Sunday night, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons will shove each other around on synthetic grass for seven pounds of sterling silver. And millions will be watching.
Super Bowl 50 drew 112 million viewers. It’s a major cultural moment, and with that many eyes on the screen, it’s a once-a-year marketing opportunity. A year ago, 62 commercials were scattered during the game breaks. Major corporations plan and rehearse all year for one coveted 30-second spot ($5 million each!).
The ads are sometimes more entertaining than the game action, they certainly dominate the air in comparison to both the halftime show and the cumulative live action on the field (snap-to-whistle). Of the 60 minutes on a regulation clock, gameplay comprises only about 11 minutes of an average NFL game.
But in recent years, an increasing number of those pricey commercials also have proven sexually suggestive, or worse. Ads by Victoria’s Secret and GoDaddy are notorious examples, not to mention the latest efforts by the major beer companies, or this year’s inevitable racy movie trailer.
For Christians, sexually suggestive advertising in public has been a problem for decades, long before John Piper wrote “On Advertising Sexy Movies: An Open Letter to an Advertiser,” originally written in 1993 (later published in A Godward Life). All of his original concerns are relevant more than twenty years later.
If you plan to watch “The Big Game” with friends or family, how will you respond to the sexually suggestive or otherwise inappropriate commercials (or halftime shows)? We created a forum on Facebook to allow our readers to discuss the options, and this is what we heard.
Nacho Typical Event
First, an objection from a man named Claude:
These types of commercials are on all day, everyday, on every channel on TV. Why is it that every single year this discussion comes up from Christians about Super Bowl commercials? Most TV shows today are much worse than any Super Bowl commercial, and have been for many years. Please stop.
The conversation didn’t stop. Sara Maher responded. “Probably because it’s a family event, and even though these types of ads are on year-round, they aren’t usually aired during kids and family programming.”
Also, these ads are special, and commercials are becoming less and less a part of our viewing habits. Thus, the situation is rather unique.
“Probably because the majority of us frequent readers of Desiring God don’t watch regular TV except for once a year at a Super Bowl party. Our family and most other families I know have ditched regular TV for other things such as Roku, Netflix, Pureflix, etc. So commercials are something we are not accustomed to dealing with on an everyday basis” (Lisa Dawn Chandler).
Since the Super Bowl is unique, what are some practices to consider?
1. Look Away
Scott Monroe says, “We always viewed it as an opportunity to teach filtering and discernment. You can’t always change the channel in the real world, but you can ignore and avert. Everything is a teaching moment.” This was the most liked comment in the discussion.
Take advantage of the moment.
“Living as a Christian doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We live in the world, but not of the world. If you don’t use ‘real life’ situations to teach people how to live a Christian life, then you aren’t being a teacher. All teachers explain the rules then give you examples on how to apply those rules. The best examples are the ones people can understand because it relates to their life. Everyone watches the Super Bowl, so using it as an example to teach discernment is a good choice. It’s an example of knowing your audience” (Melissa Clarke).
“As a young man, I do not pretend that I can take the sexuality out of television, and I recognize that in this pagan culture. . . . I simply avert my eyes when something is provocative, and silently pray that God would prevent me from taking it to heart. That’s the price of watching television. But it tends to be a good witness, I believe, even if it is a silent one. ‘I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?’ (Job 31:1)” (Dominic Maillet).
Very practically, “Look down or have something else on hand like an iPhone or iPad to look at it. This works anywhere, or anytime, whatever you are watching. Even in the street [around immodesty] with real people” (Vanessa Laura).
2. Find a “Jump Channel”
There are other practical steps to take. “We have a jump-to channel (even sometimes just changing the input to nothing). If we accidentally miss a few seconds of a game, it’s no big deal, but we especially protect our young ones. Sometimes we miss cool, fun, innocent commercials, too. We do this with any sporting event we watch. And we’ve stopped going to Super Bowl parties because none of our church friends, who graciously hosted the events, took our concerns seriously. We just politely decline” (Danielle Hoglund).
“We have been watching more football games due to a child’s growing interest. It isn’t just the Super Bowl with bad ads. We always have a jump channel set on the remote, so pushing one button changes to a ‘safe’ channel. We usually set it to some channel about food or houses or animals. The kids have seen enough commercials to know and will themselves say ‘jump.’ So they are aware and can discern, but we don’t leave it on to increase exposure” (Sara Engle Anderson).
“We always have a ‘safe’ jump channel to which we will go (as much as there can be in this era). One of the news stations (CNN or Fox) is usually okay. Or HGTV. If something questionable appears, we hit the ‘Last’ button on the remote and go back after a time. Sadly, some commercials are in your face before you can get to the button” (Keith Pond).
