In 2004, Janet Jackson's breast gave the Red Sox win in the World Series a run for being the biggest sports story of the year. Coming out as it did at the end of MTV's Super Bowl halftime show (produced for its Viacom corporate sibling CBS), Jackson's exposure served as a coda on an "edgy" strategy targeted to attract an elusive younger demographic for the National Football League and its broadcast partners. It has been widely noted that the amount of moral scrutiny and policy attention given to what has been called "Super Bowl 38D" and "nipplegate" has far outweighed the few seconds of exposure that brought the word "nipple shield" into dinnertime family conversation.1
The crudeness and explicitness in both the game broadcast and its commercials fueled more than 500,000 complaints to the Federal Communications Commission.2 The high level of moral indignation that resulted caused one observer to remark that "[i]f ever there was an example of a mediated 'moral panic button,' the Jackson case was it"3 and another to call the event "the perfect storm" that unleashed "a lot of pent-up frustration on people's part about what they were seeing on television in general."4 It was noted that this Super Bowl was "the first bowl game to become the subject of both congressional hearings and a federal investigation on indecency,"5 a distinction usually reserved for terrorist attacks or other national calamities. The severity of fallout has been characterized as a "Washington indecency crusade [that] has unleashed a wave of self-censorship on American television unrivaled since the McCarthy era."6 Indeed, the quickly cooling media environment stimulated many instances of pulling back to avoid further moral indignation, government sanctions, and the alienation of audiences.7
Indicants of the moral panic that came with this chilling can be seen in the cases of four commercials that were "banned" from the Fox broadcast of the 2005 Super Bowl.8 While two of these, for Airborne's cold remedy and Lincoln-Mercury's Mark LT truck did not directly rub elbows with the Jackson fiasco, their handling pointed to a nervousness in the new environment. The Airborne spot, featuring a glance at 80ish Mickey Rooney's bare behind, was rejected by Fox's standards and practices department, while Lincoln-Mercury's ad featuring a priest lusting over a truck caused enough of a furor to be withdrawn when opponents of child abuse made the case that the priest was eyeing a small child as well.9
A third spot, for Bud Light beer, poked fun at the Jackson fiasco through a fictionalized "re-enactment" of the backstage preparations that led to the infamously torn bustier and consequent exposure. In consulting with not only Fox, but most unusually, with the NFL, about clearing the ad for airing, the ad was "withdrawn" by Budweiser amidst speculation as to whether they had done this voluntarily, had been pushed by Fox andor the NFL, or whether the whole process was all along just an intricately planned marketing strategy aimed at bolstering Internet hits on the Budweiser Web site to see the "banned" ad.10
More cloudy than the answer to whether Budweiser withdrew its "wardrobe malfunction" ad or whether it was rejected by Fox and the NFL was the saga of the "GoDaddy.com" spot that ran once during the first half of the broadcast only to be pulled, without warning to the sponsor, from its second running later in the game. The analysis that follows considers the case of the GoDaddy Super Bowl ad and the moral panic that ensued.
Go Daddy Go
The GoDaddy.com spot that was cleared for airing came about as a result of a good deal of compromise and recutting.11 What viewers saw was framed as "exclusive G-SPIN" coverage of "Broadcast Censorship Hearings." This fictional contextual information, specifying that this coverage was of the "GoDaddy.com Proceedings" being held in Salem, Massachusetts, was all seen on the opening screen. It served up the spot as parody of C-SPAN, the Salem witch trials, and the Congressional hearings that followed the Jackson incident. From this carefully set stage, viewers see an impatient chairman of the committee call "Ms. Cappelli?" We then cut to a standard shot of the testifier's table set with the requisite microphones and advisors and a gallery observing in the background.
