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Kai Ryssdal: Just when you thought Super Bowl ads couldn't get any more controversial, well they can't. At least not the ones you're going to see during the game. Not long after CBS agreed to run an anti-abortion spot this Sunday paid for by Focus on the Family, it rejected an ad from Man Crunch.
Yeah, I didn't know what it was either. It's a gay dating site. And it's getting a whole lot of free publicity thanks to the dust up. Just not nearly as much as it planned for. Marketplace's Sean Cole reports.
SEAN COLE: This story is like a crazy onion that keeps unpeeling until you get to a pungent core of truth. It starts with this Man Crunch ad. Two guys in warring football jerseys are on a couch watching their teams battle it out.
Sports Announcer: Ten, five, touchdown!
Fan 1: Oh, come on!
Fan 2: Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about baby.
They both reach into a bowl of potato chips. Their hands touch. And then they start ferociously making out.
SINGING: I wanna kiiiiiss this guy. I really, really, really wanna...
Cut to the logo: ManCrunch.com. Where many, many men come out to play. The ad was submitted a couple of weeks ago by Man Crunch's owner, a Canadian group called Avid Life Media. And when CBS said the spot didn't meet broadcast standards for the Super Bowl, Avid Life cried discrimination.
NOEL BIDERMAN: It can't be the ad that's unacceptable right? It's funny.
This is Noel Biderman, the president of Avid Life.
BIDERMAN: It's the kind of almost humorous thing you'd see on "Saturday Night Live." There's nothing wrong with the ad itself. What they don't like is the notion of the business behind it, and I think that's really what's going on.
A CBS spokeswoman told me the opposite. She said the network had other issues with the ad and that it would be open to working with Avid Life on alternative submissions. But soon the blogosphere and some of the mainstream media began expressing doubts about Avid Life and its intentions.
STEVE HALL: They're feigning shock.
Steve Hall runs a blog called AdRants. He says there is now a rich history of marketers creating Super Bowl ads they know will be rejected. It's a ploy, he says.
HALL: You know, in any given meeting, at any given brand, at one point or another, someone speaks up and says, oh, you know, we should just create an ad that we know is gonna get banned, and you know, then we can upload it on the Web, and everybody will look at it. And you know, we'll have all this free media exposure.
So at this point I thought I'd really gotten to the crux. Media manipulation disguised as moral outrage. Except for one thing. Noel Biderman freely admits having had that conversation in his boardroom.
BIDERMAN: Make no mistake about it, we have bright guys in our company and they said, OK. Do we want this to be rejected, Noel? Should we make a really racy ad or whatever? And I was like, no!
That wasn't his goal, he says. And I tend to believe him because he also says things like this.
BIDERMAN: I was gonna shepherd myself. I was gonna herald myself as the second coming of someone who's helping emancipate gay men into mainstream America. I know that sounds...
BIDERMAN: Totally ridiculous.
COLE: That sounds ridiculous!
BIDERMAN: No, but it was around those notions.
This is the thing: Biderman did want a lot of buzz and controversy surrounding the ad. But only after it aired. The current controversy was just his Plan B. Plan A went like this:
BIDERMAN: Create an ad, get it aired on the Super Bowl. When the conservative groups that can't stand these people's way of life starts yelling and screaming, we're gonna take them on. To the community then that we're then trying to make members of our service, we hope we will look like heroes if we do this right. We will then build a brand that lasts for the next decade.
Biderman wanted to be debating this ad on Bill O'Reilly-type talk shows until the next Super Bowl. That, he says, would have really gotten Man Crunch's name out there. It's still manipulation. But it's not disguised as anything.
I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.