FILE – Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” on Fox News has faced several boycotts from … [+]
Earlier this month, Tucker Carlson of Fox News made some comments about the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement officials in Minneapolis. Carlson’s on-air comments came while thousands of protest marches and demonstrations were happening across the U.S. and around the world. After Carlson’s comments, a number of marketers pulled their ads from his show, including T-Mobile, Disney and Papa John’s, among others. Ad boycotts have been around for decades, but they have picked up, particularly on opinion shows (including Carlson’s) and those hosted by “shock jocks.”
When the broadcast networks began televising more risqué shows in the 1970s to compete with movies and HBO, advertisers began to screen programs to gauge whether the content would be appropriate for their brands. Often times, if a sponsor thought there was too much gratuitous sex or violence (or something else), they would pull their ads. Some advertisers had strict guidelines that the agency buyers had to adhere to. For example, Gillette would not advertise in a TV program/movie in which more than three people were killed, unless it was based on a true story or it was a James Bond movie.
There were also other reasons. It was understood General Motors would not advertise in any movie or program with Jane Fonda. Fonda had incurred the wrath of many by visiting Hanoi in 1972 during the Vietnam War. And, understandably, some Japanese carmakers and consumer electronic companies were reluctant to advertise in programs/movies about World War II.
In November 1983, ABC aired The Day After, a movie about an all-out nuclear war between NATO and Warsaw Pact nations. The movie was so realistic that ABC could not sell any ads after the nuclear attack portion of the film. Despite limited ad support, The Day After remains the highest rated made-for-TV movie of all-time, averaging nearly 100 million viewers.
In 2002, FX debuted the original police drama The Shield. At the time, critics compared The Shield to HBO’s The Sopranos. It was deemed so risqué that family TV activists had pressured Burger King, MasterCard and other marketers to pull their ads. The series premiere averaged a then network record 4.8 million viewers. Series lead Michael Chiklis won an Emmy Award and FX was positioned as a top tier cable network. Mindful of the success of The Sopranos and The Shield, many other critically acclaimed programs were launched on a number of other ad-supported networks. Some advertisers were comfortable sponsoring these shows and other marketers, pressured by watchdog groups, or their own standards, were not.
Advertising boycotts have also been prevalent on radio. The emergence of shock jocks who use bawdy humor and stunts to attract (mostly young male) listeners started in the 1980s. At times, the activities of shock jocks were deemed offensive to some advertisers and incurred fines from the FCC. The most notable shock jock was Howard Stern. Stern had, through the years, made a series of highly questionable on air comments. The most notorious occurred in March 1994, after the murder of the popular Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla. Stern mocked Selena’s fans, played songs from Selena with gunfire in the background and said Hispanics had “the worst taste in music.” The outraged Hispanic community threatened to boycott all radio stations that aired Stern’s program, and Stern later issued an apology in Spanish.
Ten years later, Stern’s syndicated show was airing across the country. The FCC fined Clear Channel (which aired Stern’s program on six stations) $495,000, claiming Stern violated federal decency rules. In April 2004, Clear Channel dropped Stern (although other radio companies continued to broadcast his show). In October 2004, Stern left broadcast radio for Sirius satellite radio, which is free from FCC oversight. In 2012, Stern became a judge on the NBC reality show America’s Got Talent. The Parents Television Council (PTC), a watchdog group, sent a letter to 91 companies that advertise on AGT advising them to allocate their marketing dollars elsewhere. The proposed boycott had little impact and Stern remained a judge on the reality show for four seasons. Stern’s talk show continues to be heard on satellite radio.
Another shock jock, Don Imus, received a backlash for on-air comments made in April 2007. Imus made some racially disparaging remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. At the time, Imus had a radio program on CBS, which was also simulcast on cable’s MSNBC. With advertisers pulling out of his program en masse, both CBS Radio and MSNBC issued a two-week suspension, before both canceled Imus in the Morning. MSNBC replaced Imus in the Morning with Morning Joe. Imus continued his on-air show with Cumulus Radio until they declared bankruptcy. Imus retired in March 2018 and passed away in December 2019.
Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh faced repercussions in March 2012 after he called a Georgetown Law student and supporter of President Obama’s contraceptive policy, a “slut” and “prostitute.” Limbaugh’s syndicated talk show was heard on 600 stations nationwide and was estimated to generate about $200 million in ad revenue each year. It was reported that 140 advertisers dropped Limbaugh, as did two radio affiliates. Limbaugh blamed liberal groups for organizing the boycott, but issued a public apology. Eight years after the boycott, Premiere Networks and iHeartMedia continue to syndicate Limbaugh’s daily three-hour program, which averages about 15.5 million listeners each week.