Seated at the table, is a young woman, largely blocked by others moving in front of the camera and titling at the bottom of the screen, who responds by saying "Yes, I'd like to be in a commercial." We cut back to the chairman who asks, "What will you be advertising?" When we cut back to the young woman, viewers get a better look as Ms. Cappelli, buxom and wearing a revealing tank top with the GoDaddy.com logo, stands and, following the logo with a hand along her chest, begins to say "Go Daddy dot com." Suddenly, the right strap of her tank top breaks and she barely manages to prevent Jacksonian indecency-showing her breasts after this "wardrobe malfunction." The camera cuts quickly to the gallery and to the committee members and we hear murmurs of shock. After this reaction, we are focused back on a recovering Ms. Cappelli who sits down and continues that "it's a Web site where you can register dot com names." After this explanation, there is a cut to tired and proper committee member Ms. Eleanor Flatow who asks "What exactly will you be doing on this commercial?" Ms. Cappelli gets up to respond, "I could do a routine where I went like this," and she dances provocatively in football cheerleader style as press photographers' flashbulbs go off. We then see another dour (male, this time) committee member who expresses his discomfort and frustration: "Surely by now you must realize you're upsetting the committee." Ms. Cappelli apologizes, after which there is a shot of the committee chairman taking oxygen from a tank. The ad closes on an information card directing viewers to the GoDaddy.com site to "see more coverage" as we hear committee member Ms. Flatow moan "May I suggest a turtleneck?"
To be sure, some viewers may have been challenged in "reading" this ad. One reviewer asked "Did Godaddy.com, with its busty beauty almost having a 'wardrobe malfunction' spoof our nation's reactionary backlash to Janet Jackson, MTV and boundary- pushing crassness, or was it just a model in a stupid ad?"12 And many ad industry observers felt the spot missed its mark in advancing knowledge of GoDaddy.com's productservice-the registration of Internet domain names.13 Still, if one takes a reader-oriented perspective,14 those in the audience were characterized as quite "in the know" when it came to the Jackson incident and its fallout. It was implied by the text that viewers would be laughing at the humorless, prudish politicians at the hearing. And it was similarly easy to see the spot's assumption that those in the audience would have a snide take on the routine, silly, and needless use of "in your face" sexuality and alluring women in marketing with a sports hook.
Getting Go Daddy Going
The back story of the machinations that went on behind the scenes to garner approval for airing this spot tells a good deal about the cooled climate for both sexual innuendo and political satire. Of the climate, and the experience, GoDaddy.com President Bob Parsons said: "There's no doubt [that] this year the advertisers, and the halftime performers, are on a short leash."15 In this vein, Parsons noted, "To get the ad approved, that was the most difficult part. Things have swung towards a little more aggressive censorship this year."16 As a result, the strategy of the Ad Store, the agency producing the spot, was tempered from the start. As Ad Store chief executive Paul Cappelli explained: "We honestly weren't trying to make a commercial that would get rejected, but we were making a commercial that we hoped would get noticed."17 Towards that end, Ad Store's managing partner Tim Arnold explained:
In its broadest context, the commercial in question is a decidedly irreverent look at the growing controversy surrounding what airs on television and the attendant hypocrisy suggested by much of the current network programming and even some of the commercials that run on these programs. With a not-so-subtle nod to the seminal "wardrobe malfunction," I'm thinking this ad has the potential to provoke debate over issues as mundane as commercial programming and as significant as the First Amendment.18
With such a bent, the Ad Store received "official approval" on the commercial's storyboard more than two months before the scheduled airing. However, about two weeks after Fox's approval, and in the midst of production, Ad Store's Arnold received a call from Roland McFarland, the senior broadcast standards and practices executive at Fox, backing off the approval because "our lawyers simply do not want to go there." At this point, the Ad Store was off to the races with Fox. After much pushing and shoving, Ad Store elicited "workable suggestions" from Fox and satisfied "their caveats." In the course of the discussions, Arnold received confirmation from Fox that its reversal on approving the ad stemmed from "the 'chilling' effect that the Bush administration is having on the media." In "fixing" the ad, Arnold assured Fox that "this commercial will be consistent with the levels of good taste established by your own network's programming" but was told that "it's going to have to be better than that." While pondering the hypocrisy of hearing this from a network featuring routine "overexposure" and taste violations in shows like Paris Hilton's Simple Life, North Shore, Trading Spouses, and Temptation Island, Arnold fixed the "excess cleavage," a "voiceover wisecrack," and "any literal references to 'last year's unfortunate Super Bowl events'," including the prohibited words "wardrobe malfunction." With this, Fox approved the spot and the Ad Store agreed to a less desirous position for airing it, sandwiched between other ads in the middle of the commercial break.19
