This year’s Super Bowl should have no shortage of controversial ads, including spots featuring President Trump, Michael R. Bloomberg and drag queens, but there was one commercial that pro-lifers say was too hot for the network to handle.
Lyric Gillett, founder of Faces of Choice, accused Fox, which is broadcasting the game, of stringing her along after she began negotiating in July to air a powerful black-and-white ad featuring adults and children of different genders and ethnicities with one thing in common: they survived abortions.
“In an era where we’re trying to give survivors a voice, whether that is through the #MeToo movement or on any number of issues, for some reason we deem survivors of abortion worthy of being ignored into oblivion,” Ms. Gillett said. “That, to me, is both ironic but also just appalling.”
A Fox spokesperson said in an email that the network sold out its ad space early on for this year’s championship game in Miami between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.
“Super Bowl LIV sold out at a record pace this year, and unfortunately we were unable to accommodate Faces of Choice and other advertisers,” the spokesperson said.
Ms. Gillett said there is more to the story. After providing storyboards and fielding questions about her organization, she said, she was told by the sales division that she would have a response from the legal department by a date in late November.
“Some individuals had apparently expressed that the sales division was not happy with the way the legal division was going in terms of not providing answers,” Ms. Gillett said. “So an executive flew up from New York and we were told Friday to expect an answer by Monday. Monday came along, we got no answer, and then found out that night that they were sold out.”
After that, she said, she asked Fox again to clear the ad in case other slots opened from cancellations for financial or content reasons. She said she was told in mid-December to expect an answer “very, very soon,” but the response never came.
“It feels like the reason for that is they don’t want to, I guess in their minds, give a story that we were rejected,” Ms. Gillett said. “I guess that’s the reason behind it. Nothing else makes sense. But again, that’s unprofessional, and I don’t think that’s how they operate with other clients.”
Advocacy ads don’t have the same close-knit relationship with the Super Bowl as, say, beer and chips, but commercials featuring political themes and socially relevant messages are increasingly making their way into the lineup of the annual NFL bonanza.
Last year, Gillette sent a #MeToo message with its “toxic masculinity” ad. In 2017, Budweiser and 84 Lumber included pro-immigration themes in their spots. Other companies have included shout-outs for gay and transgender rights.
This year’s contest is scheduled to include a Sabra hummus ad featuring a pair of drag queens, as well as two overtly political spots — one for Mr. Trump and the other for Mr. Bloomberg. Each presidential campaign purchased a 60-second spot at a cost of $10 million.
The Sabra ad featuring two former contestants, Kim Chi and Miz Cracker, from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” was lauded by marketing strategist Bob Witeck as “revolutionary.”
“For queer audiences, it is an art form and an outsiders’ language,” Mr. Witeck told NBC, referring to drag. “Reaching the Super Bowl means taking our language into every home in the nation and millions around the world.”
The political campaign ads mark the first time since 1989 that candidates have purchased Super Bowl airtime, according to USA Today’s Ad Meter, and possibly the first two dueling spots running nationally in the game’s history.
That doesn’t mean the networks are comfortable with it. Fox is planning to “isolate” the Bloomberg and Trump ads by running them alongside the network’s promos, according to AdAge.
The last time a Super Bowl spot with a pro-life message aired was 2010, when Focus on the Family bought ad time featuring college quarterback Tim Tebow, whose mother rejected a doctor’s advice to have an abortion after she contracted amoebic dysentery.
That ad, which did not include the words “abortion” or “pro-life,” prompted furious pushback from pro-choice groups. The National Organization for Women called the CBS commercial “frankly offensive,” given that it “sends a message that abortion is always a mistake.”
Ms. Gillett said she wrote the ad’s script three years ago — when she was 25 — and was making arrangements through sponsors to raise $5 million to buy a 30-second slot during the Super Bowl as a way of launching Faces of Choice, which incorporated in September.The ad shows close-ups of people saying, “Can you look me in the eye and tell me that I shouldn’t exist?”
Her biggest frustration lies in what she described as Fox’s lack of responsiveness. She said she also reached out to the Academy Awards about running an ad, and an ABC executive got back to her the same day to tell her that the show has a policy against advocacy spots.
“We would have been fine with a ‘no.’ We’re adults, we can handle a ‘no,’” Ms. Gillett said. “ABC gave us a ‘no,’ and we didn’t go home with hurt feelings. We took it and said, ‘Thank you. I appreciate your policy.’ And that was it.”
That wasn’t the case with Fox, she said. “Every time we would meet a stipulation or request, it would morph into something different. I would send an email saying, ‘What else do you need to get some type of answer?’ Even if it’s a ‘no,’ we don’t want a ‘no,’ but at least we can have an answer. We never got that answer,” Ms. Gillett said. “So it’s just been a very frustrating experience.”
My Faith Votes, which is working with Faces of Choice, launched an online petition accusing Fox of censoring the ad and demanding that the network air it. If the commercial doesn’t run, Ms. Gillett had another suggestion.
“I would encourage people during the Super Bowl, if you’re willing, if you’re interested, to shut off the TV during the commercials and listen to their stories,” Ms. Gillett said. “Give them a voice.”