fetus that, because it was not aborted, grew up to be President Obama. That was too much for NBC. Last year Focus on the Family, another anti-abortion group, did better with a commercial showing Tim Tebow's mother talking about her difficulties while pregnant with the eventual college football star. CBS accepted the ad, which was vague and non-controversial but directed viewers to a website with a more explicitly anti-abortion message.
That's a practice also embraced by marketers whose aims are purely, well, commercial. GoDaddy.com, an Internet domain-names registrar, has made something of a tradition out of airing spots that claim to be excerpts of longer videos that were deemed "too hot" for TV. Most of them feature sexual situations and double entendres. (One from 2008 featured young starlets showing off their "beavers" — i.e., walking around carrying tree-gnawing aquatic rodents.)
Sometimes an attempt at low humor ends up being inadvertently political. Last year CBS drew criticism for rejecting a commercial for ManCrunch.com, a gay dating site, that showed two apparently heterosexual male football fans giving in to a passionate embrace. Based solely on the inexplicit imagery, there was no obvious reason to ban it — except that a somewhat similar spot for Snickers was blasted as homophobic, and subsequently withdrawn from broadcast, after it debuted during the Super Bowl in 2007.