Fox News has been no stranger to ad boycotts even before its current programming lineup. In August 2009, such advertisers as Berkshire Hathaway, Walmart, Verizon, Proctor & Gamble and dozens more boycotted The Glenn Beck Show after Beck made racial comments about President Obama. ColorOfChange.org, which organized the boycott, estimated the loss in advertising was costing Fox News more than $600,000 weekly. Fox News canceled Beck’s show in August 2011. The average audience for his 5 p.m. show had been 1.9 million viewers, a decline of 30% from the previous year. Beck has since launched The Blaze, which has content on online, podcasts, radio and other platforms.
In April 2017, a reported 47 advertisers including Allstate and Mercedes-Benz pulled their ads from the top-rated Fox News program The O’Reilly Factor. The program host Bill O’Reilly was faced with several allegations of sexual misconduct that came to light. Fox News canceled the program, which had generated $446 million in ad volume from 2014 to 2016. O’Reilly’s ouster came during the rise of the #MeToo movement (along with the removal of Fox News President Roger Ailes). Other high-profile TV personalities were also forced to resign, including Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. Both faced similar allegations and their programs faced the threat of a massive exodus from advertisers.
Fox News personality Laura Ingraham, the host of primetime show The Ingraham Angle, has also been facing a series of advertising boycotts from her social media posts and comments. In March 2018, Ingraham taunted Parkland student David Hogg, a mass shooting survivor, for not being able to get into some colleges he applied to. Hogg called for advertisers to boycott her program via Twitter posts, using the hashtag, #BoycottIngramAdverts. Such advertisers as Wayfair, Hulu, Johnson & Johnson and Nestle complied. As the boycott picked up momentum, Ingraham took a one-week vacation and issued an apology to the teenager on Twitter.
Later in the year, Hogg issued another boycott campaign on Twitter, based on Ingraham’s comments that migrant detention centers that separated children from their parents were “summer camps.” The Ingraham Angle continues to air on Fox News at 10 p.m. and it recently averaged 4.3 million viewers, its most watched week ever.
Justice with Judge Jeanine is another Fox News program that has faced the wrath of advertisers. In March 2019, the host Jeanine Pirro made some comments about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), a Muslim. After the comments, the one-hour program faced a loss of nearly 20% in advertisers. Fox News also suspended Pirro for two weeks. One year later, Fox Business host Trish Regan left the cable network after claiming the coronavirus was a scheme by Democrats to impeach Donald Trump.
During his tenure at Fox News, Tucker Carlson has faced a few advertising boycotts. In December 2018, his program Tucker Carlson Tonight faced a boycott with at least 18 advertisers including IHOP, Farmers Insurance and Land Rover, dropping his program for comments he made on immigration. In March 2019, Carlson’s disparaging comments about females, on shock jock’s “Bubba The Love Sponge” program, made from 2006 to 2011, became public. The interviews were released by a liberal watchdog group, Media Matter from America, and Carlson faced more ad boycotts.
It was reported that from December 2018 to August 2019 over 70 advertisers have dropped Tucker Carlson Tonight. With the advertising loss, Fox News has been running promos and direct response ads such as MyPillow. Despite the loss of advertisers, Carlson’s 8 p.m. show continues to draw a large audience, lately averaging over 4.8 million viewers each weeknight. On Twitter, the hashtag #Istandwithtucker was launched to show support for the host.
The effectiveness of an ad boycott varies. For example, does the boycott impact ratings? How many marketers are pulling their ads and how many ad dollars are lost? How often are ad boycotts happening to the program?
In this era of political polarization, Fox News has often times taken the stance it will not be bullied by watchdog groups. Furthermore, to many loyal Fox News viewers, the comments made by on-air personalities are not deemed as incendiary. The cable network continues to deliver strong ratings. In May 2020, Fox News was the top-rated cable network in total day for the 47th consecutive month. For the week of June 1, in primetime (when the Carlson and Ingraham shows air) Fox News was the top-rated network, averaging nearly four million viewers. It marks the 20th straight week Fox News was the top rated cable network in primetime.
There are other takeaways: Every marketer has a different threshold for what is suitable content for their advertising. Ad pricing is not based on ratings, but on demand. When marketers decide to pull out, demand and ad rates drop, resulting in ad revenue declines. Additionally, as it was decades ago, brand safety remains a top priority with marketers, whether it’s advertising on television, radio or anywhere else.
FILE – Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” on Fox News has faced several boycotts from … [+]