3. Go Commercial-Dark
Some viewers simply bypass the commercials altogether and catch the best ones online the next day. “I simply change the channel and return to the game two minutes later. No huge strategy necessary to solve such a minor problem” (Jack Pietrzak).
“We switch it to a blank screen and guess when it’s back on after commercial break. We do that with all the football games we watch” (Courtney Groover).
4. DVR Fast-Forward
For tech savvy DVR owners who can easily record the game, there’s another option.
“We DVR the game so we can zip through the nonsense” (Shawna Caron).
“We record the game and start it about 40 minutes in so we can skip any inappropriate commercials. We generally skip halftime altogether and have our own football game outside then come back in and start the recording again!” (Milissa Kaufman).
“We haven’t watched a halftime show in years because of the provocative stuff! We either pause it and fast-forward or turn it off until the game starts again” (Sarah Stackhouse).
“We generally do the DVR/pause thing. We try to catch a few cute ads in the beginning, but usually give up and just watch the commercial highlights online the next day. It’s too risky to keep it playing, unfortunately!” (Heather Brandon Tucker).
5. Hit Mute
Several viewers hit the mute button and talk with one another or continue a game that’s been started. Simply muting the television seems to be the cue that breaks the gaze toward the television, and many of you find it powerful.
“Super Bowl commercials have taken on a life of their own, often pitting against each other some of the funniest, creative works of major advertising minds. We usually designate one person with the primary responsibility to lower the volume during the commercials. During the ads, folks use the time for bathroom breaks, restocking on snacks and drinks, or chatting. Few lazy folks actually sit through the commercials. Probably 99% of the time, the ads are no more salacious than regular programming. If no one draws special attention to the commercials, most of the people at the party won’t even see them” (Steve Bravo).
6. Don’t Feel Compelled to Watch
This discussion is somber for many of our readers. “Some of us watch very little television because of these issues” (Bob Wiegers). “Exactly! That is our situation” (Aimee LeBaron Whittle).
You don’t have to watch the game at all.
“In a spirit of humility before God, sacrifice the whole game to his holiness. Just don’t watch it. Give it up for Jesus. Fast from the game as you desire to seek the kingdom of God above the pleasures of this world. Not for the sake of practicing asceticism, of course, but just because you love God far more than the things of this world. What better way to demonstrate it than by fasting from a pleasurable event we have looked forward to for a whole season? Just a thought” (Scott Carpenter).
“Since it is the Sabbath, how about not watching it at all?” (Courtney Groover).
This, of course, sparked a lively debate.
“Honest question: Do you really think watching the Super Bowl on Sunday is wrong for a Christian?” (Brian West).
“Yes. In our household we set TV, movies, travel, shopping, and working aside on Sunday. It’s one of the Ten Commandments, and we seem to have forgotten this one is there. We set the day aside for worship and family time” (Corrie Jelier).
“Like Corrie said, to honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy is a command God has given us. This is one way we can honor his day . . . and how all professional sports players should honor the Lord’s Day, by not working on the Sabbath” (Jean Ruth Bylsma).
“Yes, I’ve never heard a remotely convincing argument for how watching the Super Bowl (or anything else) honors the Fourth Command” (Jennifer Hughes).
It should be said that strict Sabbath-keeping would fall on Saturday. Yet many Christians see the principle of Sabbath-keeping having application to “the Lord’s Day,” Sunday. As John Piper has explained, “I cannot escape what seems to me compelling evidence that the Lord’s Day remains till Jesus comes, and that it is set apart for the glory of Christ and the good of our souls. May the Lord give you wisdom and freedom and joy as you display his work and his worth on his day.”
In that freedom, it’s not unreasonable to think of the Super Bowl as part of personal soul refreshment, fellowship, family time, or evangelism — but at the same time we must use discernment. Whether we’re better off ignoring the game altogether is a consideration we should never brush off quickly.
7. Go to Church First
Here’s an interesting approach that aims at the good of the soul and mutes a bulk of the concerns. “We go to evening services at church. We miss the first half, the halftime show, and get home for the second half and the end of the game” (Tom Betty Gavin).
Finally, mixed into the discussion came two proposals for us.
“How about a donation for a Desiring God commercial?” (Jason Hamilton). “Hey Desiring God, make an ad that shares the gospel, and raise funds to put it on during the Super Bowl” (Samuel Wilking).
Haha . . . doubtful.
“It would be awesome if Desiring God offered maybe a roundtable discussion or a live Q&A with multiple pastors and leaders that could last the duration of halftime” (Derek Sullivan).
Okay . . . now there’s a suggestion with traction.
Note: If you are interested in a halftime alternative during the Super Bowl, we’ve queued up a 25-minute message from John Piper which celebrates his favorite verse in all the Bible: “Where to Stand When All Is Shaking.”