NEW YORK — Even the long-awaited Super Bowl ad from conservative group Focus on the Family came with a punchline — a hard hit and a soft sell.
The 30-second "Celebrate family, celebrate life" ad starring Heisman winner Tim Tebow ended with a surprise — Tim Tebow tackling his mother after she says she nearly lost him during her pregnancy. The pair jokes that they have to be "tough" with all the family has been through.
The commercial sparked debate before it was even broadcast, and some groups called for CBS not to air it. Planned Parenthood made an online video response to the Tebow ad with former NFL player Sean James and Olympic Gold medal winner Al Joyner. The two discuss the importance of women being able to make their own health decisions.
The ad is the first such advocacy ad to appear in television's most-watched broadcast, which draws about 100 million viewers. It aired early in the first quarter.
The subtle and humorous ad made some wonder what all the fuss was about.
The commercial, which shows just Tebow and his mother, Pam, against a white backdrop, does not contain an overt antiabortion message. Instead it sends people to Focus on the Family's Web site, which tells more of the Tebows' story and offers a more straightforward message.
The devout quarterback's mother gave birth to him in the Philippines in 1987 after spurning a doctor's advice to have an abortion for medical reasons.
"I can remember so many times when I almost lost him," Pam Tebow said in describing her pregnancy.
The ad was "very gentle", which was surprising considering how much talk it generated before it even aired, said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He said the use of humor helped make the ad more accessible — and not off-putting to most people — although the ad's message was hidden, which made it confusing to people who weren't familiar with it.
"I think they took a very interesting strategy. It's clearly an effort to steer away from controversy," he said. "I suspect the people they were going after understood the message, but ... for most people, I don't think the ad really did a lot for them."
Because the ad was so subtle and had so much mystery to it, it will get people whose minds are not made up about the abortion debate to evaluate the group's agenda, said Charles R. Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business.
"To the extent that there are people that they can influence, this probably does a good job of driving them to the Web site and getting them to check it out. I think it's much more effective than something more explicit would have been," he said.
The Women's Media Center, which had objected to Focus on the Family advertising in the Super Bowl, said it was expecting a "benign" ad but not the humor. But the group's president, Jehmu Greene, said the tackle showed an undercurrent of violence against women.
"I think they're attempting to use humor as another tactic of hiding their message and fooling the American people," she said.
The ad didn't draw much attention at the Underground Lounge in New York, where the game was on. Sarah Cashin, 39, a business manager, said she didn't see why the ad was controversial.
"I didn't find it offensive. I don't quite understand why everyone was so up in arms about it," she said.