Tebow ad controversy was not planned, Focus on the Family spokeman says

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (BP)--Contrary to what some are suggesting about Focus on the Family's far-from-controversial Super Bowl ads, the organization's goal from the get-go was not to spark a media storm -- and fire up its critics -- but simply to draw more attention to its ministry, a spokesperson says.

Yet Focus on the Family also isn't disappointed that its name and mission were in the spotlight for two-plus weeks, gaining far more publicity than its commercials -- one of which ranked in the Top 10 at SpotBowl.com's Super Bowl ad rankings -- ever would have by themselves.

The commercials were unveiled to the nation Sunday afternoon and evening during the pregame show and the game itself, and they avoided the word "abortion" or any buzzword related to the issue.

Instead, Pam Tebow talked about her "miracle baby" who "almost didn't make it into this world." Her son, 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and former Florida Gator quarterback Tim Tebow, makes an appearance at the end, and onscreen words then guide viewers to FocusontheFamily.com to see the "full Tebow story."

The website video does go into detail about how Pam Tebow went against the advice of a doctor and did not get an abortion when pregnant with Tim in the Philippines -- she was sick with a life-threatening infection -- but the commercials say nothing about that decision.

Many viewers would not have known about the story if not for a protest in the final days of January led by the National Organization for Women and two other pro-choice groups, all of whom urged CBS not to air the ad and its "anti-abortion message." That protest led to an untold number of newspaper, radio and TV stories about the supposed controversy, which in turn led to people actually anticipating seeing the ads. Focus on the Family did not release a transcript of the ad, much less the ad itself, prior to Sunday.

A Rasmussen poll of 979 adults planning on watching the Super Bowl showed that 49 percent had followed the news stories about the ad at least "somewhat closely." Gary Schneeberger, vice president of media relations for Focus on the Family, told Baptist Press the organization had "no clue" the ads would cause controversy.

"I've interviewed with some folks -- from CNN to local columnists -- who said things to me along the lines of, 'This was a brilliant marketing strategy,' and I'm like, 'None of us are that good,' God had a plan for this commercial," Schneeberger said. "We thought at Focus on the Family we had a pretty big vision: Tim Tebow in a Super Bowl ad. God's vision was much, much, much, much bigger."

Schneeberger may have some convincing to do. The liberal website Slate.com ran a story by Seth Stevenson on Super Bowl ads that said of the Focus on the Family spot: "They tricked us. Their clever media strategy thrust Mrs. Tebow's story into the national conversation long before the ad aired. The spot itself turned out to be their post-game celebration."

Focus on the Family's website has seen a significant increase in its web traffic, Schneeberger said, although he did not yet have statistics. Minutes after its first spot aired during the pregame show, the ministry's phone counselors were tied up, talking to people who had learned of the organization from the ad.

The organization produced two ads, one that aired four times during the pregame and the other one -- a more humorous spot -- that aired during the game's first commercial break.

The humorous ad begins with Pam Tebow holding up a picture of Tim as a baby and saying, "I call him my miracle baby. He almost didn't make it into this world. I can remember so many times when I almost lost him. It was so hard. Well, he's all grown up now, and I still worry about his health. You know, with all our family's been through, you have to be tough."

Tim Tebow -- with the assistance of special effects -- then tackles his mother, who hops up with a look of surprise on her face and says, "Timmy! I'm trying to tell our story here." He replies with a smile, "Sorry about that, Mom." The two hug, and with the screen showing the Focus on the Family website address, Pam Tebow adds, "You're not nearly as tough as I am."

The fact that the game itself apparently was the most-watched program in TV history with a Nielsen-estimated 106.5 million viewers -- topping the 1983 finale of "M-A-S-H" -- only adds to the commercial's success.

"It was simply an ad about celebrating family and life," Schneeberger said. "It features a mother and son who love each other and -- get this -- it was funny. Christians have a sense of humor. That, to us, was really important because part of celebrating family and celebrating life is being able to share a good chuckle. The Tebows showed that."

Focus on the Family hopes the ad and its accompanying web resources lead to further discussion about abortion.

"There are a lot of folks who disagree with us ideologically, from President Obama to Secretary of State Clinton, who have said they'd like to see abortion rare in this country. Our view is, OK, let's get to work," Schneeberger said.

"How can we make it more rare? Let's just don't make that rhetoric; let's make it actual activity. We're hoping to continue the dialogue about ultrasound machines, which obviously show that women are much more likely to carry a baby to term after seeing that child in the womb. Let's talk about adoption, which is close to the heart of our president, Jim Daly, because he himself was an orphan. Let's talk about those things, and let's truly work to make abortion rare."

The online video features Pam and husband Bob Tebow sitting in chairs, telling about Tim's birth. They were living in the Philippines in the mid-1980s as missionaries and already had four children when she became pregnant and ill with an infection from a pathogenic amoeba.

"[The doctor] said it wasn't a baby at all [and that] he was a mass of fetal tissue, and that I needed to abort him immediately if I was going to save my life.... She said it was a tumor," Pam Tebow says. "We really didn't have to make a decision at that time. We had made it years previously because we were determined to trust the Lord with the children that He would give us. If God called me to give up my life, then He would take care of my family."

Bob Tebow said he prayed for Tim long before his wife was pregnant.

"I was out preaching in the mountains," Bob Tebow said. "I was weeping over lost millions of babies in America that were never given a chance, and I prayed and said God, if you want another preacher in this world, you give me Timmy."

Tim Tebow was named for the pastor named Timothy in the Bible.


Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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