When and If to Pull Your Ads
Don Imus—and his producer, Bernard McGuirk—have a long history of using the airwaves for sexism, racism, gay bashing and borderline slander of people and organizations that crossed them or whom they simply found to be irritating.
Management would wince, but always give Imus a pass, because of the gorgeous lucre he brought in annually—a reported $22 million to CBS Radio and $8 million for MSNBC.
When he stepped over the line with his gratuitous slur of the Rutgers women’s championship basketball team, Imus was suspended for two weeks by MSNBC and CBS radio, which carried him on more than 60 stations. The CEOs figured it would be a slap on the wrist and then back to business as usual.
But Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson immediately entered the fray and scared the wits out of Imus advertisers.
Seven out of 10 major advertisers on MSNBC canceled their schedules—General Motors, American Express, Sprint-Nextel, GlaxoSmithKline, Genworth Financial, PetMed Express and the largest advertiser in the country, Procter & Gamble. Facing huge financial losses, NBC gave the Imus simulcast the boot on Wednesday, a bare seven days after his transgression. Seeing the handwriting on the wall—and angry picketers outside his headquarters in New York—Les Moonves of CBS fired Imus the next day.
Under what conditions should you consider pulling your ad schedule in order to register your protest at rogue journalists and rogue media?
Or should you do it at all?
“Dateline” vs. General Motors
In Nov. 1992, a very sanctimonious Stone Phillips hosted a 14-minute segment on NBC’s “Dateline” on the safety of certain General Motors trucks. The piece ended with a fiery, 57-second film clip of a test showing conclusively that when hit broadside, the side-mounted gas tanks on the GM truck tended to catch fire and explode.
The following February, an Atlanta jury awarded $105.2 million to the family of a 17-year-old girl who was killed in such a collision. Two weeks later, William A. Henry III wrote in TIME:
Following a tip, GM hired detectives, searched 22 junkyards for 18 hours, and found evidence to debunk almost every aspect of the crash sequence. Last week, in a devastating press conference, GM showed that the conflagration was rigged, its causes misattributed, its severity overstated and other facts distorted. Two crucial errors: NBC said the truck’s gas tank had ruptured, yet an X ray showed it hadn’t; NBC consultants set off explosive miniature rockets beneath the truck split seconds before the crash— yet no one told the viewers.
In other words, to be sure of spectacular footage, NBC’s “Dateline” technicians rigged the test. It was an appalling display of yellow journalism at its worst.
NBC’s President Michael Gartner stonewalled. While admitting that detonators had been implanted in the tanks, he said, “GM sought to divert attention from the central issue, namely that there appear to be fundamental problems with the safety of its trucks.”
He added, “We remain convinced that, taken in its entirety and in its detail, the segment that was broadcast on ‘Dateline NBC’ was fair and accurate.”
Gartner was fired the following month and NBC, scrambling for some kind of legitimacy, handed enormously popular Jane Pauley the humiliating task of reading the on-air apology.
In my opinion, that Stone Phillips and “Dateline” are still on NBC’s program lineup—after committing what can only be termed journalistic fraud—is a disgrace.
The “Dateline” scandal is one incident in a long line of careless and dishonest coverage by rogue journalists, editors and producers who are more interested in making news rather than covering it; more interested in getting the story out rather than getting it right. Some recent examples:
* In 2005, Newsweek charged that the military flushed a Koran down the toilet at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The magazine’s lead investigative reporter, Michael Isikoff, failed to investigate the central fact that it is impossible to flush a book down a toilet. After huge damage to America’s reputation in the Arab world, Newsweek retracted the story. Isikoff is still employed by the magazine.
* CNN’s “Operation Tailwind” was a supposed exposé that claimed the U.S. military used nerve gas during the Vietnam War to kill American defectors in Laos. CNN later retracted the story, and producer April Oliver and correspondent Peter Arnett, who was the news reader on the show, were fired.
* In Rathergate, CBS anchorman Dan Rather used forged documents to sully President Bush’s record of service in the Air National Guard. Rather was fired.
* Who can forget the Sago disaster in which 13 West Virginia miners were killed, yet dozens of newspaper front pages and TV newscasts proclaimed with joy that 12 of the miners were alive?
January-May 2005: High Season for Pulling Ads
* In Jan. 2005, Staples pulled all its advertising from the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s news programming, the result of angry e-mails from customers decrying the station’s right-wing bias in its news and commentary.
* In the spring of 2005, The Los Angeles Times started giving negative coverage to General Motors—its corporate policies and its Pontiac G6, which auto critic Dan Neil called a “sales flop.”
