Feb 15, 2010

From the Archives

Super Bowl Ad Research: New Barna Study Examines Tebow/Focus Commercial

One of the great American pastimes is playing “armchair quarterback” in the days following the Super Bowl – assessing the big plays and analyzing the prominent advertisements. A new nationwide Barna Group study explored one such high-profile television spot: the Super Bowl ad sponsored by Focus on the Family, featuring college quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother Pam discussing his survival from a difficult pregnancy.

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The nationwide telephone interviews with 1,001 adults were conducted from February 7 through February 10, 2010, including interviews on the evening the Super Bowl Tebow-Focus commercial aired.

Some projections put Super Bowl viewership at 106 million Americans, which would make it the most watched television program in American history. Among those who viewed the football contest, 43% said they had seen the Focus-Tebow commercial. This included one out of every 11 Super Bowl viewers (9%) who were able to recall the spot without prompting (often referred to as unaided awareness). In total, that represents total penetration of 27% of Americans, excluding those who may have watched the commercial online after the game.

The Focus-Tebow commercial generated consistent levels of viewership across a variety of demographic segments, reflecting the broad appeal of the Super Bowl. For instance, among those who believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, 25% viewed the commercial on Super Bowl Sunday. That proportion was just slightly higher (30%) among those who believe abortion should be illegal in all or most instances.

Similarly, there was statistically no difference in viewership between evangelicals (29%), all born again Christians (28%), and non-born again adults (26%). The ad was equally viewed among residents of the major regions of the country, across various generations, and among diverse family types. The only significant penetration gaps occurred between men and women (34% versus 20% in total ad recall), between white viewers and black viewers (28% versus 18%), between upscale and downscale adults (41% versus 22%), and between born again Republicans and born again Democrats (36% versus 24%).

Pre-Bowl Attention
Leading up to the National Football League’s championship game the Focus-Tebow commercial garnered significant media coverage and controversy. Many observers noted that this was the first time a television network had accepted a commercial with political or issue-oriented content during a Super Bowl. The Barna research confirmed that the pre-event media coverage of the Focus-Tebow commercial was a factor in many viewers’ minds: nearly two out of every three viewers of the ad (62%) said they were aware of the pre-game controversy connected to the commercial.

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While millions of Americans watched the commercial, many viewers expressed confusion regarding the commercial’s meaning and sponsor. In fact, when asked to describe what they thought the main message to be, one-fifth of viewers (20%) were not able to venture a guess about the ad’s main message. A minority of ad viewers described it as anti-abortion (38%) although the commercial never used that term or discussed that procedure. Another 19% thought it was about being pro-family or expressing that family is important.

Further reflecting the confusion on the part of many viewers, alternative interpretations of the commercial included: reminding people that miracles happen and Tim Tebow was a miracle baby (9%); stressing the importance of the parent-child relationship (5%); asking people to visit the sponsor’s website (2%); or helping people think about healthcare issues (1%). In addition, another 7% identified some other type of primary message.

The sponsor of the commercial was also a mystery to most viewers. Just 14% of those who viewed the commercial accurately identified Focus on the Family as the organization behind the advertisement. In total, 6% mentioned some other organization or group, while 3% identified the name of the campaign, Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life. Most viewers (78%) admitted they were not sure who sponsored the spot featuring the Heisman-winning Tebow.

Still, if there is an upside to the ad’s fuzziness, perhaps it is that most people found it non-threatening and upbeat. The Barna survey explored five different opinions of the commercial. Nearly four out of every five viewers of the ad (78%) said they felt the commercial presented a positive message to viewers and three out of every four (75%) claimed that the commercial was appropriate to show during the Super Bowl. That statistic seems to support CBS’s decision to air the spot despite pressure from many pro-choice advocacy groups to reject the commercial.

Half said they thought the Focus-Tebow commercial was intended to influence their views on abortion (51%), a reflection of the pre-game controversy over the expected content more than a reaction to the message that viewers of the spot actually took away after watching it. Small proportions of viewers of the ad claimed that the commercial was offensive (8%) or that the commercial personally caused them to reconsider their opinion about abortion (6%).

Surprisingly, whether a person is pro-life or pro-choice made only minimal difference in their reactions to the commercial. The only striking differential between the two groups was that 82% of those in the pro-life group felt it was appropriate for the Super Bowl, compared with just 66% among those who believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Despite this gap, among those who favor pro-choice policies the commercial was received favorably: three-quarters said it presented a positive message to viewers (78%), two-thirds felt it was appropriate (66%), and just one-tenth felt it was offensive (10%). While most pro-choice adults claimed to understand that it was intended to influence their views on abortion (57%), just 4% of this segment said it caused them to reconsider their opinions about abortion.


% of ad
% of those who
believe abortion
should be legal
% of those who
believe abortion
should not be legal
presenting a positive message to viewers
appropriate to show during the Super Bowl
intended to influence your views on abortion
cause for you to personally reconsider your opinion about abortion
sample size



Barna Analysis
“In terms of the execution and reaction of the Tebow Super Bowl spot, the results are a mixed bag,” commented David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, which independently funded and conducted the study. “On the positive side, it was widely viewed and remarkably well received, even among those who hold fundamental differences of opinion on abortion with the pro-life sponsors, Focus on the Family.

“The downside from the standpoint of the commercial’s sponsors is sure to be that the main message and organization behind the ad were lost to a majority of viewers. In this respect, even if Focus simply were trying to reach a wider audience of pro-life Christians through the power of the NFL’s super-sized audience, most viewers never made the connection to the Focus organization. Perhaps this comes from misunderstanding the fact that many evangelical ministry leaders and organizations are comparatively unknown to the broader population. If anything, the ad shows the power of mainstream celebrities, like Tim Tebow, to garner attention and the related challenge for evangelical groups to get on people’s radar.” (See previous Barna research on awareness of leaders.)

“Still, the decision by Focus to create and place the ad – and the controversial choice by CBS to air the commercial – made this a unique event. Faith and values intersected mainstream culture in a significant new way. As American culture becomes more polarized and fragmented into various ideological camps and ‘faith tribes,’ finding ways for these groups to interact in respectful and productive ways will become more complicated and perhaps less frequent. ‘Soft’ efforts such as the Tebow-Focus ad may set a standard for tribes to consider as they contemplate future opportunities.”

About the Research
This Barna Update article is based upon a nationwide tracking study, called OmniPollSM, conducted by the Barna Group. The telephone interviews were derived from a random sample of 1,001 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, from February 7 to February 10, 2010. Interviews were conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The sample size of individuals who watched the SuperBowl is 618, with a sampling error rate of ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The total number of Tebow-Focus viewers is 267 interviews, which has an associated sampling error of ±6.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as
an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Downscale” individuals are those whose annual household income is less than $20,000 and who have not attended college. “Upscale” people are those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more and they have graduated from a four-year college.

“Pro-life” respondents were defined as those who said that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases; “pro-choice” respondents were those who said that abortion should be legal in most or all instances.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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