If you think the Super Bowl is just a big football game featuring large, sweaty men, repeatedly colliding into one another, consider this: last year's game drew 111.9 million viewers, making it the third most watched event in U.S. television history. What were the first and second most watched events? Both are Super Bowls.
More than a game, the Super Bowl has become America's largest cultural stage.
That is why, each year, the titans of industry mobilize their considerable resources producing commercials promoting their products in compact 30-second blasts. Clever though the result often is, the merchandise is hardly the stuff of inspiration: soft drinks, automobiles, and beer are the standards.
This 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?
In 2011, I put this question to my friends, family, and staff. We concluded 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?
So I Called the local Fox affiliate and asked how much it would cost. "It's $20,000," came the answer.
"Only $20,000? I get all of America for that?"
"Oh, you mean a network spot? Wow. You need Atlanta."
Atlanta redirected my call to Philadelphia, and Philadelphia told me I needed the people in 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 laughed. "You're a clever man." He seemed to be mulling idea. "Okay, put your storyboards together, and we'll think about it."
Thrilled, I then called my friend Sean Doyle, an ad exec with a habit of liking my crackpot ideas. I knew he was tired of making commercials about the things of no real value.
"A Super Bowl commercial? Wow. That's ambitious," he said. "What's my budget?"
"Fifty thousand," I answered.
He looked astounded. "Larry, production costs alone will be ..."
"I know, Sean," I interrupted. "You've got 50k. That's everything I've got."
Undaunted, 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.
Fox wasn't sure how to deal with us. A simple request for a deposit would have ended our bid to take Jesus to the Super Bowl. What happened instead was much better. Fox Sports sent us a carefully worded email stating they had rejected our commercial because it contained "religious doctrine." A scantily clad Kardashian or Danica Patrick tottering around in stilettos? No problem. Taking Jesus' name not in vain, however, was going too far.
We resorted to Plan B. The week before the Super Bowl we fired-off a press release. Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Today Show, The Dallas Morning News, and Glenn Beck all picked up on the story. The spot went viral within days and, ironically, aired in every major market as a news story. The Orlando News-Sentinel even named it that year's third best Super Bowl commercial.
In the end, we got people thinking and talking about something more than potato chips and tennis shoes; we got them thinking and talking about something that actually matters: