The NFL’s Political Ad
Did you catch that new political ad? A concerned mom — a woman who worries about her son in these uncertain times — asks a question. A good-looking man has just the answers she’s looking for. The man is Tom Brady. The woman’s question is about football safety. The ad was made not by Obama or Romney or Linda McMahon but by the politicians at the National Football League.
Welcome to Decision 2012: Is football too violent or will it continue to exist in four, eight, 12 more years? Roger Goodell, of course, wants the answer to be the latter. So he has released an ad using the same grammar and subconscious appeals as a campaign commercial. Concussions have made Goodell into Bob Shrum.
A couple of things to notice about the NFL ad: First, it puts concerns about football violence in the mouth of a mom. Just a normal, middle-aged gal who’s watering plants outside her house. A “real” person — the kind political ad-makers use as a stand-in for constituents. “My little boy loves playing football … ” the woman in the commercial says. “But what has the NFL done to make the game safer?”
“We’re doing a lot,” says Tom Brady. Brady is the second thing to notice about the ad. The NFL could have had Goodell answer the woman, but he’s a rotten advocate for player safety. Goodell is the one who helped create Thursday Night Football, the NFL Network TV show that deprives players of needed rest. Incredibly, given the discussion of the last five years, Goodell is still advocating for an 18-game regular season.
Brady subs for Goodell just as Bill Clinton subs for Barack Obama. In the commercial, Brady introduces us to Carl Johnson, the NFL’s vice-president of officiating, who says the NFL is crafting new rules to keep players safe. Then Brady throws it to a doctor — actually, an actor in a lab coat — who says the NFL and the players union are giving more than $100 million to medical research.
“Wow,” the woman replies. She is us regular folks, remember. Her amazement is supposed to be ours.
Finally, Ray Lewis appears for a comedy beat. Comedy is essential in the age in which Eli Manning and Deion Sanders fly around with wings.
The commercial never uses the words “concussion” or “traumatic brain injury.” Nor is there is a discussion of the 100-plus concussion lawsuits the NFL recently asked to have dismissed. In a political ad, you step gingerly around negative words and bad facts.
It’s revealing to compare the ad to the NFL’s previous political commercial, which premiered during this year’s Super Bowl. That ad, directed by Friday Night Lights’ Peter Berg, took a more NFL Films-y approach. We saw century-old football players field a kickoff, then heard how football developed leather helmets. As the olden-times players slowly morphed into Devin Hester, we heard about plastic helmets, face masks, and face mask rules. The pitch was that football, while violent, is eminently fixable. It ended with the tagline: “Forever forward, forever football” — which sounds like Barack Obama’s slogan.
“[T]his topic is probably one of most important topics for casual fans, particularly mothers,” the NFL’s chief marketing officer said at the time. So like a presidential candidate micro-targets his pitch to autoworkers in Ohio, the NFL has narrowed its appeal. The Super Bowl ad was for everyone; this ad’s for Mom.
Now, if this had been an actual mom talking to Brady, she might have asked: Tom, have you ever been hurt playing football? At which point Brady could have talked about his left knee, his right shoulder, or his nose. Mom might have also asked what Brady’s own parents think about youth football. Tom Brady Sr. recently said that, knowing what he now knows about concussions, “I would be very hesitant to let him play.”
But this is a political ad, not a give-and-take hosted by Martha Raddatz. The NFL’s pitch: The NFL is getting this right. He’s Roger Goodell, and he emphatically, enthusiastically, and a tad desperately approves this message.