Go Daddy Gone
After all the compromises, fixes, and meeting of conditions, GoDaddy.com still got a surprise after the spot's first airing. The moral temperature chilled quickly as much Monday morning quarterbacking happened prior to the second half that Sunday afternoon. What went down showed that-for Fox-"a deal is not a deal," or putting it in ethical terms, "promises are made to be broken." The breach was facilitated when a Fox executive "happened to run into a group of NFL executives."20 As NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy put it: "The NFL executives raised the question why a spot like that was shown," noting that "[t]hey did not want anything that looked back at that [the Jackson breast exposure] incident."21 While noting that it wasn't the NFL's call, Fox decided not to air the spot the second time. However, the statement by Fox's president for advertising sales, Jon Nesvig, makes it clear that the NFL had scored an "obvious" point: "When the GoDaddy.com spot aired in the first half, it became obvious to us that its content was very much out of step with the tenor set by the other ads and programming broadcast by Fox on Super Bowl Sunday, so Fox made the decision to drop its repeat airing."22
In the brouhaha that resulted, GoDaddy.com got the last laugh. Even though they had not been notified in advance that the second airing was going to be yanked-and even though GoDaddy felt that "pulling the commercial damaged the company's reputation by wrongly suggesting that the ad was inappropriate"23-the upside was obvious. Company president Bob Parsons, while noting, "we have been defamed beyond the cost of the ad," admitted that "our attorney has a twinkle in her eye."24 Indeed, they got a great bang for the bucks that they didn't end up having to spend for the second scheduled airing of the spot, which was seen all over the Internet. As one report put it, "GoDaddy screamed 'censorship,' but founder Bob Parsons admits he's cashed in nicely on the hullabaloo" with market share increasing 40% as a result of the estimated $11.7 million in free publicity.25
On the Coming and Going of GoDaddy
"Banning" and "censorship" are tricky words in any context, but they are particularly so in the context of commercial speech, which has been notably excluded from First Amendment protections on freedom of speech in the United States. The two "banned" ads that most directly addressed Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" were guilty of a very different kind of moral offense than those evidenced in the Airborne's Rooney spot or Lincoln-Mercury's lustful priest spot. Both of these hit at broad moral sensitivities over bad taste and offensiveness for which there were reasons to be concerned about audience reaction.
In the cases of the two "wardrobe malfunction" spots, for Budweiser and GoDaddy.com, the offense was more to the media-sport complex itself. The offense was not a public one but rather an offense to the corporate players, which in this instance were the NFL and the Fox network. Thus, ultimately a decision to was made to limit any connection between the Jackson event and the newly "cleaned-up" productcontent that marked this Super Bowl broadcast. This decision was not made on behalf of the public or because of concerns over moral offense to the public. As each of these parodies was mild in terms of sexual explicitness or language when compared to some ads that did run or those seen on the network's prime time schedule, a rationale of "protecting the public" could have little validity. Perhaps there may have been concerns over offending regulators or legislators. But here too, the evidence belies the action. The Budweiser spot was void of political content in poking fun at how the previous year's mishap might have come about. Only the GoDaddy.com spot brought to fore questions about whether the reactions to the Jackson incident were overblown and used as an opportunity for political grandstanding. But even so, there was little seen in the ad that regulators and legislators could take to task. What was there would provide at best a weak platform for further grandstanding. The "stretch" here to find newsworthy consequences was so large that it is perhaps the best demonstration that a "cooling" of commercial content on moralsexual grounds had occurred. In the end, the only reason for the "banning" of these two spots was to strategically limit the further spread of a dirtied communicative context to the sheen of a newly re-manufactured Super Bowl broadcast product.
