Super Bowl

Trying to focus on the future

As strange as it may sound, the head of Focus on the Family is trying to find just the right place in his Colorado Springs office to put a framed copy of an editorial from the New York Times. Under the headline "Super Bowl Censorship," it defended the Christian group's right to buy a prime chunk of airtime, even if the ad focused on the decision by an ailing Pam Tebow to ignore her doctors' advice to abort her fifth child -- a son named Tim. Protests by the National Organization for Women, NARAL Pro-Choice America and others, it said, were "puzzling and dismaying."

"The would-be censors are on the wrong track," proclaimed the Times. "Instead of trying to silence an opponent, advocates for allowing women to make their own decisions about whether to have a child should be using the Super Bowl spotlight to convey what their movement is all about. ... Viewers can watch and judge for themselves. Or they can get up from the couch and get a sandwich."

Where should Focus on the Family President Jim Daly place this memento? After all, it represents a major event during the final days of founder Dr. James Dobson, the child psychologist who over three decades built one of America's most powerful radio franchises and evangelical ministries. Dobson's farewell broadcast was Feb. 26th.

Daly, who became Focus on the Family president in 2005, is thinking about putting the framed editorial between two photos. In one, Daly is standing with President George W. Bush. In the other, he is standing with President Barack Obama.

"I'll find a spot," he said. "That would be a rather symbolic place to put it."

Daly has worked for Focus on the Family for two decades, focusing on building a global audience of 200 million listeners. He is well aware that some loyalists on the legendary Focus on the Family mailing list -- a major resource when raising money or inspiring grassroots support on hot issues -- are worried about recent strategic moves.

Take, for example, Daly's decision to attend an Obama White House conference on fatherhood. Some also questioned the decision not to fight CBS over the right to explicitly mention abortion in the Super Bowl ad.

"I don't want to underestimate their concerns," said Daly. "There are people who want to see more of the hard-hitting approach. The thing is, I'm not sure that approach still works today."

While it's impossible to say if Focus on the Family will take another Super Bowl plunge, the mainstream-media approach used in the Tebow family ad is a sign to what lies ahead, and not just because the Heisman Trophy winner will soon be playing in nearby Denver.

The goal all along was to use the brief advertisement to point viewers toward a longer version of the Tebow story at FocusOnTheFamily.com, said spokesman Gary Schneeberger. Thus, the crucial post-Super Bowl numbers were these -- 92 million of the 106 million who watched the game told researchers they saw the Tebow ad. Among those who did, 6 percent said the spot and the furor surrounding it made them think twice about their beliefs on abortion. In all, about 1.5 million people went online to watch the more detailed Tebow feature.

Daly and Schneeberger insisted that there was no sneaky, brilliant strategy to hide the ad's contents, other than their desire to keep pressure off Tebow as he prepared for his final college bowl game. Nevertheless, a giant media storm was triggered by an early report that Focus on the Family was planning a Super Bowl ad, coupled with a later wire-service story that the Tebows were involved. The result, said Schneeberger, was the equivalent of $32 million worth of free ink and airtime in national media.

"The people who didn't approve of the ad that they had never seen ended up doing all of our talking points for us," he said. "We didn't have to say anything else."

The key lesson, agreed Daly, was that it's possible to "reach out and hold a dialogue" with an audience larger than the Focus on the Family mailing list. The Super Bowl project proved that the ministry could frame a message in such a way that "people outside of our niche had a chance to catch it and it does appear that some caught it. We think that's progress."