Bill O’Reilly and Fox News have once again gone from reporting the news to being the news. The New York Times reported over $13 million being paid to settle sexual harassment lawsuits, putting Fox News, and specifically Bill O’Reilly, in headlines once again.
While this is nothing new — Fox has a rich history of sexual harassment lawsuits and settlements to date — it comes at a time of heightened awareness of treatment (or mistreatment, as the case may be) of women’s workplace issues.
It also follows recent comments from O’Reilly in which he completely disregarded the content of comments given by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in order to disparage her hair-do, saying that he could not hear a word she said because he was too distracted by her “James Brown wig.”
While O’Reilly’s show on Fox, “The O’Reilly Factor” remains one of cable television’s most highly rated news shows, his recent behavior and current round of allegations of sexual misconduct have begun to make advertisers wary of associating their brands with the show and, perhaps, the network as a whole.
One of the first brands to abandon the program was Mercedes-Benz. Since their departure a few days ago, a total of 50 brands have parted ways with the once-coveted O’Reilly Factor and its huge ratings.
Any brand that pairs itself with a celebrity — be it an athlete, rock star, hip-hop artist or actor — takes the risk that said celebrity might make a public faux-pas and drag the brand down with him or her. Generally, consumers have short memories and many “scandals” blow over without causing any damage to the brand for the association.
Most consumers have long since forgotten about Michael Phelps being photographed smoking marijuana or Alec Baldwin’s spat with a flight attendant after refusing to turn off his cell phone on a flight; they both remain effective pitchmen.
Even some more sordid allegations have caused brands to pause but return to successful endorsers, such as Nike’s continued use of Kobe Bryant after he was accused of rape and sodomy and then the charges were later dropped when his accuser refused to testify.
However, in today’s climate of “principled buying” consumers are less interested in the short-term boycott of brands and are instead insisting the brands they invest in are aligned with their own values and beliefs. These values and beliefs are most visibly conveyed by the company that the brand keeps; in other words, where they advertise.
On a most literal level, brands that support O’Reilly’s show through their ad presence help to finance the show and the network, thus putting their ad dollars in the position of helping to pay for settlements Fox News has paid to victims of alleged sexual misconduct.
On a broader level, the brands are choosing to associate themselves with the network, the show and its star. In the case of more distasteful crimes, like sexual assault or misconduct, this sheds a poor light on carefully groomed and protected brand images, such as Mercedes-Benz.
Any brand would be wise to follow the “three T’s” of social media marketing: being timely, topical and tuned-In. One of the biggest social topics of conversation in recent years has been women’s issues, including topics such as equal pay, healthcare, treatment in the workplace, sexual assault and violence against women.
A brand that is at all tuned-in to the current climate of consumers realizes that close association with another brand that seemingly fosters a culture of sexual misconduct, has repeatedly been accused of victimizing women and has spent millions of dollars on such charges is not in its best interest and threatens to work against their branding efforts.
In recent days, Shannon Coulter, founder of the #grabyourwallet campaign formed in response to the airing of tapes that featured then-candidate Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, has announced plans to add any brands that advertise on “The O’Reilly Factor” to the list of products to boycott if they have not ceased such advertising as of Monday, April 10.
Studies have long shown that women play a leading role in 85 percent of car purchases. As such, supporting brands that support such unapologetic alleged sexual misconduct seems a bit tone-deaf in terms of understanding and appealing to one’s customer base.
O’Reilly’s most recent spate of controversies do not appear to have affected his show’s ratings; in fact, the first airing after the reports of the $13 million payout was more highly rated than the same date last year and beat his evening news competition.
But however coveted those viewership numbers might be, brands must consider the impact of their affiliation with O’Reilly and the Fox New Network given their apparent culture of ongoing sexual misconduct and claims of abuse by so many female employees. The cost of the association with such a brand may very well outweigh the benefit of that large audience.
In terms of The O’Reilly Factor’s value to the network, despite its status as a top-rated show, if the advertisers stay away, how valuable are those ratings? It is a bit of the tree-falls-in-the-forest question: if the ratings are incredible but advertisers do not want to spend the money to reach them, do those ratings even count?
Marlene Towns is an adjunct professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.