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NFL Forgot Lesson of Super Bowl XLIV Tebow Commercial In Rejecting AMVETS Ad

The NFL has rejected an ad from AMVETS for its official Super Bowl LII on the grounds that it "could be considered by some as a political statement."


Talk about a PR fumble.

The NFL, as headlines announced Tuesday, has rejected an ad for its official Super Bowl LII program from the veterans service group AMVETS, on the grounds that it "could be considered by some as a political statement," according to league spokesman Brian McCarthy.

I throw a communications-foul flag for tone-deaf conduct because the ad in question – a stirring image of vets holding the American flag aloft with the simple message #PleaseStand -- is only political because the NFL allowed players (supported them in affirming statements, in fact) to make a political point by kneeling for months during the pre-game national anthem.

I'm not debating the rightness or wrongness of that initial decision, just the optics of this one: The NFL has positioned itself, whether it really feels this way or not (and I'm inclined to bet not), as supporting a particular stripe of political expression and opposing another.

In its ongoing, multibillion-dollar battle with baseball to be considered "America's game," it has shanked a chip-shot advertising decision and painted itself as either the Fox News Channel or MSNBC of major league sports – alienating half of its potential audience for appearing to favor one ideological sideline over the other.

And for what? To avoid the very kind of discussion it said this fall it supported, amid the controversy of players taking a knee to call attention to ongoing racial strife in the country.

"The players were very clear about how they felt about these issues and how deeply they care about these issues in our community," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Oct. 17 after a meeting with players over the increasing volatility of the protests in the eyes of some fans. "The players and the owners came to an agreement that these aren't really issues that are player issues or owner issues ... these are issues that affect all of our communities."

Except veterans, it would seem, and those who support their hope that all would stand for the anthem of the country they fought to keep free.

I've been nose-to-nose with this kind of fear-based wrongheadedness myself, in 2010, in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl XLIV. As vice president of communications for the family-help ministry Focus on the Family, I was deeply involved in the creation of, and ran point on the PR campaign for, a commercial we filmed to air during the game.

The spot featured Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, fresh out of college, and his mom, Pam. Speculation ran rampant, because of the Tebows' and Focus' pro-life convictions, that the ad would be an anti-abortion screed. Liberal groups threatened CBS, the network airing the game that year, with boycotts if it ran such a "divisive" commercial (even though they had not seen it – no one had outside of our office).

The network, rightly, refused to ashcan the ad -- which was no screed at all, but a sweet 30 seconds about Pam's battle through a tough pregnancy to choose life for Tim. But our critics kept caterwauling, ginning up more than $30 million in earned-media coverage we were more than happy to receive, by the time the Colts kicked off to the Saints at Florida's Sun Life Stadium.

Our goal with the spot was to generate the same kind of discussion players hoped to generate by kneeling for the anthem, and the same kind of discussion AMVETS hoped to generate with its program ad.

Real conversation about an important issue not just affecting our culture, but impacting real people living in that culture. And we succeeded. In polling done after our commercial aired, The Barna Group found that 6 percent of those who saw the ad said it caused them to "personally reconsider their opinion about abortion."

At first blush, that doesn't sound terribly impressive. But consider that 106.5 million people tuned into the game – making it, at the time, the most watched TV program in history. According to Barna's polling, 43 percent of those who watched the game said they saw the Tebow ad. That's 45.7 million people.

And six percent of 45.7 million? 2,747,700. That's how many people who saw a pro-life ad from a pro-life group said it caused them to "personally reconsider their opinion about abortion." Does that mean they changed their opinion to one aligned with Focus' view? No. It doesn't mean they changed their opinion at all. But it does mean the ad made them think about, and presumably talk about, an important issue.

The AMVETS ad similarly makes people think about an issue – about the wisdom and impact of the form the players' protest took. The ad does not denigrate the players for protesting, or criticize the reason for their protest.

It doesn't even apply solely to players who kneel – plenty of sports fans in every stadium ignore the anthem altogether, distractedly buying beer, strolling a gift shop, just jawing with friends when, AMVETS asks them to ponder, the song being played is meant to honor the country far too many of those same vets have, though the years, shed blood and lost lives to defend.

Yes, that could "be considered by some as a political statement," but it doesn't have to be. And, even if it is, in this age when most "political statements" are shouted, shouldn't we be encouraging those that seek to engender dialogue rather than monologue? That ask us to "please" consider our behavior, rather than eviscerating us for our opinions?

Focus' Tebow commercial remains the most talked-about Super Bowl spot in a generation eight years after its airing, but there's a tendril of the story lost to history. We also sought to purchase an ad in the official program for the game, and it was accepted without hem or haw from the NFL.

This was, mind you, in the midst of that media maelstrom caused by our critics – yet the league saw nothing incendiary about our message of a father just wanting his son to grow up "knowing how to do the right thing." That should have been the league's decision when AMVETS submitted its #PleaseStand ad, too. Running it is the right thing, and the wise PR thing, to do.

Gary Schneeberger is president of ROAR (, a public relations firm that helps individuals and organizations engage audiences with the boldness and creative clarity that ensures they are heard. His first book, Bite the Dog: Build a PR Strategy to Make News That Matters, will be released in February.

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