By Ben Klayman
With a national audience that could reach an estimated one-third of 300 million Americans on February 7, the National Football League's championship game is more important than ever for companies and advocacy groups.
With a price tag of almost $3 million for 30 seconds, it can be just as effective for those submitting ads to have a spot rejected as inappropriate and use the attention generated from that to drive visitors and business to their websites.
"A whole cottage industry has grown up out of trying to make use of network turndowns," said Martin Franks, executive vice president of planning, policy and government affairs at CBS Corp, which is televising the NFL game this year. "It can happen in the middle of July, but obviously this is a wonderfully high-profile opportunity."
The commercial approval process has come under heavy scrutiny this year since CBS approved an ad sponsored by a conservative Christian group called Focus on the Family. Some U.S. women's groups have urged the network not to air the ad -- which stars college football star Tim Tebow -- saying it has a strident anti-abortion rights message.
Industry executives and analysts recognize Internet domain company GoDaddy.com, which annually airs several ads during the Super Bowl as the best at attracting attention for its ads. On Thursday, GoDaddy in a press release invited consumers to view its latest rejected ad at the company website.
"GoDaddy was one of the first advertisers who set out to capitalize on the fact that ads get rejected and that there's a PR opportunity in that," said Tim Calkins, marketing professor with Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. GoDaddy is one of the PR masters of the Super Bowl."
Other companies that have had ads rejected as inappropriate this year include online jobs site CareerBuilder.com and gay male dating site Mancrunch.com. Last year, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) garnered the spotlight for an ad General Electric's NBC rejected.
The companies that have been rejected unanimously say they do not submit ads simply to have them rejected, but CBS's Franks said a rejection and the attention that it generates can be as valuable as paying for a network ad.
"They've found a loophole in an otherwise well intentioned process," he said in an interview.
Dominic Friesen, a spokesman for Mancrunch -- whose ad CBS on Friday deemed inappropriate -- sees it differently.
"It's blatant discrimination," he said. "The reason why it's controversial to CBS is because they're anti-gay."
CBS also raised questions about the company's credit history, although Friesen said Mancrunch offered cash and has no credit history as a new company.
In the ad, two men watch a football game on TV and begin to passionately kiss after their hands brush when they reach into a bowl of potato chips.
Meanwhile, CBS rejected GoDaddy's ad about an effeminate ex-football player who launches a fashion design company online as potentially offensive to the gay community.
"We're pretty used to being the fish in the barrel on this one," Franks said.
However, Calkins said networks must look in the mirror.
"What we'll see in future years is that more and more issue-related groups will use the Super Bowl as a venue, so it will be very important for the networks to be clear on the standards," he said.
PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange agreed, saying the group feels its humorous ads are similar to those approved.
"We feel the rejection we're getting is based on the fact that they take a lot of money from the corporations that have only fat, unhealthy and cruel food," she said of the networks.
Last year, the animal rights group created an ad about beautiful women, dressed in sexy underwear, getting intimate with vegetables. The ad -- dubbed "Veggie Love" -- carried the tag line: "Studies Show Vegetarians Have Better Sex." NBC declined to comment, but told PETA the spot was too racy.
Franks predicted that another two or three ads CBS will end up rejecting likely will be submitted before the Super Bowl. "When better to try and draw attention to a controversial ad?"
(Reporting by Ben Klayman. Editing by Robert MacMillan)