Allegedly Banned Super Bowl Ads: A Story that Deserves to Die

Last Updated Feb 2, 2010 11:18 AM EST

It's that time of year -- the time of year when it's necessary in the media business to peruse the "banned" Super Bowl commercials, and figure out whether the "banned" ads actually only want nothing more than to be a viral sensation on YouTube after they are rejected by the broadcast network airing the game. (In this case, CBS.) It's also time to answer the question, will media fall for the story yet again? And can anything be done about it when they do?

I ask this last question because one of the strange outgrowths of the annual "banned" story is that it's not good business for the broadcaster. One reason advertisers pay upwards of $2.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime during the Super Bowl is to take advantage of the pre-game hype. More and more, it seems like the pre-game hype gets usurped by commercials that don't have a rat's chance in hell of ever airing.

So, in case you were wondering, I'm chagrined to report that the banned commercials, now all available on YouTube, are mostly doing quite well, and that the media have fallen for the almost entirely concocted "banned" ads story all over again. Everyone from The Wall Street Journal to the Detroit News to Entertainment Weekly and CNBC have weighed in.

Did CBS (BTW, BNET Media's ultimate corporate overlord) ban these commercials? Yes. But don't you think most of the companies whose commercials were banned are smiling giddily as they get the thumbs-down from CBS? Alert the media! CBS banned our ad! Free editorial media aside, the "banned" ManCrunch spot currently has about 500,000 YouTube views among the various versions of the clip posted.

Don't all of these news organizations understand that playing up the banned ad story ends up getting them played? in fact, many of them don't even get the context. In the particularly uninformed CNBC clip above, Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff actually makes the statement:

... we have to remember that there are lots of heterosexual ads that [the networks] rejected too because they weren't good enough -- because they weren't, in fact, controversial enough. They're trying to assemble this package around the Super Bowl and part of this package has to do with these ads, and the kinds of profiles these ads will get.
So, wait a minute, Michael. TV networks decline ads for being boring? Trust me, no TV network has ever done such a thing. TV networks care about two things: getting money from advertisers and not landing in regulatory hot water. If a commercial passes both those tests, it's in.

CNBC Sports Business Editor Darren Rovell then attributes the rash of rejected spots to CBS not selling the spots earlier: "Half the problem is that it took so long to sell it out." This, he says, opened the floodgates to all manner of Super Bowl advertising poseurs. In fact, this Super Bowl isn't just like others because of its "banned" ads; it's common practice for broadcasters not to sell out until days before the game. There can be various reasons for this; one of them is holding back some inventory to heighten demand for those last few spots, upping the price.

OK, I'm done with my ranting, and will now move on to a proposal for all TV networks who will air the game going forward to stop this silly story in its tracks: Tell advertisers whose spots you reject that if they do blab about their "banned" ad before game time, they will pay a penalty to the network for riding on its broadcast's coattails so blatantly. That will get rid of these Super Bowl advertising hangers-on; the focus will then shift to advertisers who will appear on the game and want to be part of the pre-game visibility, making sure they get more out of their Super Bowl investments.

(You also might read my BNET colleague Jim Edwards piece on what may be another reason that the ManCrunch ad was rejected.)

UPDATE: Here's a link sent to me by Ben Klayman from Reuters, with some quotes from CBS on this issue. Thanks, Ben.