GM pulled its adverting. “They are free to report and editorialize as they see fit,” GM spokeswoman Ryndee Carney said. “Likewise, we and our retailers are free to spend our advertising dollars where we see fit.”
* That same season, the Wall Street investment bank, Morgan Stanley, announced that it would cancel advertising from publications whenever they scheduled “objectionable” stories about the company.
“In the event that objectionable editorial coverage is planned, [Morgan Stanley’s ad] agency must be notified as a last-minute change may be necessary,” said a new amendment to the advertising contract. “If an issue arises after-hours or a call cannot be made, immediately cancel all Morgan Stanley ads for a minimum of 48 hours.”
* Shortly after the Morgan Stanley policy declaration, BP (British Petroleum) followed suit, announcing zero tolerance for negative editorial coverage. The policy—articulated in “2005 BP Corporate-RFP”—states that “ad-accepting publications inform BP in advance of any news text or visuals they plan to publish that directly mention the company, a competitor or the oil-and-energy industry.”
BP stated: “This is not meant to be draconian or to influence coverage. We are just asking for a head’s up about a cover story about the oil industry. We never asked to read [editorial] copy in advance.”
* I remember that same season, Philadelphia Magazine portrayed the local PR firm, Cashman & Associates, as a collection of ditzy young women. One of Nicole Cashman’s clients was Georges Perrier, proprietor of Le Bec-Fin, one of the three finest and most expensive restaurants in town (a dessert off the cart is $45).
“Unfortunately, due to the recent article on Nicole Cashman and Cashman & Associates. ... we have been instructed by Brasserie Perrier and Le Bec-Fin to end ad-buy negotiations on their behalf, wrote the PR firm’s Public Relations Director Carrie Nork to Philadelphia Magazine. “Needless to say, the inaccurate and blemished profile of our company is quite upsetting to us as hard-working public relations professionals based in Philadelphia.”
Philadelphia Magazine’s President David H. Lipson Jr. responded, “Just so I have the facts straight here, you are canceling insertions for a client in our magazine because of your firm’s portrayal in the magazine? In other words, Perrier & Co. liked the magazine and its audience until this story ran. Just want to make sure so when I leak this to the press, they get it right.”
Advertising Age Weighs In
“Shame on BP and Morgan Stanley Ad Pull Policies,” railed a headline by the Advertising Age editorial board on May 24, 2005. The lead:
Shame on BP. And shame on Morgan Stanley and General Motors and any other advertisers involved in assaults on editorial integrity and independence. By wielding their ad budgets as weapons to beat down newsrooms, these companies threaten the bond that media properties have with their audiences, the very thing that gives media their value to advertisers to begin with.
Patent, self-serving rot!
“The bond that media properties have with their audience” is mythical.
Big and small media had better get used to it.
Contempt for Media
The 2005 Gallup annual survey of “public confidence in major institutions” revealed that only 28% of those surveyed had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers and television.
Reverse that, and 72% of the population believe (to use Jimmy Breslin’s quip) that “media is plural for mediocre.”
In addition, this past Feb. 5, Reuters reported on the results of a fascinating Insight Research Group survey commissioned by Common Sense Media:
Some 57 percent of 1,138 U.S. parents surveyed were either very concerned or strongly concerned about children spending too much of their time with different media outlets.
By comparison, about 45 percent of parents said they were as concerned about their kids engaging in sex or using alcohol.
“Intuitively, parents have a sense that too much media isn’t a good thing, but they can’t quite put their finger on why,” James Steyer, founder and chief executive of Common Sense Media, said in a statement.
When Should You Pull Your Ads?
It seems to me that if a company has been dumped on by a publication or if a print or broadcast medium says something that is contrary to corporate or personal values, the CEO has three choices: (1) Do nothing; (2) take an ad that rebuts story; (3) pull the advertising.
Here is what some of the Imus advertisers said:
“We think we’re accountable first to our consumers. This particular venue where our ad appeared was offensive to our target audience. And so that’s not acceptable to us.”—Procter & Gamble
“While Bigelow Tea has been an advertiser on the ‘Imus in the Morning’ show, our company does not condone or support in any way the unacceptable comments made by Imus with regard to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team ... Because of this unfortunate incident, we have suspended our current advertising while assessing our future sponsorship plans which are in jeopardy at this time.”—Cindi Bigelow, co-president Bigelow Tea
“We do not want our advertising associated with content which we, our customers and the public find offensive.” —Sprint
“Recent comments made on the program prompted us to revise our decision to advertise on the program. As of now, we are not advertising on the program.” —Paul Capelli, Staples spokesman
Given the sorry record of media sleaze—and their arrogance—pulling advertising is one of the few ways of registering a protest that can hurt back.
I have no problem with any of this.
- New York