Advertisers Shoot Themselves in the Foot When They Take Sides

Like it or not, America is locked in an ongoing culture war between those who support the country and the Constitution on the one side and those who want to tear America down and create a new, single-viewpoint nation in their image on the other side.  This culture war seems to be pushed by an increasingly hostile and domineering far left.  Instead of eagerly embracing debate, which is both the American Way and enshrined in the Constitution, elements of the progressive side are actively trying to shut that debate down.

Oddly, considering their progressive, Bernie Sanders-like pro-socialism position in the political debate, these opponents of the Constitution's free press guarantees are using free-market capitalism as a weapon.  They are calling on advertisers to boycott certain networks (Fox) and certain shows (Hannity, at least this week – stay tuned for a different boycott target next week).  The George Soros-funded Media Matters, set up specifically to attack Fox News on a daily basis, is leading the charge, prodding advertisers to boycott the show.  In what seems like an example of groupthink, many other mostly online far-left (and some not so far left, like Forbes) "publications" are also demanding that advertisers boycott Hannity and Fox.

This is just wrong. 

America has enshrined the idea of vigorous political debate in the First Amendment, and in an environment where there are far more left-leaning news media outlets than conservative ones, opposition should be cherished.  At least since the disputed 2000 presidential election, there has been a rough balance among 24/7 cable news outlets, with CNN and MSNBC lined up on one side and Fox News on the other, each outlet providing a balance against those on the other side.  This gives Americans the chance to either enter the echo chamber of their choice and have their position reinforced or take a walk on the wild side and discover what the other side is proclaiming, which is pretty much what the framers of our constitution had in mind.

If the goal is to offer dissent instead of shutting down the opposition (or at least punishing them financially), there is an alternative to boycott, one that preserves the intent of the founders.  If you don't want a show to prosper because you don't like its content, just don't watch the damned thing. 

Before we go farther, I need to point out that I have been in advertising for 40-plus years.  I did my master's work in the field, I've written books about it, I've won a few ADDY awards, I've taught it at the college level, and I've even been an expert witness in a court case.  So when I say this is a bad economic idea for the advertisers – the reasons that far outweigh any chest-thumping ego-tripping that comes from climbing on a politically correct bandwagon – please understand that this is not just an opinion.  It's the opinion of someone who has bought advertising on FOX News for clients and who understands the professional risks and rewards.

With that said, this boycott approach is wrong from another perspective as well.  And that comes from the economic backlash any company faces when it starts taking sides in acrimonious political debates.  Here's how it works.  When an advertiser makes a big deal out of joining an ad boycott, that advertiser is, in effect, passing judgment on each of the target's audience members, saying, "You are no longer good enough to be our customer."  Obviously, that never sits well with the audience members.  In this case, Hannity's 3.2-plus million nightly viewers and his 13 million daily listeners (Hannity is currently ranked #1 in cable news and #2 in talk radio) are being insulted.  Even given some overlap, that is a lot of potential customers to cast judgments upon.

Politically motivated boycotts have a long tradition, but almost all of that tradition can be found on the side of progressives, socialists, communists, and fascists.  On the right, the typical boycott is more along the lines of "I don't like Louis CK, so I'm not going to watch him."  Sure, there have been some limited-success boycotts offered by pastors of typically small flocks of activist Christians, but even here, the pressure isn't so much about dollars as it is eyeballs.  The politically activist media groups calling for Sean Hannity's advertisers to boycott him, and to therefore punish him and Fox News financially, are made up of a growing knee-jerk crowd of other me-too leftists following Media Matters' lead.

This is bad business for advertisers for one more reason as well.  As Ad Age said, "as TV ratings continue to dwindle, Fox News continues to be one of the few places pulling large live audiences on a nightly basis. For his part, Hannity averages 3.2 million viewers on any given night in October, according to Nielsen."  On the other side, reflecting a healthy balance between opposing sides in this constitutionally protected debate, "[i]n comparison, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow pulled in about 2.5 million."  So viewers who want political opinion have a strong and vibrant choice, one that will fade if a culture-war boycott prospers.

The boycott began with this tweet, apparently sent to Hannity's advertisers by Angelo Carusone at Media Matters: "Good afternoon [advertiser]. You are currently sponsoring Sean Hannity's show.  He defends child molester Roy Moore and attacks women who speak out against sexual harassment. Please reconsider."

Though I just recently wrote an American Thinker blog post encouraging Roy Moore to pull out of the race until he can clear his name (and I personally was no fan of Moore even before the latest charge surfaced), I know that Carusone's tweet is factually inaccurate (which is a nice way of saying "a pack of lies") in two ways.  Moore's not a child-molester until he's proved to be a child-molester by admission or in court, and Hannity does not attack women who speak out against sexual harassment.  The closest he comes to that is to do what a reasonable person might ask: "Can you substantiate this charge, or do we just have to take your word for it?"  That's a far cry from attacking women who speak out against sexual harassment.

Those advertisers who are caving in to the pressure, despite Hannity's continued strong ratings, which reflect a loyal fan base, include coffee-maker Keurig, which is now facing a strong backlash (NYT story here).  They started the ball rolling with this tweet: "Angelo, thank you for your concern and for bringing this to our attention.  We worked with our media partner and FOX news to stop our ad from airing during the Sean Hannity Show."

Others embracing the boycott based on Media Matters' factually inaccurate tweet include:

  • Genetic testing firm 23andMe, which tweeted: "We've received inquiries RE: advertising on Hannity. We are not running TV advertising on Hannity."
  • Plus-size fashion firm Eloquii, which tweeted: "Hi there! Hannity is blocked from our advertising list."
  • Natural health products maker Nature's Bounty, which tweeted, "We can confirm that we do not have advertisements running on this program.", which had initially tweeted that it was joining the boycott, has announced that it will not join the boycott after all. realized that Hannity's ratings are too strong, and his fans are passionate enough to individually act against those who pick sides in today's cultural war by pulling ads from his show.  

When it comes to political coverage on cable news, there is room for everybody across the political spectrum.  Smart advertisers who want to reach committed "fans" who loyally support those who support their programs should buy across the board: Hannity and Maddow and whoever is straggling behind at ratings-challenged CNN.  Even CNN has loyal fans worth courting.

Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN together reach seven to ten million individual viewers in a given week.  In a world where even such old reliables as the NFL are seeing ratings slough off dramatically, reliable media outlets are an advertiser's dream.  However, these are controversial (as is the NFL, if advertiser Papa John's is any indicator).  Having decided to advertise on political commentary programs, advertisers should know this – they will generate far more controversies if they pull out to make a political statement than if they just ride out the controversy du jour.  It is controversy, after all, which brings those eyeballs to Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, and it makes little sense to punish those networks for their success in doing what advertisers want: live and engaged audiences.

Ned Barnett is a communications professional who has worked in advertising for 40-plus years.  He's taught advertising at the university level, published books on advertising, and won a few ADDY awards for TV and print ads.  He is also a historian who has, among other things, appeared as an on camera historian on nine History Channel programs.  He brings these disparate experiences together to offer these insights into the fallacy of advertisers participating in boycotts.  He owns Barnett Marketing Communications ( in Nevada.

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