Ad Reaction Claims Super Bowl Casualty
By STUART ELLIOTT
Even before kickoff, the Super Bowl has its first advertising casualty.
In a highly unusual last-minute reversal, the Ford Motor Company withdrew a commercial from the game late yesterday in the face of complaints.
Ford canceled a spot for a new Lincoln truck, scheduled for the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXIX on Sunday, because of charges from an advocacy organization that it exploited the sex scandals embroiling the Catholic Church.
The withdrawal of the commercial, showing how a mischievous girl’s prank caused a clergyman to be tempted by a 2006 Lincoln Mark LT pickup, underlined how tender sensibilities are after the controversy over Super Bowl XXXVIII. Advertisers and agencies want to make sure they are not faced with the same loud outcry generated last February by Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the halftime show and by a string of spots with characters like a flatulent horse and a crotch-biting dog, which many viewers condemned as vulgar and tasteless.
Typically, Madison Avenue barrels boldly into the Super Bowl, unleashing a barrage of glitzy, expensive commercials that do just about anything to capture the attention of what is usually the biggest audience of the year for any television program. The goal is to take advantage of perhaps the only day each year when consumers embrace advertising rather than flee it.
But as advertisers and agencies gear up for Super Bowl XXXIX, their usual self-confident strut has resembled more of a gingerly tiptoe. Lincoln Mercury executives said earlier yesterday that they would not withdraw the commercial, calling it light-hearted entertainment and disputing critics’ interpretation of the spot. But hours later, Ford Motor made the decision to withdraw.
“In the end, we decided that while we don’t agree with their assessment, we’re understanding of their opinion,” said Sara Tatchio, a spokeswoman for Lincoln Mercury in Dearborn, Mich., referring to the critics. “We want to make sure the attention is on the truck, not on the controversy.”
Lincoln Mercury has not decided whether to run another commercial in place of the Mark LT spot, Ms. Tatchio said, or whether to proceed with plans to put up the commercial on a special Web site over the weekend. Ford Motor will run a commercial for another brand, Volvo, in the third quarter of the game.
The withdrawn commercial, by the Dearborn office of Young & Rubicam, part of the Young & Rubicam Brands division of the WPP Group, was intended to introduce the Mark LT, a successor to the failed Lincoln Blackwood pickup. In the spot, an actor dressed as a clergyman finds a key to a Mark LT in the collection plate after services, then covetously appraises it in the parking lot – only to learn from a congregant that it was a prank by his mischievous daughter, rather than a donation.
The spot ends with the clergyman posting “Lust” as the theme of his next sermon.
“Our members find it offensive,” David Clohessy, national director of the advocacy organization complaining about the commercial, said before the withdrawal became known. His organization is called Snap, for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Mr. Clohessy, who commented after watching a version of the commercial on a Web site about Super Bowl advertising, superbowl-ads.com, complained that the actor was dressed as a Catholic or Episcopalian priest and described the child, an actor about 6 years old, as looking “shy and compliant.”
After learning that Ford Motor had withdrawn the commercial, Mr. Clohessy said the decision would “spare a lot of people a lot of pain.”
“We certainly understand that people can interpret the ad in different ways and we never alleged maliciousness,” Mr. Clohessy said. “But anything that avoids rubbing salt into a deep wound is good.”
Ms. Tatchio said the actor in the spot was meant to be “a nondenominational clergyman,” not a priest. And John Fitzpatrick, the Lincoln Mercury general marketing manager, said the commercial had been tested with consumers, who described it with words like “fun” and “humanity.”
The spot was also approved by the standards and practices department of the Fox Broadcasting Company, the News Corporation unit that is selling about 30 minutes’ worth of commercial time – at a record average rate of $2.4 million for each 30 seconds – during the game.
Even before the decision to withdraw the Lincoln commercial, advertisers were voicing caution.
“The advertising in this year’s Super Bowl will be much safer than in the Super Bowl a year ago,” said Karen Gough, president for the Americas at the Ciba Vision unit of Novartis in Atlanta. Novartis will run a commercial to promote its new O2 Optics brand of contact lenses.