Thus the lesson: In the age of communications conglomerates, the "banning" of texts has at least as much to do with protecting corporate efforts at brand-building (and political advantage) from the spread of communicative "dirt" as it does in avoiding moral offense to the audience.
1 C. Costello & J. Moos, "Puns Generate From Super Bowl Controversy," CNN Daybreak, February 10, 2004, Atlanta, GA: CNN. [Television Broadcast: Transcript #021012CN.V73].
2 Frank Rich, "The Year of Living Indecently," The New York Times, February 6, 2005, Sec. 2, p. 1.
3 Lawrence A. Wenner, "Sports and Media Through the Super Glass Mirror: Placing Blame, Breast-Beating, and a Gaze to the Future," in Jennings Bryant & Arthur A. Raney (Eds.), Handbook of Sports Media. Hillsdale: NJ, in press.
4 S. Collins & M. James, "After '04 Fiasco, Super Bowl Want to Avoid Going Offsides; 'Wardrobe Malfunction' Fallout Spurs an Effort to Strike a Better Balance Between Tawdry, Tame," Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2005, p. A1.
5 K. Kelly, K. Clark, & L. Kulman, "Trash TV," U.S. News & World Report, February 16, 2004, p. 49.
6 Frank Rich, op. cit.
7 Frank Rich, op. cit.
8 For more extensive analysis, see Lawrence A. Wenner, "Super-Cooled Sports Dirt: Moral Contagion and Super Bowl Commercials in the Shadows of Janet Jackson," paper presented to the World Congress of the International Institute of Sociology, Stockholm, July 2005. In that study and in this excerpt the notion of "banned" texts is used as a broader generic to refer to texts that have been censored, not permitted, or withdrawn from publication or airing. Thus, the use of the term refers to the collective processes that cause prepared texts to not gain entry through an intended cultural gate. The use of the term also recognizes that formal censorship is technically a governmental rather than private sector action and is comparatively little seen, especially in it's a priori form, in the U.S. system.
9 For more on these cases, see Lawrence A. Wenner, "Super-Cooled Sports Dirt," op. cit.
10 D. Litterick, "Super Bowl Commercials Fall Foul of Janet Jackson Factor, The Daily Telegraph, (City edition, accessed online via ProQuest) February 4, 2005, City, p. 31.
11 Tim Arnold, "Who's Your Daddy? The Inside Story of GoDaddy.com's Super Bowl Fight with Fox," AdWeek, February 21, 2005, pp. 15, 30.
12 T. Goodman, "Morality Police Threw Wet Blanket on Broadcast; Fearful of Last Year's Janet Jackson Fiasco, Entertainers and Advertisers Played it Safe," San Francisco Chronicle, February 7, 2005, p. A1.
13 J.F. du Lac, "As Seen on Super Bowl TV; Blame a Conservative Game Plan; Fox Played it Straight, and Maybe a Bit Too Inside," Sacramento Bee, February 7, 2005, p. C3.
14 see Robert C. Allen, "Audience-Oriented Criticism and Television," in Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism (2nd ed.), Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992, pp. 101-137.
15 Stuart Elliott, "A Super Bowl Spot Meant to be Provocative Apparently Succeeds After Only One Broadcast," The New York Times, February 8, 2005, p. C9.
16 S. Johnson, "'Get Back'.to a G-Rated Game," Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News, February 7, 2005, p. 1.
17 Stuart Elliott, op. cit.
18 Tim Arnold, op. cit.
19 Tim Arnold, op. cit.
20 G. Raine, "The Super Bowl Malfunction Junction; Fox Scrambles to Explain Why It Pulled Racy TV Ad," San Francisco Chronicle, February 9, 2005, p. A1.
21 G. Raine, op. cit.
22 Stuart Elliott, op. cit.
23 Stuart Elliott, op. cit.
24 G. Raine, op. cit.
25 M. McCarthy, "Chesty Ads Built Buzz, But Also Animosity," USA Today, May 2, 2005, p. 4b.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005 (17:1),pp.11,21-23.